As I was signing some paperwork at an office the other day, the clerk at the counter complimented my handwriting. Admiring my signature, she asked if I was a very creative person. That’s what my penmanship seemed to indicate, she explained. Both surprised and perhaps a touch embarrassed, I laughed a little and shrugged; I don’t consider myself to be especially creative, and I said so. “Well,” she continued, “then I think your handwriting shows an inner beauty.”
Her words sent a little frisson of pleasure spiraling through my spirit. This was, I realized, ppossibly the loveliest compliment I’d ever received, and I told her so quite sincerely as I thanked her.
In simple truth of fact, though, my handwriting is less about my personality than it is the product of eight years of parochial schooling. Each week we students were given a lesson in penmanship. We spent hours scribing softly connected circles and loops and slashes before practicing each letter with the attention of a calligrapher. I doubt that all my schoolmates developed fine handwriting as a result, but I enjoyed penmanship lessons and took them to heart. To this day, unless I’m struggling with one of those irritating electronic credit card pads, my handwriting is careful and attractive.
But the true importance of that compliment given me about my handwriting had nothing to do with either my eight years of training or my signature’s appearance and what it might indicate about my personality. Instead, those gracious words were valuable in that they lifted my spirit, suddenly and unexpectedly. Her observation made an enormous difference to my feelings, both about myself and about my jaded view of the world around me.
You see, I’d been having a, well…shall we say, a challenging week. (That sounds so much nicer and is probably more accurate than, “The week from Hell.”) I’d wrangled twice with an extremely unpleasant and officious clerk at a county office, managing to keep my temper, but searing my soul in the process. I’d painfully wrenched my back, so that I was hobbling about like a troll. I had barely crossed anything off an extremely long to-do list, which appeared to be growing rather than shrinking. I was, like Anne of Green Gables, “…considerably rumpled up in spirit…”. And so that heartfelt compliment about my handwriting fell like balm over my bedraggled soul; like grace and benediction.
I’d experienced this before, of course; I think (hope) that we all have: the words or behavior of a stranger or acquaintance that might well be the speech of angels, channeled through a human entity, and sent specifically to heal us of melancholy. After the incident of the handwriting compliment, I drove home recalling a similar event from another year. I’d had the day from, well, not Hell, but possibly Purgatory, at the office. The dreadful hours had finally drawn to a close and I’d dragged my way out to my bus stop, step by lagging step, feeling only about a minute or so removed from tears. As I sat there waiting on the bus (which was, of course, late) two women, complete strangers, approached me. Both smiled at me and one spoke, saying, “We just wanted to tell you we absolutely love your hair. The color, but especially the style.” I found myself smiling back at them — a big, wide, heartfelt smile — as I thanked them. The compliment was especially welcome because I’d had a “bad hair” morning. Unable to get my long hair to behave, I’d sort of smashed it on top of my head with a lot of bobby pins and hairspray, just to get it out of the way and be done with it. The two strangers’ compliment could not possibly have been more unexpected or more welcome.
My cousin once described to me a similar incident in her experience: an “earth angel”, a total stranger, walked up to her at a store while she was feeling deeply depressed and gave her a compliment. The remark upended everything she’d been experiencing. From being dejected, she’d swung into feeling exalted, if only for a moment. And gratitude (that twin to happiness) poured over her toward this stranger for her moment of unexpected kindness.
So often, that’s all it takes to make a vast difference in someone’s day: a genuine smile, an unexpected kind word, a heartfelt compliment. A courteous gesture, an offer of help. Holding open the door for someone whose arms are laden with packages. Offering your place in line to the person who has only one item when you have a cartload. Courteously allowing in the car trying to enter the busy stream of traffic.
And, sadly, yes, sometimes our kind gestures are scorned. A compliment is shrugged off or denied. The person in the car behind you honks loudly because you permitted another car to nose in. Two people cut in when you offer your place in line to another, or a healthy young teenager slides into the seat on the bus that you stood up to offer to the elderly man. We’ve all experienced this, too. But though an unwelcome reaction to kindness can cause us dejection, it isn’t enough reason to stop doing it. Not reason enough at all. Because a single kind gesture can change a person’s day entirely, can soothe emotional pain or lift the recipient from melancholy to gladness. It can change the world for one person.
And if just one simple word or gesture can change the entire world for one person, what, just what, might a whole world of kind gestures or words do to change humanity?