After dutifully taking my son to the two Christmas movies that hit the theaters before most of us had even bought our Thanksgiving turkeys, I don't care if I never see another Santa Claus, much less an overgrown elf disguised as Dudley Moore. But, while resenting the overdose of sentimentality in "Santa Claus: The Movie" (starring Moore as Santa's upwardly mobile helper) and Disney's "One Magic Christmas," I was involuntarily moved by one scene in the Disney film that seemed to catch the essence of "the Christmas spirit."
Ginnie, the woman who doesn't like Christmas but is predestined to believe in Santa Claus by the end of the movie, is waiting for service in a gas station when she overhears a man trying to sell his car to the attendant for $100. It's the day before Christmas, and the man is desperate to get some money in time to buy presents for his son.
The attendant refuses the man, not realizing how desperate he is. And next we see the man robbing a bank. Ginnie's life is tragically altered by the chain of events the robbery sets in motion. But, through movie magic, she is given a chance to relive that day. And the second time around, instead of turning away from the situation at the gas station, she walks up to the man after the attendant refuses him and offers him $50 in return for a well-worn camping stove. The bank robbery never takes place, and Ginnie discovers what really matters in life--just in time for Christmas.
Granted, we rarely get second chances in real life. But often we don't even recognize the first chance when it comes along. Especially when we're immersed in our daily routines. Rarely do we really see the strangers whose paths we cross at the market, the bank or the gas station. Yet sometimes, a small gesture of humanity toward a stranger can make a big difference.
One recent morning while I was having breakfast in a coffee shop with my 8-year-old, an elderly woman stopped at our table as she was leaving. She must have been observing us as we talked and played word games on our napkins while waiting for our order. "What a pleasure it is to watch you with your son," she said. "I hope you always have such a good relationship."
Like most working mothers, I walk around with a terminal case of guilt over the time I spend away from my child in order to make a living, so praise like that is worth a lot to me. Especially when it comes from an objective source. I went to work feeling good about myself. And I'm sure that woman had no idea what a lift her small, impulsive act had given me.
On another of my frequent visits to coffee shops--where I go when I want to be alone without feeling cut off from the world--I saw a young man with his arm in a cast struggling with his meal. It didn't occur to me that I could help. But then a middle-aged woman went over and said, "May I cut your meat for you?" He smiled, and she completed the task in a matter-of-fact, motherly fashion that spared him any embarrassment. At the risk of being rebuffed, she had crossed the chasm that can exist between strangers no more than two feet apart. And the young man was grateful.
Such moments are rare in a world full of stress. When we leave our homes or jobs to do our daily errands, the bank teller or gas station attendant often becomes a convenient target for whatever angers and frustrations we're carrying with us.
Not long ago, I randomly and spontaneously selected a store clerk to be my punching bag. She was just doing her job when she refused to let me walk around the store with some unpaid-for photographs I'd picked up at the film counter in front of the checkout stands. I wanted to avoid writing two checks, and I couldn't accept the logic of her system. But mostly I was just tired and irritable, and she had crossed me at the wrong time. As my embarrassed son retreated to the toy section, I argued with her, then demanded to see the manager. He gave me the same explanation about store rules, and I went off to do my shopping, feeling resentful and ashamed--and very conscious of the looks that followed me.
I should have known better. I've had plenty of days when everything was going wrong and a small, insensitive act by a stranger was all it took to break down whatever defenses were keeping me going. We have no idea what's behind the cheerful fronts people in all sorts of jobs are paid to present to the public every day. Sparing them our misplaced anger can be a greater gift than we imagine.
It's not always easy to judge when we can help a stranger more by keeping our distance or by making a friendly gesture, but I've come to believe that if we're going to err, it's better to err on the side of generosity and compassion. Rejection is a small risk for the good feeling those qualities can generate. And all of us want to go to bed knowing we haven't been accessories to a bank robbery. A little kindness went a long way in "One Magic Christmas." It's worth a try in real life, too. Especially at this time of year, when the holiday spirit reminds us that giving means most where it's least expected.