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What Kind of Background Character Are You?

Years ago—and I’m talking middle or high school likely—I remember hearing someone say that they never saw someone who was running and looked happy. As a proud distance runner, I made a point from that moment on to smile when I ran.

To be clear, I’m not bounding through the park with a multi-mile grin. But in moments where I start to wane or feel a little tired or winded, I think back to that conversation and I smile. I smile until it breaks through the thought and then I go about my business. And I like to think that whoever passes me in that moment will go home and think, wow, I really have to try running sometime. I saw someone in the park running today and they looked so happy.

Okay so the likelihood of that is low… as is the likelihood that I actually look as strong, powerful, and lovely as my smile hack has tricked my mind into believing.

But then I think about the people I do come home and talk about. I think about the stories I tell about the little girl who gets on the train reading a book that was a childhood favorite of mine. I think about the man who, without missing a beat, helped a lady struggling to get her cart up the subway stairs. I think about the stories I want to share of strangers being good.

And then I wonder when I’ve been someone’s story. I think about the time a number of years ago when I was commuting home and overwhelmed by circumstance. I remember crying on the 1 train, silently letting tears streak my face. There was a person across from me who looked up several times from their phone and their internal debate was almost external as they decided whether or not to say anything. I wonder if they got home and told their roommate about someone they’d seen crying on the train.

I would. I would wonder about that person for a week and I would say a silent prayer for their wellbeing. Thinking about this, I wonder if I’ve been the sad stranger in someone else’s passing story. All of this makes me think about what kind of background character I want to be: one who cries on the train or one who smiles while running.

And I think I can hold space for both. For someone who cries on a stoop in the East Village and for someone who audibly cheers in Riverside Park after completing a hard workout.

But in both situations, the highs and the lows, I hope I can be the stranger who is kind. Who picks up the toy the baby has flung from the stroller. Who helps the stranger with directions. Who leaves people a little better, a little lighter, a little happier. Who gives a little passing love to every background character in the story.


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