Since my illness I have been overwhelmed by countless emails, cards and letters addressed in terms as reverential as though I was a guru or a great Bodhisattva. “Carrol, your courageous example has changed our lives,” these messages tell me over and over; “you cast a light that has inspired all of us. We love you.”
Who, me?!? I ask, confused. I’m just Carrol. What do I do that’s any different from other people? After pondering the question for months, I have some thoughts.
Although my family was not religious, we had strong ethical and moral standards. My grandmother taught me it was of the greatest importance to leave this world in a better condition than we found it, and if everyone did this we would eventually find ourselves living on an outstanding planet. She improved her part of the world by working as teacher, helping write the first zoning ordinances for her small Ohio town, and working to ensure schooling for the children of the Mexican migrant workers who passed through each summer to pick produce on nearby farms.
So, holding in mind the idea “leave this world better off than you found it”, let’s skip ahead in time to about fifteen years ago.
That spring morning I was cut off at a four-way stop on High Street by a male driver who sleazed through my right-of-way as though glued to the bumper of the car directly ahead of him. He revved his engine aggressively, flipped his middle finger and screamed at me from his car, face contorted with rage. I was too surprised to be angry; nor do I make it a habit to willingly encounter any man exhibiting obvious mental issues. So I went my way and he went his.
But later I began to wonder what kind of psychic aftereffects might be caused by a chance meeting with a man like this. Back when I was younger and had not yet developed sufficient emotional strength, such an encounter would have ruined my entire morning. An assault, whether physical or emotional, by a hate-filled person leaves ripples that spread, bounce against each other and spread again, ever widening. If this driver had behaved similarly to every susceptible person he came upon that day, he could have dragged down the emotions of dozens of other innocent drivers (not taking into consideration the feelings of his coworkers, or his unfortunate family). And these people in turn might have spread their frustration and hurt onward to other people.
I decided to try to counteract this man’s ripples of bad behavior with ripples of my own good behavior. After that day, each time I arrived at a stop sign, I would come to a full stop, make eye contact with the other driver, smile, and beckon him or her to go first. If I was out walking in the neighborhood I would smile and nod each time I passed another pedestrian. I made sure that I practiced compassion, courtesy, generosity and respect.
I can’t prove scientifically whether it worked or not, but it made me a lot happier and a lot less stressed. I found that I enjoyed smiling at strangers and seeing them smile back. After I became the “Homes” columnist I considered myself an ambassador for my newspaper. I did my very best to be friendly and courteous. kind and respectful to my interviewees. By doing these simple things I apparently launched a tsunami of gratitude and goodwill that has lasted years and kept me company throughout the long months of my illness.
I’m no guru, nor am I a Bodhisattva with all the answers. I’m an ordinary person who over the years appears to have succeeded in generating goodwill in quantities far more than sufficient to make up for the ill-will created by that baboon of a driver fifteen years ago.
I think the lesson of the fifteen-year-long experiment is this. All of us can be gurus; all of us can make our society better if we practice a simple formula. Don’t put yourself on autopilot and snarl back at people who snarl at you. Let it go, just ignore that other person’s discourtesy, and then go through the rest of the day intentionally practicing small acts of kindness and generosity toward others. You will become a happier person as a result, one who makes your own small part of the world a better place. My grandmother would be proud of you.