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There are many days in our lives when we have the kind of experiences that make us feel as if live in a jungle of predators and poisonous insects and reptiles. Generally these types of days involve unpleasant interaction with our fellow man. A boss who uses power to bludgeon you, an unhelpful paper pushing bureaucrat who makes you feel insignificant, a teacher who makes you feel like a criminal, a waiter or waitress who seems determined to turn your dining experience into a root canal, a nasty neighbor, an impatient, aggressive driver, a pushy stranger in a crowd, anyone who behaves badly in public, and that person on the other end of the phone who treats you like an annoying idiot; all of these experiences and others like them can often have the effect of making you feel like a stranger in a strange land and none of them do much to cause us to feel joy in the love of our fellow human beings. Mostly, they make us want to go live on an island or the last house on a dead end road. But, amazingly, every so often, you can have a day that makes you feel glad to be in the world. I had a day yesterday that reminded me that every so often, people can be randomly nice to each other.
My son had business at the DMV, a place notorious for all kinds of horrible human interaction. Since I was my son's age, and probably since its inception, the DMV has been spoken of as the source of all that is evil. The lines are endless and the people in them dour and nasty, the wait is interminable, the clerks are heartless trolls, the place is full of unruly children and screaming babies, and the entire experience is like doing business in the fires of the underworld. I can't even count all the jokes, comedy skits, and scenes in movies that have focused on the torment of the DMV. When you tell someone that you have to go to the DMV for anything they usually give you a look of great pity, as if you had told them that you are going to have all your teeth pulled or a giant needle stuck in your eye. The DMV is without mercy.
We entered the waiting area of the DMV with the usual dismal expectations. How could we not? At this point in the history of human experience, we are probably pretty much hard-wired to expect torture. It was late afternoon and the place was packed with people looking as if they were suffering from some kind of vile stomach pains. My son went to the machine at the doorway that gives you a number. He looked at his number and then at “now serving” numbers on the digital readouts and heaved a sigh. You hear lots of sighs in the DMV. As we went to search out two seats I noticed a knit hat lying on the floor. It was a small hat with a decal of a Iron Man on it, obviously belonging to a child. I raised the hat above my head and asked, in my best carrying theater voice, if someone had lost a hat. Everyone looked at me with hollow, desperate eyes. You see a lot of that in the DMV, too. A lady jumped out of her seat and headed in my direction.
“Thank you so much,” she said with obvious relief. “That's my grandson's favorite hat and the only one he will wear.” I guess making the right superhero fashion statement is important when you are 8.
I smiled the kind of smile only mothers and grandmothers understand. It has to do with the shared bond of dealing with children and their idiosyncrasies over many years. She then pulled something out of her pocket. It was the little, shiny piece of paper that the machine gives you with your number on it. She told me that someone who had to leave before their time had given it to her and she wondered if I would like to have it. I noticed that it was a number far smaller than the one my son was currently clutching in his hand. I thanked her and took it with gratitude. When I sat down next to my son I showed it to him with delight. At first he seemed skeptical, as if it were some kind of cruel joke. We examined it closely and determined that it was genuine. In relatively short order the number was called and he went to do his business, handing me the number he had received. While he was up with the clerk a young man came and sat down next to me. He tapped his foot, looked at his number, and then at the glass doors at the entrance. I turned and saw a young woman with a stroller. He held up his number so she could see it and she looked stricken.
I asked the young man what number he had. It was 20 digits greater than the one I had in my hand. I explained to him what had happened to me and offered my number to him. He looked skeptical, of course, but also hopeful. I smiled at him and assured him that it was genuine and would get him through much faster. He glanced at the door and took the number with many expressions of gratitude and relief and then jumped up and headed for the door to tell the young lady outside that they were saved. When he came back, still thanking me, I reminded him that he should pass on his number to someone who had a higher one. He smiled beautifully and turned to the lady sitting next to him.
I felt great. There isn't anything more uplifting than receiving kindness and being able to play that kindness forward, especially at the DMV.
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