A man stopped me on the sidewalk to talk to me this afternoon. I was walking to the subway from my counseling appointment. I saw him in the red smock and knew he was trying to stop people, but I didn't have the heart to stare straight ahead and pretend like he wasn't there.
He told me he liked my shoes. I thanked him. He praised my style and asked why I was dressed so nice. Normally I would find this creepy coming from a man, but he seemed genuine (and probably gay). We got to talking and my discomfort continued, but subsided after a while. As an anxious person, I worried that he was harvesting information about me to kidnap me or something else equally sinister, but it became apparent that he was just nice. I mean, he also was trying to get people to support his organization, but he didn't force it on me, just mentioned it in passing and continued asking about me and making connections to his own life. Part of me still wonders if he was making it all up, but I don't think so.
At the end, he shook my hand again and said it was nice to meet a fellow history major and someone stylish. I have to admit that flattery does work on me; people used to compliment my outfits a lot at my old college because I used to be skinny so I could wear almost anything and I loved putting together outfits. I typically think of myself as frumpy now, so it was empowering to hear a compliment I never though I would hear again. I told him that it was nice to meet someone friendly. Because it was. It made me feel human again. I've been feeling so isolated lately, especially after that damn conference where everyone seemed so closed off and I felt so unimportant. Especially after my friend keeps favoring the guy she likes over me.
It was nice to have someone stop and reach through the barriers we put up to keep intimacy at bay. I feel them everywhere, just sometimes I've learned to ignore it so I don't feel uncomfortable with my own lack of effort I put in to reaching out. The whole of the mental health conference I attended last weekend, I felt weighed down by this dichotomy of all the speakers talking about telling your story and the reality of everyone being so closed off, including the people putting on the conference. Maybe I'm just sensitive, but I started to question if we really did matter to them, even though they kept saying they were so glad we were here. The staff didn't talk much to us, even when we were close by, and the younger ones spent most of the time joking around with each other. Maybe they were all tired introverts, but so was I. I made an effort to talk to the people who came by themselves because I knew I would feel scared and alone in their place.
So the experience made me realize: The acts of service that matter most aren't the big things (speaking on stage, starting a non-profit, going on tour, tweeting inspiring quotes to thousands of followers) but the small kindnesses we offer - the conversations on the street, the texts saying "I love you" or "By the way, you're really great", the invitation to a lonely co-worker to get coffee. Those speak to people and say "you matter". That's hard because we don't get the same recognition, but it's rewarding because those relationships we form through these acts enrich out lives as well.
To put it all simply: actions speak louder than words.