In praise of the good…

Instead of ranting this week, we decided to take a look at random acts of kindness.

I recently found myself standing in line at the supermarket cash behind an elderly woman. She was taking an excruciatingly long time to pay for her purchases and making small talk with the cashier. It was obvious that she was starving for human contact and was using that opportunity — a simple monetary transaction for groceries — as an excuse to carry on a lengthy conversation.

Instead of rushing her along, the cashier took the time to speak with her, joke with her, listen to her, and, when it was time to send her off with her groceries, addressed her as “chère mademoiselle.” Here he was, at the busiest and most frustrating time of year for shopping mall employees (anyone who’s ever worked in retail or the service industries knows what I’m talking about), most likely working a minimum-wage or low-paying job, taking the time to make a lonely senior feel seen. It was the end of a long day, and I was tired. I just wanted to pay for my groceries and go home. But that man’s gesture momentarily changed my perspective. I was no longer aggravated and impatient. I left the store smiling. In a way, he had given me a gift, too.

By tradition, or by necessity, opinion columns tend to be rants, informed punditry on social issues, a way of pointing out what needs fixing. It’s easy to point to the bad, the frustrating, the inadequate and the questionable because, let’s face it, it’s everywhere and it affects us all in some shape or form. But, being that the holidays are burdened with societal expectations and consumerism overload, and such a depressing and hard time for so many, what if I took a minute to focus on the good? Because, that, too, is everywhere, if we take the time to notice.

As the anecdote above just illustrated, even the mere observance of generosity directed at someone else, contains the ability to transform our mood and outlook. I sometimes notice the daily niceties people engage in while taking the metro — the musical chairs we play when seniors or pregnant women enter and we simultaneously get up to give our seats to those who need them more. It doesn’t always happen, mind you, which is why it’s even nicer when it does. I recently saw a teen, unprompted, get up to give her seat to a senior man, who, in turn, gallantly gave up his seat to a frail-looking elderly woman a few stations later. It’s the little things that say, “I see you. Let me do this for you.”

Decency and kindness aren’t rocket science. They don’t require much more than an open heart and empathy, but they can shape someone’s day, week, year — even their entire outlook. The older I get, the more I admire and appreciate kindness. I notice how people talk to those in the service industry or folks who could never do anything for them. I notice when people slow down to help someone carry a stroller or heavy grocery bags up steep metro stairs. It says something about them, and that something is good.

Intelligence is great, but if it’s not accompanied by decency it no longer impresses me. I remember recently having a conversation with my sister about my two-year-old nephew who was engaging in some silly, nonsensical two-year-old-boy activity. In her matter-of-fact style she told me, “I don’t care if he doesn’t grow up to be brilliant; I want to raise someone who is kind.”

Parents know that they can do their very best and never be able to predict what will stick and what will affect their offspring’s behaviour and success later in life, but the odds of a gentle boy growing up to be a gentle man are just better. What if, as a society, we changed our markers of success to prioritize being a decent human being above all else? “And now that you don’t have to be perfect,” John Steinbeck wrote, “you can be kind.”

If I think back on this past year, two complete strangers conspired to consistently brighten my mornings most days. I’m not talking about the big stuff, but the easy, daily gestures that allow us, moving in this world as often-stressed-out and self-absorbed solitudes, part of a larger, anonymous, urban mass of people, to feel interconnected. There’s an older Haitian construction worker who works around the Place Ville-Marie construction site who never fails to greet everyone. Working as a crossing guard for pedestrians around the area, he’s been safely ushering us across the street all year long, while always wishing us a good day. Bonne journée! Bon continuation! Bonne route! He never fails to make me smile.

A man distributing copies of 24h Montréal outside my metro station every morning is equally jovial. They recently changed his route and I immediately noticed because the man who replaced him is uninterested in engaging with anyone. He just extends his hand silently and indifferently hands us the folded newspaper, proving that how you do something in life is how you do everything.

I love Montreal, but I’ve always found our city short on smiles. We’re not always quick to say hello, acknowledge one another, nod in each other’s general direction. We keep to ourselves and spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about inconsequential stuff. But then there are the stories that remind me that we are capable of so much more.

Radio-Canada ran a story about a 77-year-old volunteer who cuddles premature infants at St. Justine Hospital because he once experienced the loss of a child himself. Global News told us about a Kirkland woman who wanted to buy Christmas presents for lonely seniors and was floored by her community’s response. So many people I know and work with have donated time and money to numerous Montreal charities these past few months. And that generosity sometimes comes from teens who are often maligned and seen as selfish and spoiled by out-of-touch commentators, when, in fact, the ones I know are loving and incredibly socially conscious. 

My friend’s 16-year-old daughter, going through a goth phase and decked out in stay-away-from-me leather, shocking pink highlights and dark eyeliner, collected 28 backpacks filled with essentials and personally handed them out to people on the street who are currently homeless. With her mom in the car, she took the time to not only explain what was in the bags, but to get down at eye-level and engage with each recipient.

That engagement is what’s important, because it’s about acknowledging our common humanity. I once saw a young man at Bonaventure metro being solicited for change by a man who appeared homeless. I have no idea whether he gave him 20 cents or $20, but what I do know is that he immediately removed his headphones when approached, extended his hand to shake the man’s hand and started talking with him.

That willingness to touch him, to speak to him, those simple gestures of respect directed towards someone who is routinely ignored, scowled at, pushed aside and probably harassed daily, sincerely moved me. It doesn’t take much sometimes to do the right thing and make a difference in someone’s life when they’ve fallen on hard times. That human contact may be the only thing keeping them from falling into a black hole. We don’t know other people’s pain (many folks have learned to hide it well) and we underestimate the power that we have to sometimes bring them back from the edge with just a simple word, a simple smile, a simple “How are you?”

And I know ‘Tis the Season and many of us feel the need to give all our charity in one big, spectacular shot but maybe we could extend this kindness year-round? Maybe we could all try a little harder, be a little nicer, care a little more? I know it may sound corny, unhip, terribly naïve and perhaps downright obvious to be writing a column urging people to be a little kinder to each other, but, honestly… when it all comes down to it, what else is worth writing about?

Happy Holidays to you and yours. ■