Friday, March 15, 2013

What Binds Us Together

So a few weeks ago, on a particularly dreary early morning, I was doing the paper route while bemoaning a lack of sleep and a particularly annoying case of the runs. I made it halfway through the route--to house number 18 on a small cul-de-sac--and in the window near the front door I saw a very old woman, sitting in front of the morning news on her television.

As I came up to the door to push the newspaper--The Times--through the mail slot, she looked up at me. Clad in mismatched winter hat and gloves and stay-at-home-daddy-fleece pants and a large puffy coat on which I wore a bright florescent orange vest (the British marketing campaign for safety paramount), I smiled through the window at this 80-ish-year-old woman.

Through her thick glasses and early morning eyes, the woman broke into a smile.

So I smiled even wider back at her.

Then she smiled even wider back at me.

Poised in our small dance of ever-widening smiles, the day suddenly became brighter to me. My stomach even felt calmer.

And then I did what any 32-year-old-American paperboy-living-in-England-while-writing-and-daddying-and-teaching-night-classes would do: I gave the old woman a thumb's up.

She slowly raised her arm and gave a thumb's up right back at me.

And everything was going to be okay. I knew it. Margaret (the name of the lovely lady, I later learned) knew it, too.

Fast forward to this morning, and Tyler is on the paper route with me. The deal is: he can come on Friday and Saturday mornings because he doesn't have any pre-school on those days, and so the hour and a half walk doesn't exhaust him before a day of playing knights and castles and galloping with other four-year olds.

We made it halfway through the route, and then an absolute gem of a lady, Claire, comes running out of the Bed & Breakfast she and her husband, Bob, own (The Adams House B & B). Poised in each of her hands is a bacon sandwich: one for me, one for Tyler. We smile wide and thank Claire and Tyler looks up at this lovely lady and says, "It's delicious!" I repeat the words.

And when we're finished with the paper route, we make it back to the little corner store to drop off the florescent yellow bag (safety in florescence!) and Amid is behind the counter. Amid and I usually chat for five or ten minutes after I drop off the bag, but this morning he's particularly amused by Tyler's amazement at a Spiderman magazine on the front counter of the shop.


Amid laughs while Tyler swoons, and then Amid reaches into his pocket, pulls out the pound that the magazine costs, and says to Tyler, "Here you go, little man, I buy this for you. Okay? This good?"

Tyler looks back at Amid with the stunned shock of great joy. Then he looks up at me as if to say, Daddy, could this really be true? Could life be THIS amazing?

And I smile back at my son, then at Amid, and I think, Dang straight. It's true.

Because what binds us together isn't the fact that life is hard. Yes. Life is hard. Life is going to give us circumstances and situations and walls that we can't see past. Life is going to make us question ourselves and our dreams and our hopes. Life is going to sometimes mock us and laugh at us and hurt us and make us think that there's just no way we're going to be able to keep moving forward.

But that's not what binds us together.

From the pages of Crime and Punishment to Middlemarch to War and Peace to Things Fall Apart to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry to Okay for Now to Mockingbird to Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities--what binds us together as humans is the response of small kindnesses, little acts of courage, tiny decisions to help one another to keep moving forward.

From the small village of Orica, Honduras, to the big city of Moscow, Russia--from Marlborough, Massachusetts to Dehra Dun, India to Flagstaff, Arizona to York, England, what I have seen and what I know to be true is this: all of us are facing battles that we sometimes feel are too big for us. All of us are facing situations around which we can't always seem to wrap our hearts. But when one person--one single person--smiles at us with sincere kindness in their eyes, that battle becomes just a little bit easier.

When one single person gives us a thumb's up, or rushes out into a frosty morning with a bacon sandwich, or buys a Spiderman magazine--that battle suddenly becomes more clear, more manageable, more hopeful.

Because despair makes its living in a solitary way. Despair wins when we don't let others in--and when we don't reach out to others as well. Philo said it best when he exhorted: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is engaged in a battle." Jesus said it pretty dang well too when he said, "Love one another as you love yourself."

The small ways we show kindness to one another are what bind us together. These kindnesses can take the shape of seemingly insignificant acts--but each one wields a powerful blow to the wall of despair. Every tiny smile, every small nod of the head in belief and hope, every resistance to judge and mock another--these all translate to cracks in the walls life shows us. And as these cracks deepen and grow, the full force of hope is unleashed.

What binds us together isn't the very different, divergent ways we struggle against the pain of our lives. What binds us together is the small act of kindness that we give and receive. Though these acts of kindness may wear the mask of insignificance, in reality, they shake the very foundations of despair.