Kindness of Strangers

A recent post on RealDelia has me thinking about the kindness of strangers.

Some recent news stories:

A family in Missouri had their house condemned due to a mud-slide. Strangers came to their aid, helping them pack and move their belongings. They also rented a storage facility for the family, who could not afford one.

And on the other side of the fence, a woman caught on camera sweetly stroked a cat she found on the road, and then calmly put it in a garbage can and closed the lid. The video is awful to watch in that can’t stop myself from watching sort of way. The thing I find most interesting, though, is the public outrage. This woman now needs police protection, because people are so upset by her action. To me, this seems to be the flip side of kindness to strangers — some kind of punishment on behalf of strangers (in this case, on behalf of the poor cat, who was, by the way, rescued).

The fact is, most strangers are kind, helpful, and trustworthy. Bruce Schneier, a leading security expert, wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

Most people are honest, kind, and generous, especially when someone asks them for help. If a small child is in trouble, the smartest thing he can do is find a nice-looking stranger and talk to him.

(Full disclosure: I met Bruce last year when he spoke at a conference I organized. I found him fascinating and somewhat eccentric.)

I think we all have stories of a stranger who came to our rescue at one time or another.

I was a college student traveling in Israel, using a bright red day-planner to organize my entire life. All the phone numbers of the people I was visiting, all my travel documents including plane tickets and passport (this was before the days of cell phones or e-tickets), and about 300 US Dollars in cash (which is a lot now but was an extraordinary sum for me at that time) were in that day-planner.

I pulled it out at a pay phone to make a phone call, and somehow managed to leave it there in the phone booth. When I realized my error, hours later, I was completely panicked. I asked my friend to drive me back to the phone booth, to no avail. The book was gone. I had no idea what to do, with no identification and no money. Even finding my other friends to ask for assistance was difficult because I didn’t have their phone numbers.

An hour later another friend of mine who lived nearby got a phone call from the person who found it. Through my friend, this incredibly kind woman got in touch with me. She asked me a bunch of questions that she felt only the owner of the day-planner could answer, and once she was satisfied that I was indeed the owner she delivered it to me. It had every single thing in perfect order, including all the cash.

I tried to give her something in return, but she wouldn’t take anything. To this day, I do not know what I would have done if she hadn’t found and returned it.

I’ve never found a wallet on the ground or any other valuable item, but I hope that I would behave as honorably and kindly as that woman.

What about you? What’s your best kindness of strangers story?

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11 Responses to Kindness of Strangers

  1. I really do love stories like these. I’ve definitely encountered very kind strangers and many have done small things but they matter a lot. A person if front of me at the drive thru starbucks buying my coffee (just when I needed it), a young girl finding me and my children in the parking lot to return my daughter’s dropped teddy bear at the grocery store, a woman telling me how patient I was with my rambunctious 2 year old while we waited at the doctor’s office…little acts of kindess like these…they stay with me and I certainly try to pay it forward. Thanks for sharing your travel story…SO glad that nice woman returned your wallet 🙂

    • Great point, Melissa.
      I clearly remember those times when a simple kind word from a stranger made my whole day better. I was in the parking lot of a large store managing a full shopping cart and two small kids, trying to keep everyone safe and happy too…a woman walking in stopped, smiled, and said, “what a great mom, keeping the kids safe without yelling.”
      Just what I needed to hear.

  2. psmflowerlady/Tammy says:

    What a coincidence… On Monday, my son was driving us (incl. me & my daughter) home and on our country road, I spotted money!! He backed up (BTW he was rather proud of his performance of that – he’s a new driver) and we got out to check it out. There was $63, a wallet and a credit card holder in the general area of the road. We checked the driver’s license and left a note @ the address (also on our road, but about 2 miles away). We followed up with a call and the owner just about cried with joy, he was so distraught at having lost it. My kids were not-so-secretly wishing that he would offer up some of the cash for returning it and indeed he did. We had the discussion that it was kind of him to offer that, but there really shouldn’t be a reward for returning something that wasn’t ours to begin with… and of course how proud I was of my kids for doing what was right. I, as a parent appreciated the teaching moment.
    About 13 years ago, my mother was life-flighted to a hospital in Pittsburgh, PA and I was driving there late at night. I was lost, not used to driving in cities and worried to death (this before cell phones) about her condition and it was pouring rain. I stopped @ a gas station for directions and a customer and the employee both came out of the convenience store to point me in the right direction and make sure I understood their directions. They will never know how much I needed their kindness. I hope that I can always approach something as simple as giving someone directions with the level of true care that those people did that miserable night in Pittsburgh.

    • Wow, Tammy, what great stories. A wonderful reminder that something simple like giving clear directions can make a world of difference. Thanks for sharing them!

      And I agree with you, I wouldn’t let my kinds accept a reward for doing the right thing either. A great teaching moment, as you say.

  3. i think the incident that sticks out for me the most was the time our dog, now 6 but a puppy at the time, got out of the house. he’s really small and had a tendancy to get trapped in closets and/or bathrooms. this time, we couldn’t find him anywhere in the house so we started checking outside. he was hanging out in a neighbor’s front yard while two other neighbors, both of whom we’d never met since we had just moved into the neighborhood about a month before, stood in their driveway watching him to make sure he didn’t run away or dart into the street when a car was driving by. we found him pretty quickly (our neighborhood is not very big) and profusely thanked our neighbors for watching him. she even told us that if we didn’t come out for him in about 5 more minutes or so, they were going to get him and bring him inside their house.

    it was comforting to know that even though these people didn’t know us at all, they were still willing to watch out for our dog. he was our baby and it almost reduced me to tears that theses complete strangers cared enough to keep an eye on him. i’m fairly cynical and don’t typically believe in the kindness of strangers but this incident did change my opinion slightly.

    needless to say, a few years later when they got their own dog and needed a dog sitter, we were more than willing to help!

    • What a contrast to the woman with the cat caught on camera. I too can be fairly cynical, but it is surprising how often (not always, but often) someone steps in just when you need it most.

      I am not a dog-owner, but I absolutely understand that a well-loved dog is an integral part of his family and should be treated as such. How wonderful that your neighbors knew that too.

  4. Laura says:

    I have been blessed to experience many kind acts from strangers. Usually they’ve been small enough that I’ve forgotten the details but remember that they made my day, or picked up my mood, and I hope I do enough to pay it forward. I have a goal to do at least one kind thing each day for someone I don’t know, even if that’s only thanking a store clerk that has helped or writing something nice on someone’s blog!

    Two incidents stand out for me though, and both happened in Japan when I was a college student. Once, just after I had arrived and spoke/understood a bare minimum of Japanese, I got on the wrong train home and watched in dismay as my train turned and went off in a different direction as it left the station before my home station. I had no idea where it was going, but a middle-aged businessman noticed my apparently obvious panic, got off with me at the next station, waited with me on the platform, got on the train back with me and then helped me get on the right train and made sure I got off at the correct station! He spoke no English, but knew when I said the name of my station where I needed to go. This trip was out of his way, and took about 30 minutes out of his return trip home. I offered to give him the cost of all his train tickets, but he refused and turned and went back into the station and disappeared. A couple of weeks later I was supposed to meet a member of my host family near a particular exit of Shinjuku station. Shinjuku station is HUGE and extremely busy, and I couldn’t read any of the signs to know where to go. I was standing there feeling (and apparently once again looking) panicked, because a woman came up to me and asked in English if I needed help. I told her where I needed to be and when, but it was early so she took me to a coffee shop near the exit, bought me a cup of coffee and calmed me down and then waited with me until the person I was supposed to meet showed up to make sure I didn’t get lost again! I’ve never forgotten the kindness those strangers showed to a young, panicked college girl in a strange country, and wonder how they would have fared here in the U.S. under similar circumstances.

    • I live in Boston, a place where there are A LOT of tourists at almost every time of year. I used to take the train in and out of the main train station in town, and can’t possibly count the number of times I helped someone who looked lost. Sometimes they just needed confirmation that they were waiting in the right place, sometimes they needed clear directions to some other place, and once in a while a panicked person needs a bit more TLC. I’ve helped folks at the ticket kiosk, explained the (American) money they needed, and once I walked with a young man from the train station to the bus station where I helped him find and board his bus.

      It’s true that there are many people who are too rushed to help (and sometimes that rushed person is me), and some who would take advantage of the situation. But I agree with Bruce Schneier — most people will help if they can.

      What lovely stories about your travels in Japan. I hope to go there someday.

  5. Karrie says:

    As a flip side to this story, I remember helping return a woman to her purse. I went to Miami Hurricanes football game at the Dolphins stadium. There was a huge down pour that flooded much of the parking lot so on our way back to the car in knee deep water (no joke) there were things floating around us. I happend to bump into a floating basket and saw a cute Hurricanes themed bag in it. I picked the bag up thinking it was cute and I could dry it out and use it as a purse. I continued the walk to our car and didn’t continue investigating it until we were seated and on our way back to the hotel. Upon opening it I found that it was not an empty bag but actually had a wallet, cell phone and keys! The wallet also had 250 dollars and ID cards and bankcards. I knew that I had to find a way to get this purse back to its owner as it had to be missed. As luck would have it, the sim card in her phone fit into my model and I was able to get ahold of the lady’s daughter. I made arrangements to have the purse mailed back to her as I wasn’t able to meet up with her before going back home. I did end up recieving like $10 buy default because I had to break one of her 20 to afford to send it back. (Poor college student at the time) But I still remember how nice it was to hear the releif in the womens voice when I spoke to her on the phone. It still makes me smile to know that I at least made what could have been a nightmare merely an inconvienience for her.

  6. Karrie says:

    I promise I graduated college and my writing skills are much better then what my earlier comment shows. But this is what happens when you stay up past bed time 🙂

    • Karrie, you crack me up! Your comment is totally coherent, no worries. (But — go to bed young lady!) 🙂 What a lovely story about returning that purse. I can just imagine her relief upon hearing from you.

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