I was walking across the large quad at the center of my college campus one day, studying the sidewalk with a solemn glare as I thought through a massive to-do list, when I was caught off guard by a woman who wanted to speak to me. I was so absorbed in my own thoughts that I didn't realize that someone had paused in front of me until I'd nearly run barreled straight through her. I glanced up. It wasn't someone I knew well, only in passing. In literal passing, actually. My absent mind slowly returned to fit together the pieces that the lovely human before me was someone I usually saw only in passing around campus.
As is customary for me, I immediately wondered if there was something I'd done wrong and became nervous, sputtering out a questionable, "Hello!" and waiting for...I suppose whatever it was that I was expecting to be said. She smiled kindly, in no rush, and said something I never could've expected.
"I just wanted to thank you. This last year, you always smiled at me whenever you saw me. Even though you didn't know me. I just wanted to tell you that it meant a lot."
I was floored. I didn't know what to say. I was trying to come up with an adequate way to thank this lovely person who had gone out of her way to make my day when her eyes brightened. "There it is!" she exclaimed. Turning to leave with a renewed air of purpose, she waved at me with a "Have a wonderful day!" trailing behind her. Leaving me in a stunned, happy silence.
As slowly as my brain was wading through its preposterous slump of molasses, I finally realized that the "it" that was now "There!" was my smile. As she had spoken, the glare had slipped from my mouth and been replaced with what I believe was my first smile of that day.
Her thank you confused me. Brightened my entire week, don't get me wrong, but it confused me. I remembered smiling at her in passing all around campus the semester before. She was a lovely soul with a lovely smile, that wasn't what confused me. What got me wondering was why I had stopped.
I hadn't even realized I had stopped before she stopped me and thank me for a habit I used to have. I didn't know why I had stopped, but I knew there was now a clear disconnect between me in my daily walks and the people that I passed. This semester has brought with it a remarkable amount of new activities, new responsibilities, new to-do lists, new preoccupations, new worries, new stress. I didn't realize how much it was all getting to me until I started thinking about how it was affecting the way I felt about life.
I didn't feel energetic or jovial in interacting with other people or the world around me anymore. At my baseline, just walking around campus, I was entirely in my own head. I was tired. I am tired. I was stressed about everything I possibly could be. I was trying to plan fifteen steps ahead and ending up twenty behind. Everything seemed to move around me, racing me to my own goals and beating me every time, and it all felt too fast and too much and too everything.
Her thank you was not just a beautiful sentiment. It was a reminder.
It's the littlest things that can go the longest way. I know that sounds cliche, and I don't care. It's true. The smallest things can make a difference, even if I don't recognize that difference myself. The lovely woman's thank you to me was a reminder not to forget about the people around me. Not to forget that my story is one in many. Not to forget that I am not alone. Not to forget that a little kindness goes a long way. Not to forget that I know how much a smile and a "hello!" means to me.
In the midst of my busiest days, forgetting the small acts of smiling at passersby doesn't save me any time. It detracts positivity from my already waning sense of optimism. It breaks down my already frustrated mental state. It leaves me disconnected from others and from myself.
I'm taking this thank you as a charge to keep my connection to others going. I have been shown too much kindness to give up these habits given to me by the people I love.
Regardless of the ways that life gets me down, I want to keep my head up and smile.