The Kindness of Strangers

March 28, 2016

During my six-month stay in Budapest more than two decades ago, the elegant Mrs. Szeifert presented herself as my resident Jewish grandmother. From her perch on high heels, she fussed over me, teeming with warmth for this stranded expatriate who was not only far from home, but didn’t speak any of the local language.

I enjoyed her companionship and particularly adored her expressions, all delivered in Hungarian-rhythmed English. When she was busy, she would say she was “running hither and thither.” And when she heard unpleasant news, she’d announce, “It absolutely cannot be. It must be something other.”

Sadly, what must not be is. What we could never imagine happening, or happening again, is unfolding in the headlines before our eyes. While I pray that the world will come to its senses and set itself right – that I’ll awake in the morning to find that the mess we’re in has been folded up and tucked away – it seems less and less likely with the passing of time. 

I’m not a fan of the phrase “Everything happens for a reason.” Still, I believe G-d has a master plan, even when the wisdom behind it eludes me. Letting go of the illusion that I have any control would come as a relief, though alas, a leopard cannot change her spots. I worry. A lot. To keep it from consuming me, I move from distraction to distraction, prowling for embers of good wherever I can find them. And sometimes, they appear in the unlikeliest of places, like at the pharmacy the other night. 

I had to run there as it was closing to pick up a prescription for a family member who had not been feeling well. Worry wasn’t my undercurrent that evening. It was front and center, and as a result, I wasn’t my usual put-together self. Still, the young pharmacist did not rush me when I couldn’t find my insurance card, though I’m sure he was eager to close and head home. Nor he did appear frustrated when I gave him the wrong birthdate for the patient. At some point, he looked up to ask me what was wrong, and I told him, limiting myself to the one thing relevant in the moment.

“He will be fine,” he said.

“How do you know that?” I shot back, gently.

“Because he has you.”

For an instant, time stood still in my corner of the world. Nothing crooked was straightened, nothing broken was fixed, the reason for my concern did not dissipate. Yet the pharmacist, whether he knew it or not, had prescribed exactly what I needed, and in his subtle way, helped the blanket of unease slip from my shoulders and fall to the floor. 

I didn’t believe the patient’s recovery would have anything to do with me, nor did I think that my worry would stay away for long.  But in that slim window before it returned was a reminder to do more than brood while waiting for change to arrive from above. Healing words – and when they fail, compassionate silence – can provide a powerful balm in the interim.

A week has passed since that exchange with the pharmacist. Yet what he said continues to echo in my ears and calm me, especially now that my worry is chomping at the bit to return with a vengeance, thanks to the latest headlines and the fact that the patient has not yet recovered. When it comes down to it, though, there’s far too much out there we will never control. All we can do is pray and cede the rest to G-d.

In the meantime we can be generous of spirit, to those we love and to total strangers we meet at the drug store. I brought the pharmacist a challah this past Friday afternoon to thank him for his words, and as we stood there, both of us with gratitude in our eyes, I could tell he didn’t have too many of these moments at the office.

I believe, perhaps naively, that these little exchanges of kindness offer some hope for a peaceful resolution to the mess we’re in.  At the very least, they are the tiny specks of light flickering in the darkness.