The scene: A New Jersey Transit train, pulling in to Penn Station (New York).
Imagine this: a nearly full commuter train pulls into a busy terminal in New York City. One of the commuters is a woman—petite, fairly young, with a backpack and, of all things, a cello. She’s clearly used to the burden of carrying said cello, because she’s moving it about with a casual ease. A non-cello-bearer, like me, would probably be far too nervous about breaking it or dropping it or stepping on it or somehow managing to initiate launch codes in it and set off a small thermonuclear reaction inside the carrying case. This lady? Exudes no fear that she will inadvertently explode her cello. However, she does need to maneuver the cello out of the narrow train seats and into the aisle so she can leave, which requires a little more effort than a gentle slip into the relentless stream of people heading towards the exit. She’s ready to go, but is going to be there a while.
Would you stop? Would you notice her? Can you step outside your agenda-based reverie to recognize that a ten-second delay would go practically unnoticed by the line of commuters and make that woman’s life much easier? Would that matter do you?
I’m happy to say that I did. It didn’t take much; I just stopped, and gestured for her to get herself out of the seat and on her way. I remember her look of surprise—she actually said, “Really?!?” And, as expected, she was able to get herself moving in a matter of seconds. I’ll say it was ten, but maybe it was less.
For whatever reason, I decided to watch her. As she got nearer to the exit, she let someone else out into the aisle in front of her. That was nice, I thought. Then the second person? Let someone else out in front of her. That person then held a door open for another commuter. And so on, and so on. Before I lost track, I saw something like seven generations of selflessly-paid attention, of unexpected courtesy, of unabashed civility. I hesitate to call it “paying it forward” since that phrase has become a little hackneyed in our culture…and it also sounds to me like one’s “pay it forward”-esque behavior is calculated. What I did, and I what I will continue to believe the rest of the people in that succession of pleasantries did, was simply behave as we ought. And that, friends, is what shared humanity is all about.
If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.