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.