By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index
Perhaps like accidents or great disasters, acts of unpredictable generosity, even sacrifice, emerge when we don’t expect them.
You could call these miracles.
The term “black swan” has emerged to capture the essence of an event that emerges, seemingly out of the blue, unexpected by anyone.
These are, by definition, rare and unpredictable.
Pandemics, by the way, are not “black swans”.
Few things are more predictable than diseases that spread, infect and threaten humanity with dreadful, almost routine, efficiency.
Miracles are like those unpredictable and unforeseeable “black swan” events – but in a positive way.
I saw one of these unexpected expressions of the best of humanity the other day.
As with most miracles perhaps, this one made itself known in mundane, even dreary circumstances.
I was at one of our local Asian grocery stores.
I was getting a couple of boxes of Asian treats for kids of my family over the holidays.
I was in line at the checkout counter.
It was a long line and, thanks to social distancing, I was several feet away from the counter.
And, for whatever reason, the line was not moving.
I had a meeting, but I was early so time was not the concern it usually was.
But the line was not moving.
The cashier was actively scanning items and purchases were being bagged up.
But something beyond my sight was holding things up.
Finally a tall white man with a long beard a few people ahead of me had purchased a couple bags full of groceries.
As it came time for him to pay, he had some kind of problem.
The bill was over fifty dollars.
Looks of concern, consternation and embarrassment bounced between this man, the Asian cashier, and the older Asian male customer behind him.
The hushed conversation became heated when the older Asian male customer who was next in line pulled out a large wad of cash and paid the stranger’s bill.
The tall white man with the long beard looked abashed, embarrassed and relieved.
His bill paid, he left the store immediately.
It was one of those scenes of life that had unfolded quickly and I was not certain of what I had just seen.
As I finally approached the check stand, a worker rushed up with a hand-written sign that he hurriedly taped up on the entry way; the internet was down so no credit or debit cards could be used.
I had to reduce the size of my purchase since I did not have much cash.
But that, apparently, was the problem a few minutes earlier.
The tall white man with the long beard seemed to be a regular customer, and certainly seemed capable, even eager to pay his bill.
But a technical glitch interfered.
And then, as if to match the embarrassment and potential shame of the moment, an act of simple human generosity stepped up to resolve what could have easily become a difficult, awkward if not dangerous situation.
We see news stories where confrontations not far from this situation escalate into arguments, fights, even brawls or shootings.
These two men clearly did not know each other and were forced together by the most random of chance and circumstance.
You might not call it a miracle, but when was the last time you saw someone make a sacrifice of that level for a total stranger to save them from public embarrassment.
I happened to see the face of the older Asian male customer who paid the bill.
He had acted on impulse and, from his expression, was not happy about it.
But that too, is central to miracles; we rarely want to do them – in fact, if we were honest, we would rather not.
That might explain why we so rarely see miracles; we don’t want to sacrifice, we don’t want to care and we don’t even like to acknowledge that we could, with some tiny (or large) act or word make someone’s life, even the life of a stranger, a little better and easier.
This is the season when groups, churches and individuals tend to be inspired to volunteer, to assist or contribute to causes.
I have news for you – those needs and good causes are out there the rest of the year as well.
And miracles don’t need to cost that much.
Many years ago, about this time of year, one charity had the slogan “Give until it hurts”.
Another charity had a follow-up slogan “Give until it feels good”.
We are in a time of stress, conflict and division like few, if any, of us have experienced before.
We need, more than ever, the unexpected, undeserved kindness and generosity of strangers.
And perhaps more than that, we need to see that we, each one of us, is capable of a simple (and sometimes costly) act that could easily transform a stranger’s mood – or day – or even the trajectory of their life.
The Asian man with the handful of cash could have done something different.
From the look on his face, he wanted to do something different.
But he acted on something like instinct, or, some might say, divine intervention.
The Christian scriptures, after all, tell us that when (not if) we give to the needy, to not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3).
It’s the season for all kinds of giving – from family to charitable causes, but you never know when that unexpected opportunity to make a difference in some stranger’s life just might jump in front of you.
And in one more scripture that doesn’t get much circulation, we are told to show hospitality to strangers because that stranger just might be an angel in disguise (Hebrews 13:2).
You never know where that act of unheralded and maybe even unwarranted act of generosity or kindness might lead.
It just might lead to a new holiday tradition.
Or at least a story in a local paper.