The Common Good

Removing Our Hats -- And Changing Everything

Desmond Tutu tells a story of when he was nine or 10 years old and he stood with his mother outside a building where she worked as a cook. This was 1940s apartheid South Africa, where black people were considered inferior in all respects. A lanky, white Anglican priest named Trevor Huddleston walked by in a long cassock, saw his mother, and doffed his hat to her.

Little acts of kindness and love can have a profound impact. Ryan Jorgensen - Jorgo / Shutterstock

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The white man would have been expected to ignore the black woman, who amounted to nothing in her society. With one simple gesture, he went out of his way to tell her that her society had it all wrong and that she was equally valued and loved.

That moment made a profound impression upon Tutu, who wrote about it in his book, Made For Goodness

What seem like very small, ordinary acts often have immense and lasting impacts. And every interaction that we have — even with a stranger on the street — can leave some sort of mark, either helpful or hurtful.

All of us get many such moments each day. We have countless chances to show kindness, hospitality, indifference, or worse.  

We wait in line with others who carry their own burdens. We encounter a homeless person who is asking for some help. We get into an elevator with someone who is having a bad day. We hear a neighbor tell of some discouraging problem. We learn of someone else in need. How do we respond?

Any moment can become a moment infused with grace, if we choose to put ourselves into it and make it so.

One day last summer, a reporter showed up from South Korea to write about a countryman playing baseball for the Cincinnati Reds. The reporter’s English was limited, so he stood quietly in the back of manager Dusty Baker’s office during a session with reporters. Dusty sensed the visitor’s hesitance, asked if he was doing a story about the South Korean player, then graciously talked about him at length, pausing occasionally to let the reporter catch up as he scribbled down the quotes. The reporter said a heart-felt “Thank you!” and was beaming as he left the office, touched by that act of kindness from a stranger a half-world away.

Recently, Jordan, a young woman who is studying for the ministry, wound up sitting in a waiting room with a mother and her young daughter. Jordan has several tattoos commemorating meaningful moments in her life. The mother wouldn’t let her young daughter sit next to Jordan, telling her within earshot that tattoos are bad. She had judged Jordan not by the content of her character, but by the color on her skin. Jordan smiled at the girl all the while. The girl smiled back and seemed to enjoy her company. The little girl’s memory of that moment will likely involve how the friendly lady with the tattoos treated her so nicely.

One small moment. One lasting encounter.

A clergyman removes his hat in apartheid South Africa and inspires a future archbishop and civil rights leader. A pope embraces a man covered with tumors in Rome and inspires the world to be kinder. A 42-year-old seamstress declines to move to the back of the bus in racially segregated Birmingham and inspires others to stand up for equality.

Small, ordinary actions conducted with kindness and courage can change the lives of individuals and the directions of societies.

So perhaps the opportunity and the challenge for each of us is: Do we lower our heads and walk past those moments, trying to avoid them? Or do we recognize and embrace those moments, doff our hats, and change everything?

Joe Kay is a professional writer living in the Midwest.

Photo: Ryan Jorgensen - Jorgo / Shutterstock

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