Sometimes, small kindnesses are the best

    I enjoyed doing last week’s story about the McCrumb kids and their sidewalk-chalk messages more than I’ve enjoyed any other story I’ve done for a while.
    On a surface level, it was fun to do just because it was a happy story. In a time when nearly all the news is either neutral or bad, and there’s very few objectively good-news stories, it was a refreshing change of pace.
    But more than anything, as a story it was ... pure. Neither the kids nor their parents had made a big deal out of it; 14-year-old Ryleigh McCrumb and her siblings were more or less just looking for something to do. I practically had to drag out of her whether she realized that it would make people happy, and whether that realization had anything to do with her choice of that something to do.
    In a time when the world is awash in unthinking cruelty, it’s fun to find an example of unthinking kindness.
    Because in the end, there’s one word that best describes what they did. It was kind. And the fact that it was anonymous just makes it kinder, and that’s where the purity comes in. They neither wanted nor expected to get anything back for what they did.
    Now, I’m sure the McCrumb kids aren’t perfect little angels. No kid is, and any kid who appears to be should be checked out thoroughly. But they obviously have good hearts, because what they did is the very definition of good-heartedness. (It also needs to be pointed out that it’s evidence of some seriously good parenting. People often say “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” to explain bad behavior, but it can describe good behavior as well.)
    I don’t want to belabor the point, or give the McCrumb kids too much credit. I mean, they didn’t find a cure for cancer.
    But stop and think for a minute. If you saw one of their messages and it made you smile — if it didn’t, you need an attitude adjustment — that was a good and valuable thing. Even if you were having a good day at the time, your day got a little better.
    Being Americans, we’re impressed with big things. A lot of the “kindness” stories we see are big things — somebody gives up an organ to a stranger, a millionaire gives some down-on-their-luck person enough money to recover — and those are wonderful things. But sometimes, a small kindness at the right time can mean just as much.
    I learned that when I was in Japan. The Japanese are masters of the small kindness. There were times when people did the smallest things for me and it had such an effect that I remember it four decades later.
    One in particular happened on a train platform. It was December, and I spent part of the month hitchhiking and taking trains around the main island. Much of the time, I was alone. That was by design; it was my one stab at a real adventure.
    Still, there were times it was difficult. It was Christmas season and the Japanese, relatively few of whom are Christians, like the secular trappings of the holiday. You hear a lot of Christmas carols.
    I don’t remember what city I was in, but I was sitting on a train platform waiting for the train to arrive. There were Christmas carols playing over the loudspeakers, and because it was the holiday season (which includes my birthday) and I was alone, I got a little, well, misty. I wasn’t outright weeping, but I was taking a few minutes to feel sorry for myself.
    A few feet away, next to me on the bench, were a grandmother, mother and young daughter. The mother was feeding the little girl these little cakes of a kind I particularly loved. It’s like two small pancakes stuck together and filled with a sweet bean paste. Believe me, it’s tastier than it sounds.
    Anyway, I was sitting there trying not to look too pathetically misty-eyed when the old lady tapped me on the arm. We hadn’t spoken at all, had barely looked at each other, and she offered me one of the cakes. I took it gratefully, said thank you as effusively as was proper and the little cloud I was under lifted. My eyes dried up.
    And as I said, well more than half a lifetime later it’s a vivid memory.
    Sometimes, the kindnesses were small enough to be nearly invisible, but they still were there. I was on another train, sitting across from an older woman, and on the window next to her was her pack of gum. When she stood to get off at her stop, she picked up the pack, put it on the window next to me and got off without saying a word. There was something about that tiny, nearly insignificant gesture that really touched me.
    I’ve always thought it would be a good goal in life to do one kind thing a day. And as instances like those taught me, the size of the kindness doesn’t matter a bit. It truly is the thought that counts.
    That’s especially true in times like these. It’s always important to be kind, but given the societal dysfunction we’re all living through, kindness is even more important now.
    That’s because kindness makes for connection. When you do something kind for somebody, even something as small as leaving them a pack of gum, for that moment there’s a kind of invisible cord connecting the two of you. It doesn’t mean all that much, and it lasts a fraction of a second, but for that fraction the two of you aren‘t alone. The universe is big, but at the moment of kindness, it shrinks to the two of you, and you make a connection.
    Maybe it’s those kinds of connections that can begin to heal an often battered, bitter world.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: breeze.editor@jpipapers.com

 

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