Last month, under the weather with a winter bug, I was feeling bad — and feeling bad about feeling bad. There was too much to do, at both home and office, to take the time to be sick.
Arriving at the doctor’s office, my arms looked as overloaded as I felt. Into the waiting room, I had carried a book, a smartphone, some work documents to sort through while I passed the time and various bottles of pills to show the doctor how I had treated myself.
The woman at the check-in counter, sensing my discomfort, passed an empty holiday gift bag across her desk.
“Use this,” she told me. “It will make it easier to carry your things.” Earlier in the day, a frequent patient had brought the bag to the check-in lady with a small gift inside, and the attendant, in turn, was making a small gift of the bag itself.
I smiled, stuffing my armload into a bright blue sack adorned with silver snowflakes. The bag, perched on my lap as I sat down, quickly shifted my mood, pointing me out of my tiny world of cares and toward the brighter sky of the holidays.
All of this had happened because a stranger took a second to extend a small gesture of kindness. And that got me thinking about Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing,” a short story I’ve written quite a few New Year’s columns about in previous seasons.
In the story, a mother and father lose their son in a tragic accident. The parents end up at a local bakery, where the baker, moved by their grief, offers them some fresh cinnamon rolls.
“Eating is a small, good thing at a time like this,” he tells them. So the mother and father sit down and eat. “Such a small gesture doesn’t resolve their grief, of course,” I told our readers. “But the modest act of generosity reminds the parents, in a very dark hour, of the essential durability of human goodness. In breaking bread with a stranger, they take their very first steps in a long journey of healing.”
As I’ve also pointed out before, Carver wasn’t a pie-in-the-sky Pollyanna. His stories often looked unblinkingly at life’s harsher realities. But in “A Small, Good Thing,” Carver acknowledged that even small acts of good can have wide ripples.
I often revisit “A Small, Good Thing” at New Year’s because this is the day when we make big plans for change. But Carver’s story reminds me that change can start in small ways, too.
His story really resonates for me this season because 2016 was such a divisive year. There was so much ugliness that many of us felt at a loss to know where to mend what’s broken.
I wish I had a grander answer for what ails us. But in the meantime, I will make a New Year’s resolution to do small, good things for others, as others have done small good things for me.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.