Not Taking it for Granted

by Elizabeth deGraw Renna

Yesterday on my way to the grocery store I saw something that got me thinking about how easy it can be to take things for granted.

I was driving on a busy road near my house, with three lanes of traffic going each way. The traffic was moderate on a Saturday morning. As I approached an intersection where my signal was red, I saw an older woman crossing the street. She had a cane and walked with painstaking care, very slowly and laboriously. She wore thick, supportive shoes and it seemed that one leg didn’t work quite as well as the other. To add to the challenges I perceived she had, she was pushing an empty two-wheeled metal basket, the tall upright kind used by people who walk a lot, to carry things such as groceries. I noticed right away that this woman was only halfway across the street, just beginning to pass in front of the cars in the three lanes on my side of the road. I muttered out loud, “I hope everyone sees her.” I knew this was a short light, too short for crossing six lanes of traffic at a slow pace. I knew the light was going to change well before she was safely across. I checked my rearview mirror a little anxiously, looking to see if there was any traffic rushing up, with drivers expecting immediate movement when the light turned green. I knew we would not be moving.

In the next moment something wonderful happened. A young twenty-something woman got out of the back seat of her vehicle, which was stopped at the head of the line in the far lane. She walked up to the crosswalk, reached an arm out to the older woman without actually touching her, and leaned towards her, saying something. Offering assistance. Apparently her offer was declined, because the young woman returned to her car almost right away while the older woman continued on her vulnerable path to get across the street.

One of the ironies of this situation is that this particular intersection has a pedestrian bridge, used on weekdays by elementary school-age children for safe passage across that busy roadway. But in watching this woman’s effort just to move her body forward, I imagined the impossibilities of being able to scale the relatively steep ramps on either side of the actual bridge, especially while pushing her cart on the bridge’s metal grated surface. She really had no choice but to cross this busy street at the more risky street level.

The older woman arrived at the other side and the cars ahead of me began to accelerate, the light having been green for many seconds already. We all moved on from that moment.

But the experience of witnessing this quietly dramatic moment stayed with me as I drove on, for the duration of the errands I had to run that day. At each stop, while walking into a store or back to my car, I realized that I was more aware than usual of my own ability to walk, and I felt grateful. Several times I thought, “You can’t take this for granted. You won’t always be able to walk so agilely, so quickly. You may not always have an obvious spring in your step, even if that’s how you feel inside. Appreciate this, now.”

The other insight that emerged from that moment at a red light has to do with first impressions, assumptions, and even stereotypes, a sort of cousin to taking things for granted. If I had seen that twenty-something young woman in a different context and been asked, “Can you imagine this person engaging in a spontaneous random act of kindness?” I might have hesitated and said, “Well, probably not. She seems more likely to have her head down with her phone, texting or swiping or whatever it is that younger people do these days with the technology that seems so all-engrossing to them.” This young woman’s actions urge me to avoid making assumptions, perhaps to try expecting the best of people as an automatic reflex instead of the opposite. I think this will take some practice!

A co-worker of mine has a phrase that she uses frequently that may help me: “I’m prepared to be amazed.”