We Have Always Depended On The Kindness of Strangers

“Kindness, I’ve discovered, is everything in life.”       Isaac Bashevis Singer

Recently, I was standing at a coffee bar in New Hampshire, waiting for the woman next to me to finish adding cream and sugar to her java. The plastic lid I needed for my cup was in a bin just beyond her. I said nothing. She’d be done shortly. It was no big deal. But as she reached for another sugar, she also grabbed a lid and handed it to me. I thanked her. We smiled at each other. I returned to my table feeling good about the world.

That small act of kindness, unsought, unexpected, started me thinking about other kindnesses I’ve experienced over the years. The pub owner in Dublin who, when asked if he knew a good breakfast place, left his morning preparations to escort my husband and me to a sunny café three blocks away. The KINDness HANDS-1137978__180woman in Ramsgate who my friend and I asked for directions to the ferry to Paris. She was on her way home from work, but she walked us the mile or so down to the harbor terminal. I was a student then, yet the memory of her kindness has lasted these decades. We are more powerful than we think.

In the midst of our current public turbulence—the anger, the hateful talk, the violence—it’s easy to forget this most basic of truths: At every moment, we are ALL depending on the kindness of strangers.

In our lifetime, we each encounter a vast number of strangers. We pass them on the street, ride with them on the subway, sit next to them in cafes, work out beside them at the gym. We don’t know their names, but we are relying on them not to cheat us or assault us, not to steal our wallets or break into our homes, not to detonate a car bomb as we pass by or shoot up our children’s school. We are depending on them as they are depending on us.

KIND abstract blue group diff faces-413973__180There is something so basic in this, that we must all trust it or go mad. It is the most fundamental of all social contracts. It is what makes events like the November 2015 Paris bombings so shockingly frightening—the betrayal of that elemental trust.

The tensions of our time make us wary. We live in the maelstrom of a 24-hour news cycle for which spectacle of the most sensational and violent kinds boosts ratings, hence advertising dollars. Even if we turn off our TVs and silence our radios, we cannot escape the suspicions and doubts aroused by the media. We begin to size up people we don’t know—their accent, the clothing they wear, the vehicle they drive, their occupation or lack of same, their race or nationality—and apply a kind of “media profiling” to make hasty judgments about the person’s values, the way they think. Uncertain, perhaps, we avoid eye contact, eschew the friendly nod, waiting to see what the other person is going to do. And so our common humanity often goes unacknowledged

We cannot live this way and stay sane. We cannot live this way and be happy. To paraphrase CBS chairman Les Moonves’ recent cynical comment: It may be damn good for CBS, but it’s not good for America. Or the world.

Fortunately, there are other ways to live, other choices. Seneca said                                                   “Wherever there is a human being,KIND  silhou people with tree embracing globe tree-569503__180 there is an opportunity for a kindness.” It was good advice circa 40 CE, and it continues to speak to our deepest needs. Kindness is a stone that cast out upon a seemingly indifferent surface, ripples far beyond its original point of contact.

I was reminded of this recently when, stuck in local traffic, waiting in a long line for a short light, I became conscious of a woman in a car looking for a chance to turn left into my lane. I had a lot of work on my desk at home, groceries to pick up for dinner. I wanted to get to the gym. Letting this stranger into my lane almost certainly meant missing the light, losing more precious minutes. But then I remembered all the times I’d sat waiting for a break in traffic, how grateful I was to the person who finally let me in. So when the cars ahead of me began moving, I waved the woman in. A moment later, in my rearview mirror, I saw the driver behind me doing the same for another car. My heart lifted. We are more powerful than we know.

KIND scrapbook of faces photo-montage-556806__180The world has always been a good place. The world has always been a hard place. But, at every moment, we have the choice to be kind or not, and so tip the world on its axis one way or the other. Like the woman in the coffee shop. Like the woman in Ramsgate, surely tired from a day at work. They stopped for me, a stranger. And in doing so, made the world a better place.


[Note: I penned this post before the violent events in Brussels today.  The deaths of more than 30 people in that city and the wounding of several hundred others make remembering our common humanity feel more essential than ever.]

7 Health Benefits of Bookstores

In some families (okay, my family), there’s a first birthday tradition for children. A parent sets out three objects: a silver dollar, a book, and a cup. Then everyone sits back and waits to see which one the child picks up first.

You can probably guess the symbolism of these objects. If the tot snaps up the dollar, (s)he’s destined for wealth and power. The child who opens the book will adopt intellectual pursuits and live the life of the mind. The kid who grabs the cup? Well, let’s hope (s)he opens a successful wine bar.

I, erudite child, greedily snatched the book. And I must confess, this acquisition of things to read has become something of a lifelong habit. Which means I have spent vast quantities of time in bookstores.

Shakespeare and Company bookshop (Alexandre Duret-Lutz, Paris 2006)
Shakespeare and Company bookshop (Alexandre Duret-Lutz, Paris 2006)

Being a bookstore junkie, unlike many other forms of addiction, is not without merit. Bookstores encourage democratic values. Mysteries receive the same shelf treatment as histories. Skinny volumes sit next to fat tomes. And a used book is as good as a book whose spine has yet to be cracked (unless someone has underlined all their favorite passages with a wide-tip felt marker). Since no book lover worthy of the name ever throws a book in the trash (my heart seizes up just thinking about such a deed), used bookstores also play their part in recycling.

 I think we can all agree that bookstores contribute greatly to the good of society. What perhaps is lesser known are the many health benefits to be reaped from hanging out in bookstores. Just a brief burst of erratic research on my part has uncovered the following:

Bookstores Provide:

1. Peace of Mind

As wealth management strategists (who are these guys???) love to remind us, the key to true peace of mind starts with financial security. Know where your money goes. Be able to lay hands on your assets quickly. Bookstores address both these concerns. You know where your money’s gone. It’s gone to bookstores. As for getting to your assets, they’re right at your fingertips 24/7, alphabetized and neatly shelved or randomly stacked on all available horizontal surfaces.

2. Greater Physical Flexibility

Foyles flagship store, London (Timeout.com)
Foyles flagship store, London (Timeout.com)

Bookstores give you many of the benefits of yoga without having to buy special pants or stand on your head.  A single afternoon spent in a bookstore takes you through numerous reps of The Sun Salutation and Downward Facing Dog as you squat down low then fully extend upward to read through the selections on every shelf from Fiction to Travel.

Used bookstores may be the best gyms of all. Organized in a way that no one can fathom, they provide a good stretch for your hamstrings while you attempt to discover the title of that book lying way, way up near the ceiling. There’s also the thigh-killing duck walk from pile to pile, as you sift through stacks of titles, hoping to find that one out-of-print book you’ve been seeking since 1990.

And for sheer aerobic exercise, nothing beats a couple of runs up and down the four flights of stairs at Foyles flagship store in London. With its 200,000+  different titles on more than four miles of shelves, Foyles keeps you moving. (Note: I believe this magnificent bookstore on Charing Cross Road is where all good bibliophiles go when they die.)

3. A Boost in Caffeine Consumption

Scientists have discovered that consuming a lot of coffee has multiple health benefits. Not only may dosing up on the caffeine decrease your chances of developing Alzheimer’s or dying from a cardiovascular disease, it also releases fatty acids into the bloodstream that become a source fuel for your muscles. You’re getting fit just sitting in your local bookstore café with a cup of java and your favorite read. Stay all day. Stay forever. Think of the muscles you’re fueling.

4. Stress Reduction

Yes, yes, I’ve read those articles that assure us some stress is okay, even good, but I ask

BIG HOUSING bookstore_cafe_031-660x440
Housing Works Bookstore Café , NYC (NRFuture.com)

you: When you’re stressed, does it ever feel healthy, or does it feel like you’re one beat away from a massive pulmonary meltdown? Bookstores are excellent places for the over-stressed. I can personally vouch for this. In my little life, I’ve had some number of less-than-pleasant calamities (send $500 for the complete list), but NOTHING BAD HAS EVER HAPPENED TO ME IN A BOOKSTORE. So, Q.E.D. (as my high school geometry teacher used to say) bookstores reduce stress.

5. Connection With Others

From reducing incidents of minor illness to increasing our longevity, scientists are proving over and over that social connections are crucial to our well-being. And what lovelier people can you hope to meet than those who frequent bookstores? One of my favorite memories occurred during the October 2011 ice storm (surprise!). After several days without power or heat, my husband and I heard through the grapevine that the Barnes & Noble one town over had just gotten their power back. Since we already had our coats on, we ran out the door and jumped in the car. We arrived to find hundreds of people wandering the store, reveling in the warmth, the availability of hot coffee, the working wi-fi connection. In every aisle, complete strangers chatted and laughed like old friends. It was a true model for a better, more harmonious world. A bookstore world.

6. Enhanced Foreign Travel

BOOKSHOP  Camille   Buenos Aires
El Ateneo bookshop, Buenos Aires  SOURCE

While I’m not certain this is normally considered a health benefit, it can’t hurt. As the photos here show, bookstores dot the planet, making bookstore browsing an international form of entertainment. My husband and I have visited bookstores in Paris, Lisbon, Florence, Arles, Toronto, Montreal, Madrid, London, and a bunch of other places. Okay, they were English-language bookstores (though I parlez-vous Franҫais, I’m not quite up to reading Proust in the original), but they were bookstores, and they did enhance our travel.

Nowhere is this truer than at Foyles flagship store (see Greater Physical Flexibility above). A highlight of every trip to London is “book day.” Entering Foyles, we arm ourselves with baskets, set a time to meet, and then go our separate ways to gather books to our hearts’ content. There are only two rules: 1) There is no limit set on the books we can choose, and 2) We don’t bother about prices. When time’s up, we bring our books to the main desk where some lovely bookstore clerk boxes them up, we pay, and for less than the price of a beer and sandwich at most airports, our carton of reads is shipped by courier, often arriving home before we do.

7. A Happier Heart

Science has uncovered some pretty compelling evidence that what makes you happy also makes your heart happy and, therefore, less prone to heart disease. Now, I ask, what could be happier than wandering a bookstore? All those titles. Aisles and aisles of books whispering read me, read me. As Neil Gaiman said: A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.

Bookstores are the repositories of our dreams.

BOOKS CROP do more of what makes happy