The other day I was accosted on a London street by a man I didn’t know. He was plugged into his earphones, though I wasn’t, but it was him to take me by surprise. It turned out to be an approach of the good kind. I was walking along slowly, drinking my coffee, when I saw a wine glass smashed into several large pieces on the pavement. I was near the playground and my first thoughts were about how a child might hurt themselves on this broken glass: so I shifted the pieces to the edge of the path with my foot. I carried on walking. Soon, the man who I’d overtaken a short while earlier caught me up. He didn’t introduce himself but just said, straight out: ‘If everyone did what you’ve just done, the world would be a beautiful place.’ I saluted him with a ‘Thank you, sir.’ It was a beautiful thing for him to have said.
It gave me an instant faith in humanity. This doesn’t happen all the time in the world of adult interactions. At a minor and seemingly inconsequential level, there are those whose interpretations of etiquette rub against my own; at a deeper level there are those who refuse to pay the debts they owe, or who lie and manipulate for their own benefit; at a wider level, there is the futility of male-dominated war and the pointlessness of ‘my God’s bigger than yours’. All of this, and more, is graceless.
Every so often though, I’m reminded of the fact that there are some people out there who appreciate the small significances of moments: by which I refer to adults. More often than this though, I see how children know. It’s just this. By definition, this is all wrapped up in my interpretation of personal interactions with the children who I work with, but I’m willing to stick my neck out and say that what I see is what is there. Two such examples from recent interactions spring to mind straight away.
In working with the children I’m currently with for the past month or so, I’m just getting to know their characters, quirks and so on, and vice versa. One girl, around ten years old, suffered a minor accident recently: nothing much, but enough to upset her. I spent some time telling her of the stupid things I’d done when I was younger, causing myself accidental harm (not that that was a way of saying she was being stupid, rather to cheer her up!) She laughed and soon forgot her minor scrape. A week or two on, she’s happy to see me when we collect her and others at school: we walk down the street burping at one another (shush, don’t tell anyone!)
Another child is about four years old. We don’t really have any conversations yet but, for some reason, every time I catch her eye she’s smiling at me in a way that says something like: ‘That thing you did [whatever that turns out to have been], was something special.’ I don’t know what that moment was. I don’t think I’ll ever know. It doesn’t matter: she looks at me and seems to tell me that she has faith in this adult.
It has to be said that I don’t have faith in all the adults I come into contact with. I try: I give them as much openness and trust as I can when meeting them (maybe I trust too much, on the whole), but sometimes I’m let down. When I do meet other adults who continue to be supportive, trustworthy, empathic, insightful people (and who have many other qualities), I feel blessed by them. So, to all of you who I refer to here, I salute you also, as I do the earphone-wearing stranger in the street. When I meet these strangers in the street who shine, I’m impressed with faith.
There is the softly spoken man who serves coffee from the back of his van on the corner of the busy junction (who trusts I’ll not cheat him by stamping my own loyalty card, and who lets me off the 20p when I just have a £20 note to pay with); there’s the young man who picks up the card that’s fallen from the woman’s purse and hands it back to her; the man sitting on the Tube train opposite me, finishing his newspaper and, on seeing me watching him fold it up and put it behind him, offers me the slightest gesture that says, ‘Would you like this?’ I offer him the slightest gesture to say that I don’t, and thank you.
All these little moments add up to the significant possibility that we can have faith in others. I need to remind myself this when shouting at the guy who almost ran me over because the lights had changed and, technically, he might then have had right of way; when accidentally knocking a woman on the escalator as I passed and not apologising to her; when falling into the trap of racing everyone else on the train station concourse because the platform number has just flashed up and everyone wants to get to the turnstile first in order to get a train seat.
Sometimes patience, or sorry, or waiting will be seen. Little things make the world more beautiful. Often, when with the children, I will take their offerings (things they’ve made for me, or just things they’ve found or need to give me) and I’ll say thank you and bow. It’s play, of course, but I mean the bow. The children will look at me with their smiles of skewed curiosity: I don’t mean the bow in any way other than a sort of ‘namaste’ to them.
This isn’t all a way of saying ‘we must have manners and give up our seats for old ladies’ and so forth (our ‘manners’ and our morals are individual to each of us and we choose them and are reflected by them): sure it would be excellent if others’ etiquettes synched favourably with our own (yes, thanks to those few where I stayed the other night, refusing to observe the traveller’s etiquette of ‘let a sleeper sleep peacefully’); it would be excellent if greed and lies and cheating others, futile wars and God-afflicted conflict could be resolved; ultimately though, those who do the small things will be seen and ‘known’.
So, not only do I bow to the children I work with and for, I bow to those I know who are deserving of much faith for many reasons; I bow to those who I see in the street who do the smallest but significant things, their acts of kindness and beauty; I bow to those strangers who take the time to tell me of the things they see in me, if they see it worthy, and to remind me that, with a little faith, the world can be a beautiful place.