The encounter lasted perhaps 30 seconds; I am unlikely ever to see again any of the people involved. Yet it has stayed with me as a reminder of the importance of small kindnesses.
I was out for a Sunday morning bike ride and happened to pass a couple of equally casual cyclists, headed the other way.
“Good morning!” I called to them.
No response from either; it was as if I hadn’t spoken. Maybe they were preoccupied; perhaps they didn’t hear me beneath their helmets. Still.
Then, 20 yards behind them, a man walking who had registered both my greeting and their silence. As I pedaled by, he looked me full in the face, met my eyes and smiled wide. “Good morning!” he called out. “Good morning to you!” I called back, my spirits lifted before they could fall.
Just that: The incidental wound; nothing, really. And the unexpected kindness; everything, somehow.
Former President Bill Clinton, who travels widely on behalf of the global nonprofit foundation that bears his family’s name, describes the simple but powerful way people greet each other in the central highlands of Africa.
“One will say ‘Good morning, hello, how are you?’ ” and the answer is not, ‘I’m fine; how are you?’ The answer, translated into English, is ‘I see you.’ That’s inherently empowering,” he says. “You have to be able to look at somebody and actually see them, and at least imagine what their lives are like.”
I don’t know if that stranger who happened to be walking in just the right place at just the right time imagined what my life is like. But he at least empathized with how I might have felt: the greeting, the silence, the seeming invisibility. And called to me: I see you.
In that brief encounter, such richness, such illumination: how much we can do for each other with so little effort, with a few moments of intention and attention. These small kindnesses; these immeasurable gifts.
Seeing each other. Just that.