I was sitting on the bleachers, watching my son’s basketball team warm up. My daughter was next to me. We were holding a spot for my wife. It’s a few minutes before game time when an older gentleman sidles up next to me and asks if I was waiting for the game to start or if I had been here for the earlier one on the same court. I told him I had just arrived and he nodded and began walking to the other end of the crowded bleacher.
I realized quickly that he was interested in my seat because it was in the top row and provided at least a modicum on back support. I went to him and offered up my seat.
“You’re very kind,” he said, “but my wife and I will be fine.”
I insisted he take my spot.
“It’s very nice of you to offer. People don’t do that any more.”
But do they?
I admit to living in a nice suburb in a Midwestern town. But I do get around a lot. And when I think of it, I actually see a lot more random acts of courtesy than what I might have thought.
The New Yorker who holds the elevator and door for me and, sensing I’m lost, offers to point me in the right direction.
The Londoners who make way for a tourist on the train.
The people in San Fransisco who have season tickets to the Giants games and talk to me when they notice I’m alone.
The cab driver in Singapore who had found a passport in his cab and got on the radio to see if any other drivers had heard a report of it missing.
I see it on planes – people offering to help others with their luggage to and from the overhead; willing to give up their seat so a couple can sit together; who make way.
Every single person I met in Tokyo.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a lot of strangers in a lot of places and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve thought someone was outright rude.
The vendor in Shanghai who refused to sell me a bottle of water on a hot day. The occasional close-call between a taxi and a car in any big city.
And, yes, I’m well aware that as a white male traveling from business hotel to business meeting I’m less likely to run into people at their worst, to experience bigotry, racism, sexism or discontent. I realize there are lots of rude people and many more good people who do the occasional rude thing.
But, still, is being nice or at least not openly hostile really as rare as we want it to be? I can’t help but feel like we have a narrative about people that we need to be true – some sort of ‘back in the old days people were nicer to each other’ urban myth we need to be fulfilled. It makes for a more self-contained experience, but not a better way of viewing the world.
Since my encounter with the man at my son’s basketball game, I’ve been paying close attention – not to the times when I’ve been slighted, abused or ignored, but to the other things. The way my other son held the door for my wife and daughter. The way a neighbor helped me track down my dog when she got loose. The way my friends help each other. The times people have said ‘thank you,’ ‘please’ and ‘after you.’
It happens a lot more than I expected, a lot more than we think. It’s just that we don’t always notice. But if you look for those small kindnesses, those less-than-random acts of being good to each other; if you choose to focus on those over the insults or put-downs, it has a funny effect on your brain. You start doing it too.
I’m not so naive to think that all the world’s problems will be overcome by people giving up their seat to a stranger. And my glasses are not rosy enough to cover the injustices and pains in our society. I just can’t help but notice those tiny moments of people being good to each other – moments I might never have noticed before – and appreciate them for what they do – make my day just a little bit better and me more likely to pass those same micro-kindnesses onto others, with no hope of personal gain.
In the end, the man didn’t take my seats. He found some on a bench that was easier for he and his wife to sit on. They still got to lean against the wall. But when the game was over and I was leaving, he reached out his hand and I shook it. I told him to have a good day and he did the same.
I never even got his name.