Last week I was getting ready to pull out of a parking lot when I noticed a mom with her minivan’s side door open. I saw that she was trying to mop up a lake of juice from her car with only two napkins. I was in a hurry and thought of just pulling away. Thankfully, I paused long enough to consider the times I’d been stranded with a mess and no arsenal to clean it up with. And so I put my own van in park and called out to her, “Do you need some wipes or paper towels?”
She looked up at me like I was an angel. “Oh, paper towels would be great. Thank you so much! We had a spill when I turned and I thought I had some in here, but I can’t find any.”
“What are you doing?” my 3-year-old asked me as I grabbed a roll of paper towels.
“Helping someone,” I said.
“Do you know her?”
“Nope. It’s just another mommy who needs some paper towels.”
I handed the mom a big wad of paper towels. She expressed her extreme gratitude, and I pulled out of the parking lot feeling less rushed and harried than I had felt only moments earlier. In fact, I felt all warm and fuzzy inside.
Sharing paper towels with a fellow mom is not likely to lead to beatification, but it’s small acts of kindness like these that do make a difference in the world.
We have a children’s book called Small Acts of Kindness that opens with a little boy giving his mother a spontaneous hug. “This so pleased the mother that she made her husband’s favorite breakfast.” The book goes on to show how kindness engenders kindness. Eventually, a grateful merchant, who received a wheel-cleaning at no extra charge from a wheelsmith, “was so pleasantly surprised, that when he saw a young shepherd boy sitting alone alongside the road, he stopped and gave him a bottle of precious oil.”
Without words, the book shows in its simple black-ink illustrations what the shepherd boy does with the oil: He follows the Star of Bethelehem and offers it as a gift to the Christ-child.
The book ends with these words:
“Truly it is the small acts of kindness given freely along the way that become the greatest gifts of love.”
I’d like to think that maybe my small gesture toward that mom might have spurred some more kindness. Who knows? Maybe that poor mom was having a really rough day and soaked up the mess, closed her van door, and grumbled at her child for being clumsy or tailgated the driver ahead of her because she was now late for an appointment. But maybe not.
What I do know it that I taught my children something important that day (and I reaffirmed a lesson I’ve learned throughout my life). So often our kids see us doing things for friends, family, or perhaps the neighbors we routinely say hello to. It’s easy to look the other way when we see a stranger who is in need. But every person we encounter gives us a chance at holiness. We have the opportunity to turn our face to the human before us and dignify her as God’s beloved. No encounters are useless or random. All of the people we meet offer us the mission to share God’s love. We may be able to do something as small as holding the door for someone at the post office whose hands are filled with packages. Maybe it’s complimenting the store clerk on her great haircut. Sometimes just a smile can go a long way in brightening a person’s day. Hopefully, no matter the act, our consideration will be a gift that keeps on giving.
I know that when I have been the recipient of a random act of kindness, it makes me want to give more. A spontaneous hug from my child is a wonderful, priceless offering, but what’s sometimes even more surprising is when a random stranger who has nothing at all invested in me pauses to help. Encountering good, thoughtful people makes me want to be a good person, too. Kindness really is contagious.