After reaching out to two friends recently, the similarities of their replies was surprising. The first said that my message arrived “during a particularly challenging week” and the note “completely turned my mood around!” The second friend wrote to say that my thoughts had reached her “at a time when they were sorely needed,” helping pull her through some moments of self-doubt and family responsibilities.
When writing to these two friends, I was unaware of their moods or needs. It just felt right to be there with them, if only through a letter, with a few thoughts and kind words.
You never know when someone needs you to be there, to be your best.
This is a recurring lesson during this year of the pandemic. It came up again last Saturday, at a place I’ve mentioned before.
Lene and Abeba Tsegaye are two sisters who left Ethiopia in the 1980s to escape violence and political upheaval. With the help of their brother they established Kefa Café in Silver Spring in 1996. The story of how they endured 200-mile treks across deserts and waist-high grass to escape political violence, entered into a new country as immigrants, and then established a haven where people talk to each other — not just another café where people bury their noses in laptops — is an amazing story in its own right.
But it is their gratitude and willingness to be there for others, even when they are going through their own challenges, that makes their stories and lives so meaningful to so many people. I have taken up the habit of stopping by Kefa for a coffee, bagel, or cookie a few times each week during the pandemic, because I can only imagine the difficulties in keeping a small business alive in these times. Last Saturday, because it was blustery, I had all the outdoor tables to myself as I drank my latte and nibbled on my treat.
Abeba stepped outside and we began to talk. Where the inside of the café is normally filled with light, art, and people, now all the chairs and tables are pulled together and the hand sanitizer is in a prominent place by the door. Like so much else during this year, I miss that welcoming space and I miss the human contact. I was glad Abeba was able to step from behind the counter for a few minutes.
She told me these were challenging times, but she and her sister have seen challenges before. I was able to tell her how much the café meant to us, and how much I appreciated the sign they had placed in their window which read, “Gratitude turns what we have into enough.” She replied that they really meant it. For me, it is a constant reminder to be grateful and thankful during one of the most difficult years most of us have ever had to live through. Most of us, but some have endured much worse.
Lene and Abeba never know when one of their customers, or a street-dependent visitor, or a neighboring business owner needs them to be their best. They never know when I’m going to come by, concerned about the future of our country, and leave feeling better after our conversation and coffee. But somehow they have found their own happiness and can share it with others.
Robert Glazer recently made this same point in a Friday Forward entitled Simple Gestures. And, to keep with the coffee theme, he began his post by referencing this video by Ryan Estis, where he discusses a cup of coffee he purchased in the Minneapolis airport on Christmas Eve.
Years later, Estis is still telling the story of buying that cup of coffee on Christmas Eve from Lilly Olsen. “Their short interaction had a permanent impact on him,” writes Glazer, “and made him realize the power each of us has to make others’ lives better, in the same amount of time it takes to send an angry email or a bitter social media post.”
Estis relays that he was in the airport on Christmas Eve to fly home to be with his father, who had a terminal illness. Estis’s video ends with the words, “You never know when someone needs you to be your best.”
Over and over again we see that we are our best when we think beyond ourselves. When we are there for others. Especially in hard times, we should consider what others are facing. Our effort to recognize someone else’s presence, their work, and their lives is (almost) always appreciated. In those few instances where people don’t appreciate the gesture, then recognize that being there, saying thank you in whatever way you choose, is good for you.
Like gratefulness, being there and being our best is a recognition that we all count on the kindness of others: friends and strangers alike. No one got to where they are by themselves. Recognizing this basic fact of life is key to building circles of friends, networks of support, and real self-esteem. It is also key to a deeper understanding of grace.
My natural tendency is that of an introvert, who needs to withdraw and recharge. But when you are around others, that can be misread as aloofness or having a lack of concern. While recharging is important, I have to remind myself that connecting and being there for others is also part of the well-lived life. In addition to needing private times to recharge, I also need a greater mindfulness to think beyond myself.
You never know when someone needs you to be your best. Be there.
Have a good week.
More to come…