Sunday, January 4, 2009

Little Things, Big Things, that Matter

Whoever said that the little things matter most was 100% dead-on. If you get a brand new Lexus IS convertible for Christmas, but all you really asked for was a 10-speed bike (because perhaps you live in New York City, or Boston, or another city where parking excruciatingly expensive—if it exists at all—traffic is horrendous, and travelling by non-motorized means is simply more efficient), you’re likely to be impressed and perhaps grateful, but not elated. It means the buyers wasn’t paying attention to your hints, or doesn’t bother to notice what sort of lifestyle you lead. If your rich aunt Gertrude buys you dinner when you are home for the holidays, you will be sure to thank her profusely, but your thanks will probably be truly more heartfelt when you’re in line at Starbucks and, when you cannot for the life of you seem to locate your wallet, the guy standing behind you offers to pay for your drink.

I have found myself recently appreciating the smallest of gestures. A friend saying that he missed how I smelled meant eons more to me (as weird as that sounds) than his overtures about how long it has been since we have seen each other. When I went out to a bar with several other high school friends at Christmastime, it did not escape my notice that two of them offered to pay for my drink, in spite of the fact that I was the only one of us currently working a salaried job. And just the other night, on the subway, a young Hispanic man with long shiny hair and shredded jeans got up from his seat to offer it to me on our way back to Queens. He was a complete stranger, and I was clearly not an invalid, or a senior citizen, or pregnant. That kind act literally made my night.

What has surprised me most is that in the same way small kindnesses can become magnified to take on large significances, great offenses can actually become minimized in the same way. It truly is a matter of perception and, perhaps more importantly, of what one values.

Recently, I had my iPod stolen. It was not stolen in the traditional reach-into-your-pocket-and-snatch way; in a sense, I gave it away unknowingly. Basically, I attempted to sell my unused iPod touch, which I had purchased for $50 with my new Mac this past fall, via craigslist. A buyer asked me to ship the iPod to a colleague for him and proposed using PayPal to transact the money. Knowing that PayPal is used as a “safe money transfer” for eBay and other merchant sites, I agreed. I received an email from PayPal saying that they money had been transferred into my account and that I only needed to reply with the package tracking number in order for the transaction to be completed. So, I packaged up the iPod, shipped it out, and waited for finalization from PayPal. No response ever came.

As it turns out, it wasn’t PayPal who had contacted me at all. The whole thing was a scam, and I would never be receiving any money from the fraudulent craigslist buyer. The iPod had already been picked up by the person I had mailed it to in Idaho, and it was probably on its way to Nigeria or some such place. Effectively, I had just lost $240.

Now, $240 is no drop in the bucket. I was counting on it to be a substantial deposit toward the bed that I desperately need to buy, as well as to take care of several outstanding bills that I need to pay (many of which concern credit card-purchased Christmas gifts). Therefore, when I initially determined that “all was lost” in the case of this sale, I was understandably upset. Surprisingly, though, the intensity of my outrage and dismay was not what I expected it to be. I knew it was upsetting to lose money, and it was even more upsetting to have been swindled by dishonest people. However, I was simply not that worked up over the matter for very long. After a day or two, I accepted that both the money an the iPod were lost, that I would have to pay my bills with other funds, and that there are evil people in the world. For once, I actually ascribed to the “there is nothing I can do, what’s done is done, so why worry about it” mantra successfully and moved on.

This is how great offenses can be minimized: when you get on the subway the next day, and a man offers you his seat. You smile and thank him, and marvel for the rest of the ride at how, in spite of evil and dishonestly in the world, a stranger can offer the simplest kindness, and it can mean so much.

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