The first job I ever held was in a cinnamon roll shop at Governor’s Square Mall in Clarksville. Whenever I was on break from icing the rolls and serving customers, my favorite thing to do was to wander and people watch (it had the added benefit of being free). Dramas unfolded and played out everyday between the various shops and attractions, but none of them compared to what I witnessed one dreary December evening.
It was during the Christmas rush, so the mall was extremely crowded. I could have easily lifted my feet and yet still continue moving forward due to the mass of people. That night, I turned right when leaving the food court. I walked down toward one of the back entrances and slowed my pace to admire the display of the florist. I looked a little farther down and realized my path would take me past something I had never seen before.
I saw breakups and reunions. I saw couples arguing and couples walking hand in hand (totally unaware of their surroundings in both cases). I saw fights. I saw laughter. I once even saw a marriage proposal (and somehow managed not to tell the man proposing it was pretty lame)! I saw the full range of emotion — the highs, the lows, the good and the bad. But I had never seen a sight such as I was witnessing.
There was a woman sitting on a backless bench in the middle of the mall crying. I had often seen tears in the mall (some of joy and some of sadness), but I had never, not even once, seen someone as distressed as this. She was obviously in the throes of some great sorrow because she was not merely crying, she was weeping. Her tears were not those of a passing sadness, but the kind that slash like razors as they flow down a cheek. The other patrons were giving her a wide berth, fearful of being drawn into the power of those tears. I cannot imagine what happened to cause her to display that raw an emotion in public. The world could not have mattered to her at that point, she was alone on her bench.
I was caught on the edge of the crowd as I tried to decide what I should do. I was only 16 and ill prepared for such decisions. I had been standing still due to my indecision which caused the crowd to push me into one end of the clearing. Part of me wanted to console her, and most of me wanted to blend in to the crowd and pass by while pretending I didn’t see her. It was probably pointless to try to offer even small comfort anyway, I rationalized, after all what could any stranger do? I soon learned the answer to that question.
I noticed a commotion that began at the door to the florist. A man was was walking against and through the tide of shoppers. Small eddies of people formed and dissolved in his wake. He eventually broke through and walked with purpose directly to the woman on the bench carrying a large bouquet. He had the same worn and tired look of the holidays and a suit that had clearly been on all day. His tie was loosened, but he looked ready to be home.
She was still lost in whatever sadness gripped her and did not notice as he slowly knelt in front of her. He carefully laid the flowers on her lap and said, “Here, these are for you.”
She seemed confused by the flowers that appeared in her lap. A few tears fell on them as she looked up at him strangely and even a little warily. She leaned back slightly and cocked her head. Her expression suddenly made me realize she had never seen him before. She looked back and forth between his face and the flowers, questions racing through her eyes. She slowly regained some control over the sobs that had racked her body.
“What?” she managed to choke out.
“These are for you,” was his only reply.
She looked again at the bouquet. It was nothing fancy, just a few fresh flowers tied in a bunch with baby’s breath and wrapped in green paper. But she looked at those blossoms as if they were the rarest orchids grown in the finest greenhouses under the most stringent conditions. Her hand trembled as she brushed her fingers across them.
He smiled as was about to stand back up when she caught his arm.
“But . . . why? I don’t understand.”
He held her hand and placed his other on top. Then in the gentlest voice he said, “It’s simple. You looked like you needed flowers, so . . . I got you flowers.”
He lightly patted her hand, stood up, walked away, and disappeared into the crowd. She looked after him for a moment, then down to the flowers in her hands. She brought them up to her face and inhaled deeply. She held them close, embraced them. She closed her eyes and smiled. Radiantly.
I numbly walked back in to the crowd. I knew I had witnessed something special, but it would be years before the deeper meaning dawned on me. Looking back, I can understand that the woman was in a very dark place. Her entire world was full of sorrow. It had to be, or she wouldn’t have allowed herself to display such emotion in the middle of a mall. The true beauty of that moment is that a stranger changed her world. From her perspective, the world went from one of darkness to one where a stranger offered flowers. A world in which she could smile. For her, he changed the entire world.
That’s the true inspiration. We can change the world, we just have to notice the moments we can wield such power. The moments we can alter someone’s perception through an act of kindness (or by even just noticing them). As we walk through life, we should stop a just for a moment. A moment to pick up that piece of trash. A moment to offer a smile or kind word. A moment to notice someone who needs flowers and give them flowers. A moment to change the world.