what a free bowl of oatmeal taught me about healing the world


If you follow me on social media, you know that I fly a lot.  One of the things I've learned about airports is that you often see people on their best and worst behavior-- and yesterday was no exception. I was flying from Dayton, OH, to Scranton, PA, with a layover in Detroit.  A passenger who was supposed to sit across the aisle from me found his seat occupied by a woman who didn't speak English.

The seat next to me was open, but instead of being flexible with the seating arrangement, or summoning a flight attendant, the man became upset and began shaking his finger in the elderly woman's face.  Raising his voice at her in a language she didn't understand only served to terrify her and make her recoil in her seat.  It did nothing to rectify the situation.

I didn't speak her language, but I stood up and put myself in between the upset man and the woman to at least provide a buffer between her fear and his fury.

She handed me her boarding pass, and I saw that she was sitting in 8A, but she was supposed to be in 7A.  I motioned to the empty seat in the row ahead, and helped her move herself and her belongings to the correct seat.

The man flopped into his assigned seat in frustration, muttering his dissatisfaction under his breath as he continued to glare at the woman.

Sometimes the behavior I witness makes me feel discouraged about the world in general, and makes me wonder if we're destined to devolve into cruelty and chaos.  I hope not, but some days....

We landed in Detroit, and I decided to get a bite to eat during my layover.  I ordered a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of tea, and sat at the cafe for a while, waiting for my plane to board.


I was typing on my laptop when my server came over to my table.  She had taken off her apron and had her purse slung over her shoulder.  "My shift is over," she said.

"Oh!" I said, reaching for my wallet so I could pay my bill and tip her before she left.

"Don't worry about it, honey," she said.  "I paid for your meal."

Before I could ask her why, or stand to give her a hug, she ducked out the door and she was gone.

I still have no idea why she paid for my food.  We hadn't chatted at all.  She had no idea why I was flying or where I was going or what I do for a living or anything like that.   In all the "Pay-It-Forward" initiatives, I've never been the recipient of someone at a toll booth or a coffee shop paying for me.  This free bowl of oatmeal and cup of tea were the first things a stranger ever bought for me out of anonymous, generous kindness.

The plane from Detroit to Scranton was small, and we had to gate-check our roller board suitcases.

When we landed, there was a wheeled rack on the jet bridge loaded with luggage.  Usually, passengers retrieve their own bag and keep going.  But one of the guys from our flight had taken it upon himself to unload all the luggage from the rack, standing the bags upright and raising the handles so passengers didn't have to wrangle the bags off the rack.   They could just get their bag and go.

The cynicism about society that the rude man in 8A had created in me was dissolved as I experienced several acts of unwarranted kindness yesterday in a free bowl of oatmeal and a suitcase that was lifted for me.

And it made me realize that we often think we'll make the world a better place if we can make a major contribution -- like a million-dollar donation or a cure for a deadly disease or a New York Times best-seller.

But, arguably, the opposite is true.  Each of us can heal our beautiful, broken world with small, simple acts of kindness, the same way a wound is healed cell by cell.  We can choose help over hate, healing over hurting, smiles over sneers, empathy over ego.

We can be generous beyond reason.  We can practice irrational, undeserved, random kindness.  We can vote with our attitude and actions for the way we want the world to be.

And we can start today.

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