Each December, Merriam-Webster announces its word of the year, which it determines by tracking high-volume lookups of particular words in the wake of significant events. The 2016 word was “surreal,” with on-line searches spiking most notably after the terror attacks in Europe, the coup attempt in Turkey, and the U.S. elections in November.
With or without the statistics in hand, anyone who followed the news these past 12 months would likely agree. The crowning of “surreal” feels spot on. It is no surprise that, like prayer in an hour of need, the right word or words can give concrete form to the abstract feelings evoked in times of tragedy, loss, bewilderment, and shock.
In these moments, we seek stability, a safeguard to keep the ground from crumbling beneath us. We need to reassure ourselves that the world will continue to spin on its axis and to reaffirm our faith that humanity remains good at its core. Twice this past year, I had the luck to experience tender, unforgettable moments that did both.
The first took place on a recent morning, when I ducked into a Starbucks to escape the cold while waiting for a friend. Smiling, a little embarrassed, I begged the patience of the woman at the register while I fumbled with my new Starbucks app. The barista approached to take my order, offering to brew while I figured things out. Finally, voila! App success! In my excitement, I blurted out that my husband had downloaded the app in order to upload a Starbucks card, a generous gift from a friend in thanks for a favor I’d done with no expectation of anything in return.
I chided myself for oversharing, as if these women were interested in my life story at 6:15 a.m. But then the barista turned and said, “It’s on me.” My pre-caffeinated mind couldn’t quite grasp what she meant. “Because you did something kind, your coffee is on me.” Seeing my continued confusion, the woman at the register made sure I understood, saying, “It’s on her!”
I had nothing in my tote bag to offer the barista for a spontaneous gift exchange, only the pretty bag itself, which I’d bought the night before at TJ Maxx for just 99 cents. Still, I felt compelled to give it to her with my apologies that it wasn’t something more. She told me she loved it anyway, and for an instant, it seemed that we had restored order to the universe.
I had a parallel experience earlier this year, when I rushed to the local pharmacy as it was about to close to pick up a prescription for a family member who had not been feeling well. Though I’m sure he was eager to head home, the young pharmacist was patient with me — even as I became flustered while trying to locate my insurance card and then I gave the wrong birthdate for the patient.
Reading the worry on my face and the quiver in my voice, he asked what was wrong. When I told him I was concerned about my relative’s illness, he reassured me, “He’ll be fine.”
“How do you know that?” I asked, a little pointedly.
He answered, “Because he has you.” His words stopped time, allowing me to breathe.
The following Friday, I stopped by the pharmacy with a home-baked hallah for the young man, who eyed the loaf curiously. I explained its meaning — that the braiding signifies a soulful harmony, a nod to the peace that is the essence of Shabbat itself. I told him his words had changed me, and we stood there in silence, gratitude filling our eyes.
There is so much out there we cannot control, so much that is indeed surreal. Still, our hands are not tied. We can partner with God from the shadows of our everyday lives to create a gentler environment, one of shalom bayit that guides the way we comport ourselves with family, friends, and strangers alike.
We may be inclined to make light of our small efforts — the coffees and words of gratitude, the hallahs and tender phrases that sneak under the radar, the gestures that are not newsworthy or lifesaving. But they can be life-changing, and the world needs kindnesses in all shapes and sizes. One by one, let them fill up the atmosphere with embers of good for a better year ahead.