Sometimes the best stories sneak up on us. What happens when we try to balance the "red in our ledgers"
Linked In, among other places, is chock-full of people who are videotaping their good deeds so that all the world can celebrate how wonderful they are. I find this offensive for a single reason: if kindness doesn't bubble up inside us simply because it's the right thing to do, I have to wonder how sincere it is. The TikTok-ing of our relative wonderfulness strikes me as dishonest.
On the other hand, when I see videos of other people doing good things without knowing they are being observed, okay then.
I am sharing a story not to highlight what I did so much as to make a larger point about what happens when we do show up for others. So please hear the context. I will use an Avengers line to give the background.
In The Avengers, heroine Black Widow Natasha Romanoff is played by Scarlett Johannson. She manipulates Loki into revealing his evil play by talking about all the "red in her ledger." We all have it. Not necessarily murders, but the selfishness, pettiness, ugliness, jealousies or a thousand tiny cuts which we inflict on others out of our own pain. As a sexual assault survivor, I most certainly have carried my anger and resentment into the world.
At some terrible level I have wanted others to pay for my pain. Doesn't work that way. That simply makes a bigger mountain of pain, which is why "turn the other cheek" is such a powerful teaching.
The way I see it, the only way we truly reduce our emotional pain is to work a lot harder at reducing others'. That has the effect not only of washing the insides of our own unhappiness away but it also does the same for others, and like rudeness, tends to be catching. The best kind of virus.
Most such acts cost nothing, and they do so much good.
As the result of some twenty-two concussions, I am not always good at this. However every so often I am allowed a bit of grace. My experience on a United Flight out of San Francisco to Narita Airport in Japan was an exercise in just that kind of moment.
I boarded early because I have a hand in a cast from recent surgery. I had paid extra for a bulkhead seat, and was allowed on behind an elderly Japanese couple. They took tiny, doll-like steps, holding up the boarding line. People behind us were irritated.
I get that, too, but as with all things, wait your turn, and see how much you value others' patience.
I once drove behind an elderly man in a green Honda some years ago. He was putting along at 25 mph in the passing line on 104th Avenue in North Denver. I was stuck behind him, fuming, wondering what the hell. Then I realized it was my father.
Classic, right? Wait your turn.
These folks tottered on board. They were seated across the central three bulkhead sets right next to me. The woman in particular was having a terrible time sorting herself out. They were too short to reach the overhead compartment. The stowaway tables were just too complex, and the television setup was beyond her.
I'm tall-ish. Reaching the overhead compartment for me is effortless. And even I can figure out the tables. The attendants were up to their armpits with other passengers so I just helped. We got her started on a movie, put her bag where she could see it (she was terribly worried it might disappear).
I ended up helping the whole trip, right down to where the querelous couple was struggling to get up, locate her luggage and his cane and out the door safely to waiting wheelchairs in Narita.
We never spoke. You don't have to, and most importantly when you assist, it's really critical to remember that older people- and I am one, damn it- don't like to be reminded of their relative frailty. I may not be frail but there are moments recently when I have also needed help. More on that in a sec.
So you just do, and for crying out loud don't expect a medal for simply being kind.
After all, if you are fortunate, at some point you may well be in need of such kindness as a result of living long. It's fine thing to have paid into the karma bank.
Somewhere along the way, one of the very busy attendants noticed. They simply cannot be that attentive to everyone, because everyone these days is so damned needy. Look, I've been needy too, so that's not a complaint so much as an observation.
In the deep dark of our Pacific crossing, Deb came by with a flashlight as I was fumbling around searching for a bunch of meds that it turns out I had left in my fridge at home. She squatted down and spent about twenty minutes with me.
This is my retelling of what she shared.
Deb's been a United flight attendant for some fifty-plus years. At some point a while back, something heavy came out of the overhead compartment during disembark and slammed into her forehead.
Hard. Really, really hard.
She was knocked out. Worse, when passengers are completely and utterly concerned with getting off and their own connections, too many don't notice anything around them. They didn't notice her, and she had no witnesses. Not only did that make her claim with United difficult, the veracity of what she had experienced was called into question.
Long story short, she had done significant damage to her brain. She couldn't walk, her speech was affected. She was reduced to a walker. She was able to track down some resources (I've asked her to email them so that I can share with everyone else), and make her way back.
Here she is, back on board, happy, active, engaged. That's no small miracle.
Like many including myself, with all my TBIs (traumatic brain injury), she drops words. She still stutters, slightly. If you didn't know to listen, it wouldn't be obvious. I watched her struggle to think of the term "obsessive-compulsive disorder." My donnybrook, for some odd reason, is the word "eucalyptus." The brain doesn't like being treated like a soccer ball.
Deb crawled and fought her way back.
At 74 she's still working. Capable, competent, and fully able to work as an attendant. Not many who suffer that kind of serious TBI can make such a claim.
What got her attention was that I had spent a fair bit of time, with one hand down in a cast, helping this couple. Look, the point is that I can. The other point is that no matter how limited you and I might be for time, or for mobility, there is always and forever someone else who needs more help than we do.
When I spend time doing something for someone else it takes my mind off the idiot nerve pain in my hand or whatever ails me. The dopamine hit that the body experiences from delivering, not just receiving, kindness, heals.
She wanted to tell me that she saw it, and along the way I made a friend and got a terrific comeback story. She hadn't received critical help when she needed it most. That kind of experience can make us far more aware of others, which is a gift of another order.
When you and I NEED to be noticed doing something kind, that calls our intent into question. The Universe pays attention to intention. I got to hear Deb's story, which, as a journalist, was considerably more important than having someone hail me for doing what a decent human might wish to do anyway.
When I flew to Colombia recently, I was only a few days out of surgery. My hand really hurt. I could barely click the belt of my backpack. Time and again, time after time, people stopped and helped. Didn't ask, just did. They helped me load up, zip up, get my stuff out of the overhead compartment. Picked up and carried a heavy bag through a turnstile.
The trip to Colombia that recently out of surgery was quite intentional. It got my mind off the discomfort, and allowed me to enjoy gorgeous surroundings while my body healed. It's still healing.
The other healing came from people's kindnesses.
I was strictly limited by my hand, wrapped as it was in four bandages and useless. People were unerringly, consistently kind.
It was a perfect reminder that what goes around, comes around. I need to give a lot more. We all do.
There is plenty of red in my ledger. I have crap days when I am short-tempered and stressed out. I feel compelled to balance those out as much as possible with being gracious while driving, picking up others' trash, and most importantly, doing something that takes me out of my comfort zone to help someone else.
Those things don't take me off the hook for being rude every so often. We're all human. The invitation is to be superhuman, which really doesn't take as much effort as we think.
Offering kindness is being kind to ourselves, for we experience ourselves as good people. And it really is marvelously infectious. There is no better gift.
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