The most incredible thing happened to me this week.
I was milling about the counter in the shoebox-sized shop when three young girls in school uniforms came in. They looked around ten years old and when I said hello to them they shyly, sheepishly smiled, parroted it back, and resumed their individual jewellery trances dazzled by the sparkly wall before them. I had half a mind to reassure them that women of all ages enter that same trance daily bewitched by sparkly jewellery walls, and they needn’t feel embarrassed. A couple of girls came up to the counter and paid for their chosen sparklys with crisp twenty-dollar notes; pocket money no doubt, bows were tied, change and receipts were given and that was that. Until a small girl with long brown hair and big dark eyes approached my milling station clutching a pale pink purse in one hand, and in the other a find gold chain with a little bird pendant on the end of it. She placed the bird on the counter as though it were the last baby chick in the world and began fishing money from her purse…
“I’m not sure if I have enough, but could you count this and see?” she quietly chirped up at me.
Looking down at the small ant-hill of money on the counter, a five dollar note, a few gold coins and a big fifty-cent piece, I could see she didn’t have anywhere near enough and so, in the kindest, softest, most apologetic tone I could muster I told her she needed a little bit more money. Anyone who knows of my non-existent numeracy skills will tell you it is miracle enough I could even do the maths without the aid of a calculator, several flow charts and multiple highlighter pens. She rummaged around in that pale pink purse, considerately apologising to me for taking up time, dug out a few more five cent coins and placing them on the counter next to the rest of the money… she queried hopefully if that was enough to buy her little golden bird necklace.
My heart broke in two (thousand).
And in a single statement that made me feel as though I was telling my own child that Santa wasn’t real, the Easter Bunny is made up, and that there isn’t any concrete scientific evidence in favour of the existence of fairies… I told her she still didn’t have enough and asked if maybe we could find something that cost a little bit less. She looked down at her wallet one last time, let out an almost inaudible sigh of petite defeat and whispered “no that’s okay, I only wanted the birdie… sorry for taking up your time.” She scooped the coins back into her wallet, took one final look at the bird necklace… and left the shop.
And there I was, heart bulldozed, cute little kid defeated, baby bird necklace catching the light and twinkling in the corner of my eye on the counter.
“IT’S NOT FAIR!” shouted a voice from somewhere deep in my gut, somewhere below “making budgets,” and “professionalism.” I served other customers and considered asking them for donations to buy the little girl her necklace and then, selling more sparkly trinkets (there are a lot) to two girls in the same uniform that had seen their school mate leave empty handed… I had an idea.
I COULD BUY HER THE NECKLACE.
What a revelation.
I ripped off the price tag, put the necklace in a pretty bag with a bow, and then into a gift box (because I am a woman, and I know that half the gift is in the wrapping) handed it to the two other school girls to take to their friend, and then the most beautiful thing happened. From across the arcade I saw the class gather… and the two girls hand the gift to the small girl with brown hair and big eyes.
Now, I have seen families on Christmas day, I have witnessed children in candy stores, and I have watched grown men gaze at the woman of their dreams walk down the aisle… and nothing could have compared to the smile that lit up that little girls face. In an instant, the shop was flooded with wide eyed, burgundy uniformed children crowding around my milling station. A teacher thanked me for being so kind, my manager welled up with tears and hugged me, other women in the shop caught in the commotion stopped their sale-sifting and simply smiled and I got to shake the hand of the little girl who got her necklace. Later the school principal and another teacher came back to thank me again saying how nervous all the children had been to come to Melbourne from out in the country and how amazed they were at “how nice all the folks in the city are too,” and just before the class left the arcade… the little girl beamed and waved at me as she passed the shop door.
I can’t believe that I get to be part of a story that this little girl will get to tell for the rest of her life. No matter what happens to her, and she has high-school to get through so she had better brace herself, nothing can take away the story of that little necklace in the arcade… and I love that.
I live for moments like that.
Kindness is one of the most underrated characteristics in people. We respect power, worship beauty, honour heroism, revere intelligence… but kindness? Kindness sneaks through the door unnoticed, is occasionally mocked for being cheesy, and in the worst cases (and believe me, I am guilty of this as much as anyone) kindness is used to manipulate others. People want to be cool, funny, charismatic, liked, and smart… but kind? Kindness sounds about as weak as someone who just wants to be “nice.” However, power leaves little room for love, too often heroism runs on sheer bravado or pride, and time and time again intelligence is used to make others feel small, lest we forget that not everyone is lucky enough to be able to afford an education either. Kindness though? Kindness grows from love, cuts pride off at the knees and, pardon my French, shits all over intelligence in terms of how utterly impressive it can be.
Michael Moore (you know; pot belly, beard, glasses, fervent anti-Bush campaigner, zealous user of megaphones) touches on an interesting point in his film “Farenheight 9/11,” regarding the effects of torture not only on the tortured, but on the torturer. In his commentary, Moore suggests that the brutal treatment of others in heinous acts of torture not only cause physical trauma to one party, but psychological trauma to the other; essentially that dehumanising one person dehumanises the dehumaniser. In the same vein though, acts of kindness have the ability to re-humanise others. No one loses out with kindness. The recipient of the good deed leaves stunned, faith restored (even if only in the smallest of ways) in humanity, while the giver receives the look on the recipients face… which, if anything like the little girl I saw the other day is anything to go by, is worth every ounce of courage that it takes to be kind.
In his poem Meditation XVII John Donne immortalises this in the famous statement that “No man is an island, entire of itself… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,” and I often revisit Donne’s words when I think about people. To be involved in mankind… what a gift, and deeper still, what does it mean? To sit on the bench as a spectator and watch all the hurt and heartache play out before you on some global sized field? Or to roll up your sleeves, and attempt to make a contribution to life and humanity however you can, with whatever you have in your hands, in whatever small way you are able to… because at its core kindness isn’t really about a nice note or a compliment, it isn’t even really about a little necklace with a bird on it.
It’s about how we view others, which the more I think about it, has an astounding amount to do with how we view ourselves.