“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I have found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… simple acts of kindness and love.” Gandalf, Lord of the Rings
A month or so ago, I was in New York attending a workshop for artists on one of those pouring rainy days where an umbrella doesn’t even help much. As I was walking the 10 or 15 blocks north of Penn station, I thought of a kind East Asian man that I met about 17 years ago on the streets of New York City. I don’t know his name or anything about him, and I don’t really remember at all what he looked like.
I was commuting back and forth between my parents’ home in NJ and Times Square every day working at Random House at that time. It was at that job that I would realize I’m not really cut out for the more corporate world- even book publishing. I was the assistant to a woman who had quite a reputation in our department for being difficult. Her presence back and forth from the file cabinet near my cubicle made it hard for me to breathe. She yelled at me numerous times as I tried to navigate the world of book production: purchase orders to printers, creating bar codes, checking book covers for color. Every morning as my bus went through the Lincoln Tunnel and I drifted in and out of sleep, I would in my mind cry out desperate prayers, mostly just “help me God!” because I was so afraid of this woman.
Once at Port Authority, I would walk to the old RH office building on 45th and Broadway through the densest pockets of Times Square. I would cut through Schubert’s Alley, between 44th and 45th, which I also named “The Wind Tunnel” because on windy days that’s what it felt like. Between the rigors of the daily commute and the tension I had in the office all day, those were difficult years for me. They took a toll on my physical health until I eventually quit to go back to graduate school for my MFA in Creative Nonfiction, but mostly just to leave that job. On one of those morning commutes, it was pouring, a really windy, bone-chilling kind of rain. Crammed into the moving crowd of umbrellas, I was making my way along 8th Avenue when I stepped on one of those big metal grates and suddenly found my feet out from under me until I landed on the ground, quite hard, stunned. It was so slippery on that grate that it was hard to even get up from my position, but a middle-aged East Asian man stopped in the crowd, put out his hand, and helped me up. He added in a fatherly tone, “Those metal parts get very slippery when it rains; try to stay away from those.”
Now, I don’t know if the same thing had happened to him, or if he was just trying to ease my embarrassment, but 17 years later, I think of him every time I’m in the city and it’s raining, and I’m stepping around those metal grates. I’m thankful for the gentle way in which he stopped amidst the huge moving crowd, none of whom even seemed to notice my fall, and helped me though he must have no recollection of this day.
As January nears its close, I’m thinking not about the grand resolutions and goals we set for ourselves, but about the small ways that we can effect change, in ourselves and in others. Since Christmas, my daughter’s been leaving me tiny little notes hidden around the house. They are small, but they bring me so much joy. I think it’s hard as a child to always be on the receiving end of things, and she longs to give in our relationship. This is one way she’s discovered to do it.
In the realm of tiny, I also want to mention a free one week course I took online two weeks ago based on the research of a Stanford psychologist. It’s called “Tiny Habits.” The idea behind the course is to attach tiny habits to anchors, or established habits you already have. The key is to keep them very small at first, less than 30 seconds in fact. So, for example, I added 1 push-up after brushing my teeth at night. Two weeks later, I’m up to five and haven’t missed a night. In the morning, when my feet hit the floor, I added a sun salutation to the “Our Father” prayer. What surprised me most about these “tiny habits” is that you don’t have to have everything else together to start them. As you start, they begin to carry over into other areas of your life and the tiny really builds into something substantial and long-lasting, and it doesn’t even feel like work!
If you’re running out of steam for your new years’ goals and sweeping declarations, maybe you were thinking too big. Small and simple acts are powerful, and sometimes remembered long afterwards: just one push-up, tiny little notes reminding me to be joyful, and on rainy city days, I will always step around the metal grates thanks to the kindness of a stranger in a difficult period of my life.