I was traveling on a small commuter plane from Charleston to Ithaca. I was reading a transcription of my Grandmother Johanson’s memories – life growing up in rural Michigan as a Finnish immigrant family during the First World War. She was a beautiful writer with a candid sense of humor. She writes about snaring snowshoe hares to eat and skiing to school; about catching messes of perch on early morning fishing trips using nothing more than harvested sticks, line, cork and worms. The life she writes about was hard, but possessed a sort of timeless innocence that whole food hipsters and back-to-nature aficionados like me are searching for, and as I read her notes about a life lived and the people she encountered, I couldn’t help but think, People were kinder then.
That was the moment when it happened. I noticed a very elderly man in the aisle, leaning unnaturally across the passenger seated across from me. He was bent over at the waist and I couldn’t hear over the roar of the plane engines but something seemed to be very wrong. He took another step and collapsed onto the seat of a black woman I’d noticed before, because she just seemed to emanate good vibes. She’s the one who notices something is wrong, and I see her concern when she asks him, alarmed, “Are you okay?” He couldn’t respond. Immediately she signaled the flight attendant, who had already noticed something was not right. Calls went up into the cabin. “Are there any medical professionals on board?”
Two women and an older man had already leapt from their seats and were standing in the aisle. “I’m a nurse.” The black woman said. “I’m a doctor,” the older man volunteered. I sat there, helpless. And after a moment, with nothing else useful to do, began to pray for him. The sort of non-denominational prayer that answers every religion and every human condition. The atmosphere on the plane was charged; everyone was focused on this elderly man, and it was almost as though I could hear the silent voices, each speaking prayers of their own. The flight attendant stepped aside and the professionals got to work. They took his vitals, steadied him, their soothing tones sounding like a soft hum over the vibration of the plane. They helped him slowly back to his seat. A few tense moments passed. The nurse came back to her seat and told us that all was okay – standing too quickly and moving around at high altitudes can cause marked dizziness, especially with elderly people who may have other health conditions. He was resting after his collapse, and already seemed to be recovering.
I was struck by the kindness I saw. It was such a small moment, and such a scary one. People acted so quickly when it looked like things were dire, and I remembered how many times in my life I had actually seen this. People, when tested, stepping into the bigger parts of themselves, reaching out to help another. There are a lot of scary things happening out there now. Shootings and mugging and robbery and drug smuggling and war and human trafficking and name it, it’s there. But reflecting on my Grandmother’s life made me reflect on mine. As I sat there, the memories of all the random kindness witnessed fluttered before me. A businessman in New York stopping to help a bewildered tourist studying a map. The old Russian woman who paid a young mother’s bus fare. The time a taxi driver dropped off my forgotten wallet, not a penny misplaced inside. All the doors I’ve seen men in Charleston hold open for anyone – man, woman, child, black, white. So many infinitesimal moments that they are uncountable, unrecordable. And I remembered what I have always known. When there is darkness, there is always light. In every age and every place on the planet there are kind people and unkind people in varying degrees. The injustices, the un-niceties clamor louder in our memories. The kindnesses speak more quietly. They don’t mind if no one hears, because true kindness is not something that demands a witness. It is something that exists independent of noticing, from a place that is eternal, from a place that sparks within us, if and when we allow it.
This is a jumbled memento. But what I saw was beautiful, and I wanted to share it. It was a welcome reminder that though there is darkness, I do believe humanity is inherently good. It reaffirmed my commitment to embody a light, even in the smallest ways, even when I am not always perfect at it, or not always in the mood. Because today I chose to be a witness. And I felt the warmth of the light. It inspired me to write about it, to thank and recognize all of you out there who take opportunities to be kind. And in the hopes that sharing what I witnessed would pass a beam of light to you. That you might go out into the world, today, tomorrow, or the next, and share some kindness of your own.