With dark clouds promising afternoon rain, I sat on the edge of a remote dirt road, miles from the historic Holmenkollen ski jump visited that morning. Removing my shoes, I cautiously began pealing off the blood-caked socks to glimpse the multiple blisters on toes and soles. Focusing on sock extradition, I didn’t hear her walking towards me from the farmhouse on the hill. But there she was, speaking to me in Norwegian and offering me a worn basket with a damp cloth, salve, and band-aids.
That simple kindness happened over 40 years ago when I was a college student studying abroad. But, it’s still etched in my heart. So is a stranger’s action on a windy, cold and rainy night on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, in a pre-cell phone era.
I blew a tire driving home from a NYC business trip with my diabetic boss as a passenger. I tried to change the tire, but the lug nuts were too tight. So, we waited and waited, me soaking wet and her developing low blood sugar. Sheets of rain were pounding the roof with no signs of letting up when the stranger stopped. In 10 minutes, he was heading for Lancaster county, wetter and minus a partial roll of Life-Savers. And we were heading home.
I’m indebted to strangers. Like the man who ran across three lanes of traffic on a busy Florida highway to help push our stalled car to the side so we wouldn’t get hit. Or the woman who stopped to catch our escape-artist beagle, Alex, taking him home with her for safe keeping until we returned from work. Or the woman who bent the rules so my dying father could be transported home. Or scores of others, with their actions, teaching me about themselves and the power of kindness.
Each kindness is entwined in my life. The memory embedded with gratitude. Amelia Earhart put it like this: “A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves.”
I used to be leery, even frightened, to help strangers. A few headlines of aberrant behavior made me cautious. But I live in a state where cell phone signals can be intermittent or non-existent, and below zero temperatures can render winter dangerous. If someone is stranded on a remote Montana road, you need to stop and help. I may never pay back the debts of kindness I owe, but it feels good to try.
I’ve learned small actions make a difference. It seems to me, in the scheme of things, we teach most profoundly with the actions of our lives. We teach kindness by being kind; forgiveness by forgiving; love by loving; integrity by incorruptibility. We teach callousness by being indifferent; hate by hating; intolerance by judging; mistrust by dishonesty. We teach by what we say, or don’t say; what we do or don’t do. Everyday, we throw out roots, some good or not so good. Everyday, we teach who we are.