Our apartment building has one major design flaw. The stairwells at each end of the hallway descend, not to the lobby, but directly outside. The problem is that the doors open out but do not open in. There are no door handles on the outside. This means that people on the lower floors cannot choose to take the stairs up a flight or two to their apartments, they have to take the elevator. None of this ever entered my mind because, in my wheelchair (power or manual), the elevator is my only option.
The other day we got on the elevator with a pretty young University student who lives in the building. I know her character to be friendly so I took a moment to turn my chair around and back into the elevator. This takes a few seconds more than driving straight in, which I normally do because waiting a few seconds for me to turn and back in upsets most residents in the building. They live important lives where seconds really matter. I trusted my sense of her character to be OK with me getting in the way I prefer to get in.
She and Joe stood to the side and I was comfortably parked facing the door. She then pushed 2 and Joe pushed 5. Immediately she began to apologize for only riding one floor, she was worried about having to get me to pull out so she could get out of the elevator. We told her it was no concern to either of us. When we stopped on the second floor I pulled out of the elevator and she got off, again apologizing.
Forgetting myself, I reached out and touched her arm. She stopped, startled at the touch. I said, 'You reacted with kindness and patience when I took the time to back into the elevator. I appreciate the opportunity to react with kindness and patience when you needed to get off the elevator. We have thousands of decisions like these each day, every time we decide on kindness, I believe the world is changed. It becomes, on the whole, a nicer, gentler, place.' She smiled a quick smile and headed to her apartment, I backed back into the elevator car.
This morning, on rising, we found a note that had been dropped through our mail slot. Here is what it reads:
Ever since we shared a ride on the elevator, I was the woman who got off on the second floor, I've thought about what you said. Sometimes I feel like I do not have the capacity to make a difference in the world. I see greed and corruption and meanness about me and never felt I had the ability to effect any change at all. The brief conversation I had with you has challenged my belief in my own ability to make change. I admit to being uncomfortable with you both in the past. Gay people have never been part of my world, disabled people always made me uncomfortable and large people always kind of frightened me. I hate admitting all those things, but I want to be truthful. Then, when you touched me in the hallway and spoke to me about the decisions we make every day, how a moments kindness can affect the world in a small way, something happened inside me. I feel like I can bring kindness and patience to a world that needs more of each. You managed to teach me something that I believe will make a difference to the rest of my life. I want to thank you for that.
What I said, on the spur of the moment, I realized after I read her note, needs to become much more of my own way of life. I sometimes worry so much about larger social change that I forget the smaller acts of rebellion against selfishness and meanspiritedness. I can worry about the fate of others and come to not care about the feelings of neighbours. I don't want to be 'that guy'. I want to be the guy that this woman now thinks I am. Now there's a challenge.
A challenge perfect for Thanksgiving Day, wouldn't you say?