From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

Chance Encounter

This country sees pain and grief,

But love has tied us together.

Hate tries to destroy,

But love conquers.

Hate tries to separate us,

But love is stronger.

Hate tries to kill,

But love lives.

Annie Perryman, a twelve-year-old in rural Oregon

As the Jewish holidays approached in the middle of September, I went to the local mall to find some outfits for my daughter. I didn’t feel much like shopping. Like everyone else, it seemed, I couldn’t shake a persistent and pervasive sadness. But I wanted my daughter to have something new for the Jewish New Year. I was looking at little girls’ dresses when a young woman stopped me and said, “I notice you are buying girls’ clothes. I have to buy something for a little girl, and I don’t know anything about sizes. I only have boys. Would you help me?” Drawing on my vast experience as the mother of four daughters, I helped her choose a beautiful dress for a ten-year-old. I couldn’t help but notice that the dress was really fancy—velvet and lace—by a company known to be expensive. I remarked casually, “It must be a very special occasion. She’s a lucky little girl.” But then the woman said, “Well, it’s a special occasion. But I don’t know how lucky she is. The family is having a big party. Her dad is being deployed to Afghanistan.”

It was then that I really looked at this woman. She wore a simple scarf about her head and neck, but what really struck me were her eyes. They were a beautiful brown color, large and sad.

“It’s a beautiful gift,” I said. I was trying to convey to her how much I sympathized with her concern for those immediately affected by the terrorism, how much I also felt a part of the whole ordeal, how sad I was for all that loss. She clasped my hand for a moment and a silent bond passed between us, the kind of thing only women and mothers understand.

She continued about her business, and I went to the cash register to pay for my items. A woman ahead of me eyed me strangely. I was startled by her stare so I asked her if we knew each other. She said, “No. I heard what you said to that woman over there. How could you even talk to her? Didn’t you realize she’s one of them?” My shock must have registered on my face because she enlightened me, “That woman is a Muslim. They’re all terrorists, you know.”

There were three or four people around the cash register at that point, and all of them fell silent. I felt my anger rising. I managed to say tersely, “No, I don’t know. I only know that she asked for my help with dress sizes. She was buying a present for a little girl whose father is being deployed.” I would have said more, but the woman turned her back on me and walked away.

I was left with the three other women at the cash register. One of them said to me, “Don’t feel bad. She’s just ignorant.”

But, unfortunately, not unique, I thought. I didn’t feel bad; I felt angry.

I looked back toward the little girls’ department. I saw the Muslim lady holding a dress and looking at me. She dropped her eyes, put the dress back and turned to walk away. I thought she must have heard our exchange. I had an idea.

I asked her out for coffee. I don’t know what made me think that a total stranger would go out for coffee, but she said yes. Then, much to my surprise, two of the women at the cash register asked if they could come, too. There we were, four strangers about to become friends!

We only spent an hour together, but it was enough time to reassure this young woman that there are more people with good hearts than hardened ones; at least there were that morning in Nordstrom’s department store. We discussed how horrific the attacks had been, how everyone we knew was shocked and saddened, and how we knew that many more people would die as our nation went to war.

As we were leaving, our Muslim friend said, “You are all very kind. You didn’t have to do this. It’s not the first time someone has reacted to me that way, and it won’t be the last. And there probably isn’t much anyone can do to change the mind of people like that.”

I thought for a moment about how I could explain to this woman why I did what I did. It wasn’t really for her. I really did it to make myself feel better. I did it—we all did it—because it felt like the right thing to do. It appealed to our sense of justice, our sense of decency.

We might never be able to influence people like the woman whose remark had unnerved me. But at least I had made myself feel better. If nothing else, I had made three new friends.

That made four of us—four against one—focusing on what unites us, makes us human, instead of what divides us and makes us something less.

I hadn’t been quick enough to think of a retort to that one woman’s barb. And even if I had, probably nothing I said would have made a difference. But it wouldn’t have been enough anyway to simply react. We must also act, and act positively, humanly, showing our best selves.

Going shopping, helping someone find the right size, going for coffee—they were acts that could show at least one nice lady wrapped in a head scarf that those who kill might destroy human beings, but they couldn’t touch the human spirit.

It wasn’t much, just a cup of coffee. But it was a start.

Marsha Arons

Reprinted with permission of Jimmy Margulies.

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