Two days ago I took a midday break from my home office to carry out a few errands the old-fashioned way: on foot. We live a kilometre away from a convenient stretch of shops and eateries, and I enjoy the walk. Somewhere between shopping for soap and picking up pencils I came to a major intersection, about to cross to the east, when I noticed a wad of discarded newspapers in the street, pages fluttering in the wind.
The traffic light was on my side, so I stepped into the street, scooped down and picked up the papers. A thin, scruffy-looking middle-aged man who was waiting to cross southward caught my eye: “Thank you,” he said. It was a nice gesture. I nodded to him before dumping the papers in a recycling receptacle a few metres away.
Of course by the time I returned to the corner, my opportunity to cross the street had passed. Scruffy approached me. “You know,” he said, “that for every good thing you do there’s a price to pay. You missed your light.”
“I don’t mind,” I assured him.
Then he did something that surprised me: He put his hand on my arm and said, beaming, “Well, thank you for doing that.”
Thus it was that when I turned back to wait for my light I was smiling. My mood was suddenly soaring. In my new Reader’s Digest article about why we’re nice, one of the psychologists I interviewed pointed out: “Thanking people is a good deed… just by saying thank you, you’re giving back.” It’s true, I was thinking now. I may be the person who picked up the papers, but it felt like I’d just been given something better.
A few seconds later I looked around. The intersection was empty of other pedestrians.
Just like that, the man had vanished.
It was a bit of a freaky moment for someone who doesn’t exactly believe in angels. I contemplated this interesting turn of events for another couple of seconds – until Scruffy came back out of the video store across the street.
So chances are, he was probably just a regular mortal after all. But the fact remains, he managed to make my day with two little words.