How to Earn the Kindness of Strangers

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While in Sacramento for a conference, my friend Deb and I hailed a cab to a restaurant. During the ride, we learned from Shaa, our cabbie, that life in Sacramento was anything but easy. The recession has hit this California city hard, he told us. Case in point: he’d been driving his cab more than 10 hours that day. We were his second fare. During that 10 hours, he’d netted only $45.

You might say our hearts went out to him because that’s exactly what happened. Deb and I made it our mission to keep Shaa in business. For the rest of our four-day stay, we called Shaa every time we needed to go anywhere, even if we could have walked. We tipped him generously each time.

We joked, “You’re our official driver.”

Along the way, we learned that Shaa had been born in Afghanistan. He earned his living by driving a cab, but he occasionally flew to Indiana to consult with the government about matters involving his birth country. We talked about Khaled Hosseini’s books, the mega best sellers The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns set in Afghanistan.
We talked about the Russian occupation and then the US invasion. He told us his thoughts about Hamid Karzai (not positive).

During each trip he was polite and gracious, always stepping out of the cab to open and close the door for us. He asked us about our dinners, and he genuinely smiled whenever we told him that we’d had a wonderful evening.

One evening I didn’t quite have enough cash to cover the fare. As my friend Deb reached into her purse to cover the rest, Shaa said, “No, this one’s on me.”

We were silent for a good 8 seconds. Then simultaneously, we said, “No, you can’t.” We didn’t say it, but I know we were both thinking, “We’re the ones who are supposed to be helping you. That’s our mission: to put food on your table. It’s not supposed to be the other way around.”
With warmth and grace, he said, “Please, allow me this pleasure. Please.”

I’d had one too many glasses of wine that night, so I replied, “I will generously allow you this gift.” Then I realized my gaffe and rephrased, “I mean, I will allow you this generous gift.”

He laughed.

As we walked into the hotel that night, Deb said, “These things only happen to me when I’m with you. Magical people just come into your life all the time, don’t they?”

Her question made me ponder. In many ways, I do find life magical. My life is filled with people like Shaa. I meet them in banks, and I meet them at the post office. They sit next to me on airplanes, and they wait on me at restaurants.

It’s my suspicion, however, that these magical people are not peculiar to my life at all. They are in your life, too.

This is what I think is really going on. Every day I meditate on the phrase, “The happiness of others is just as important as my own.” At the end of that meditation, I promise myself to spread happiness and alleviate suffering everywhere I go. Sure, some days are better than others. On my bad days, my promise to spread happiness is forgotten within 3.5 minutes. On my good days, it lasts much longer. During my time in Sacramento, I’d had several good days in a row, and it allowed me to connect with the people around me in a deeper way. I met with them curiosity, sincerely wanting to know more about them. Rather than assume the worst about them, I assumed the best. I laughed at their jokes. I listened intently to their stories, and I did my best to allow them to feel loved and appreciated.

My friend Stacy once told me, “You bring out the best in people. People want to be good when they are around you.” She told me this after she’d watched me enlist the help of a stranger to help two poor youth who’d accidentally dropped an ID card into a sewer grate. On that day, sure, I’d probably brought out the best in that stranger, but I don’t bring out the best in people all the time. My husband would want you to know that I certainly bring out the worst in him from time to time.

On my good days it’s possible that Stacy’s words are true, but often I wonder if it isn’t the other way around. Perhaps on those days, other people bring out the best in me, you know? At any rate, Deb is definitely right. The results are magical.

It’s my belief that we are all surrounded by people like Shaa, good people who want exactly what we want in life: to be happy. This desire to be happy is what connects every single human. It’s what binds us, and it’s what turns random strangers into cherished friends. If we learn to recognize that commonality, we can bring out the best in one another not matter how challenging a day we are having, and one magical experience after another can unfold in our lives.

See the best in your spouse. See it in your mother. See it in friends, and see it in strangers, too. Be curious. Suspend judgement. See and understand their suffering. Be generous with your time. Listen. Smile. Compliment others. Treat every person you meet with the same respect your would offer the President of the United States.

Give others the gift of your love, and accept love when others offer it to you.

Notice the kindness of others and allow it to fill your heart. Seal it in and remember it.

Then, it’s my belief, your life will become magical, too.

A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage. If you enjoyed this post, you will love her updates on Facebook and Twitter. Read more of her work on ProjectHappilyEverAfter.com.

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