The Virtue of small graces
I am convinced that we are what we do and not necessarily what we like to think we are. Our actions serve as the most reliable mirror of our souls. They reveal our character and what we value, the sort of persons we truly are. Kurt Vonnegut famously observed that, “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Despite its seeming cynicism, Vonnegut’s observation likewise suggest that the day-to-day actions in which we engage are the best barometers of our true selves. It seems to me that the rare heroic actions we find described in the biographies of great men and women reveal much as much about the times in which they lived as about their unique identities.
My childhood memories are filled with images of ordinary people who practiced the art of small graces in the extra ordinary way. These, for them routine, acts of kindness were not intended to be witnessed or honored. I well remember the young American soldiers who distributed candy to German orphans and refugee children after the close of World War II. I often think about the Dutch family that took me into their home the summer before I entered first grade to fatten me up for the next stage in my life. I recall the people of the Salvation Army who welcomed groups of refugees to Ellis Island with hot chocolate, cookies, and personal items.
I remember the African American porter on the train from New York City to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania who gave a free candy bar to a young boy who knew no English and had never before met a black man. I have fond memories of Mrs. Bailey, my fifth grade teacher at Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Long Beach, California, who quietly gave me money for haircuts and school lunches. An important place in my memories is held by Ethel and Walter Smith, he a house painter and she a grocery clerk, who made sure that their son’s elementary school buddy was always welcome in their modest home and included in most of their family gatherings. The litany of small graces that impacted my life at critical points is seemingly endless. From these good people, I learned important life lessons.
It may be a frequent, perhaps almost universal, dream for each of us to leave and indelible mark on the world, to engage in heroic actions that are widely lauded and remembered. But that is not the only destiny most of us have. Our small measure of immortality in this world lies, rather, in how we respond to the countless opportunities we have in our daily lives to distribute our own small graces. They may take many forms, from a kind word, to a generous tip, to an unexpected gift to a stranger, to simply being there in a time of need. Typically, these sorts of actions are not a great sacrifice for many of us, but through them we spread cheer, good will, and hope among others.
I, too, am prepared to sing the praises of the great heroes of the past who seem to have shaped the course of history. But the people I most want to imitate are those who have mastered the art of small graces. These are my everyday heroes.
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