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Everyone has his or her own response to horror, disaster and tragedy. Strong, noble people organize and launch missions. Others go on about their lives, but with a deepened appreciation. Last April, I decided to devote myself to a small, goofy, personal project: to greet every person I encountered on the street. I would say good morning, good evening or hello.
I am not a psychologist, nor a diplomat, nor any kind of expert in human affairs. But it seemed to me that the zealotry, distortion and hatred that had led to the violence were rooted in feeling marginalized, misunderstood, ostracized and disrespected. To maim and kill the innocent is the opposite of what it is to be civilized. And so I reasoned that saying hello, a civilized custom, would be a reconstructive act.
I resolved to extend a greeting to all -- man, woman and child, day or night, and whether they made eye contact or not. I did this all over the city and its environs. I did it to promote connection and community, to allay distrust.
This was not an entirely new project. Raised to be polite by a strict German father with old fashioned manners, I was taught to say good morning and good night, and to ask after people's health. It has always seemed odd to me that people pass each other on the street without saying hello. Over the decades, I have tended toward saying hello — to people I know, and those I don't but see habitually, and to strangers walking alone. This custom has become more quaint as ear-budded legions travel the streets, heads down, scrolling their devices, isolated in sound-bubbles.
Still, I resolved to extend a greeting to all — man, woman and child, day or night, and whether they made eye contact or not. I did this all over the city and its environs. I did it to promote connection and community, to allay distrust.
I started by practicing in my neighborhood just north of Boston, greeting not only strangers who passed my house as I was working in the yard or sweeping the porch, but those walking across the street, or parking in front of my house. I then advanced to strangers in supermarkets, drug stores, and the post office, and people walking their dogs at night even though I couldn't quite see them. There seemed something magical about the human voice traveling through the darkness. A few times strangers said hello in daylight and seemed to know me, because they, with better eyes, had seen me when I greeted them in the dark.
Encouraged, I took my small campaign into the neighborhoods of Boston. In South Boston when I said good morning, many older people said, "Hello, deah," and younger folks, "Howya doin?" In the Back Bay, some seemed startled, though most replied. In Harvard Square, college kids were often in their clouds, but seniors were uniformly gracious. One blustery day in Brookline, I said good morning to a dapper gentleman in his 70s entering a bank. As I held the door for him, he commented, "No one under 40 holds the door for anyone anymore; you are the exception, young lady." (I am in my 60s.)
I especially liked the responses I got in Dorchester. In Grove Hall a clergyman said, "God bless this beautiful morning, sister!" and in Uphams Corner, more than once, people said hello and called me "mami.”
It helped to keep me from closing-down, and I hope it's helped others to open-up...
There were also those who were creeped-out. One woman grabbed her shoulder purse and pulled it toward her body, this though I am five feet tall and do not convey vice. Several men, women and children ignored me or stared suspiciously. The worst reaction occurred in Malden near the terminus of the Orange Line. I was passing a dark skinned woman on the sidewalk, and to keep from startling her, wanting to warn her that I was getting close, said good morning. She glared at me like I was the devil and emitted a terrible hiss. My favorite exchanges have been wordless or nearly so, with women from foreign countries who are veiled or barely speak English. One woman dipped her head and smiled with her eyes, another said something to her little girl and the child skipped toward me, taking little leaps and waving.
Last April I felt two contradictory impulses — to go inside, to lay low, to shield myself from the existence of terror and hatred, and to go outside and to try to create community. Saying hello may seem an inconsequential, even insipid gesture in the large, complex and ancient accrual of danger and evil in the world, but to me it has been a spiritual CPR, a way of revitalizing the human heart. It helped to keep me from closing-down, and I hope it's helped others to open-up, and as I make my rounds from Coolidge Corner to Grove Hall, many strangers say hello.
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