Be the light

I’m going to cheat in my journal today and use someone else’s writing to illustrate a principle I truly believe in: with our small acts of kindness we can be a light in the world… and this light will shine way beyond our own small world.

When the world feels cold and dark and lonely, take heart: Anybody can make their corner of it brighter.

Elizabeth Gilbert

This touching short story below to illustrate the quote above was written by Elizabeth Gilbert, best known as author of her memoir Eat Pray Love:

Some years ago, I was stuck on a crosstown bus in New York City during rush hour. Traffic was barely moving. The bus was filled with cold, tired people who were deeply irritated—with one another; with the rainy, sleety weather; with the world itself. Two men barked at each other about a shove that might or might not have been intentional. A pregnant woman got on, and nobody offered her a seat. Rage was in the air; no mercy would be found here.

But as the bus approached Seventh Avenue, the driver got on the intercom. “Folks,” he said, “I know you’ve had a rough day and you’re frustrated. I can’t do anything about the weather or traffic, but here’s what I can do. As each one of you gets off the bus, I will reach out my hand to you. As you walk by, drop your troubles into the palm of my hand, okay? Don’t take your problems home to your families tonight—just leave ’em with me. My route goes right by the Hudson River, and when I drive by there later, I’ll open the window and throw your troubles in the water. Sound good?”

It was as if a spell had lifted. Everyone burst out laughing. Faces gleamed with surprised delight. People who’d been pretending for the past hour not to notice each other’s existence were suddenly grinning at each other like, is this guy serious?

Oh, he was serious.

At the next stop—just as promised—the driver reached out his hand, palm up, and waited. One by one, all the exiting commuters placed their hand just above his and mimed the gesture of dropping something into his palm. Some people laughed as they did this, some teared up—but everyone did it. The driver repeated the same lovely ritual at the next stop, too. And the next. All the way to the river.

We live in a hard world, my friends. Sometimes it’s extra difficult to be a human being. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes you have a bad day that lasts for several years. You struggle and fail. You lose jobs, money, friends, faith, and love. You witness horrible events unfolding in the news, and you become fearful and withdrawn. There are times when everything seems cloaked in darkness. You long for the light but don’t know where to find it.

But what if you are the light? What if you’re the very agent of illumination that a dark situation begs for?

That’s what this bus driver taught me—that anyone can be the light, at any moment. This guy wasn’t some big power player. He wasn’t a spiritual leader. He wasn’t some media-savvy “influencer.” He was a bus driver—one of society’s most invisible workers. But he possessed real power, and he used it beautifully for our benefit.

When life feels especially grim, or when I feel particularly powerless in the face of the world’s troubles, I think of this man and ask myself, What can I do, right now, to be the light? Of course, I can’t personally end all wars, or solve global warming, or transform vexing people into entirely different creatures. I definitely can’t control traffic. But I do have some influence on everyone I brush up against, even if we never speak or learn each other’s name. How we behave matters because within human society everything is contagious—sadness and anger, yes, but also patience and generosity. Which means we all have more influence than we realize.

No matter who you are, or where you are, or how mundane or tough your situation may seem, I believe you can illuminate your world. In fact, I believe this is the only way the world will ever be illuminated—one bright act of grace at a time, all the way to the river.

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The world needs not a few of us to do everything right; it needs many of us to take baby actions to make the world a better, lighter, kinder place.

Kindness is universal. Sometimes being kind allows others to see the goodness in humanity through you. Always be kinder than necessary.

Germany Kent

For myself, I remember a time I could be a stranger angel for someone else. It happened years ago when I found myself standing in line at an immigration counter at the airport in Manila as I was leaving the country on a business trip. The man in front of me appeared to be a tourist, perhaps from Africa, and I heard the officer tell him that he had overstayed his visa by one day and had to pay a penalty that was clearly beyond what the young man could afford. Even from behind him I could see him become distressed, his body tightened up, and with hands in motion and broken English, he pleaded with the officer that he had no more money.

I knew the officer had a bit of leeway, so I stepped up so she could see me, and mimed to her with as kind a face as I could muster, “let him go, please!” She looked at me, a bit stunned at first, and then her face quickly relaxed. Without any other signal to me, she looked down at the man’s passport, stamped it, and said, “be more careful next time.” I don’t think he ever knew what I had done. But the relief in his body was palpable. Neither was anything more said when I approached the immigration window.

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.

Edith Wharton

What baby “be the light’ action did you take today? Or can you think of (and share) a time when your kindness or small act of compassion caused a ripple of goodness?

6 comments

  • A lot depends on how your parents educated you.
    My parents were good people who showed me how to live. Giving and helping people in need is a natural thing to do in my family. I am happy to see that my son go out of his way to help people. It is just part of our life and our duty as human beings.
    It helps that I believe in karma. A good deed will lead to a future beneficial effect, while a bad deed will lead to a future harmful effect. Besides it gives me a warm feeling that because of me someone’s burden is a little bit lighter.

    • I agree upbringing can make a big difference, Sidney, and it’s clear that giving and service were part of your family culture. It was not at all in mine. Neither (or rather none) of my parents included any kind of service or charity in their lives. Not that they were unkind in their interactions with others; they just were too self-absorbed with their own problems to consider others. Can’t say the rest of my siblings are into charitable service much either, but in other ways kind, yes. 🌸🙏🌸

  • What a beautiful story about that bus driver. You are so right – I can imagine he may have actually saved a few lives that night. Someone may have been at their wits’ end, hopeless, helpless – and he somehow gave them a way out of that helplessness and gave them hope to live another day. Thank you for sharing this.

    Like you, I believe in sharing Light, in being Light, whenever I possibly can. I wish that everyday for so many others, too…
    And if all of us carried our tiny little lights through every single dark night, I know together we can help make the world a little brighter for us all. Hugs.

  • Thank you for a lovely reminder to step outside ourselves and lighten and enrich others’ lives but also ourselves in the process.

By Francisca

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