After I park my car and head to my desk at work, I always pass by the same six or seven parking garage attendants and security guards. I smile warmly at each of them and offer a simple hello, sometimes stopping to ask about their morning, and continue on my way. Initially, some looked startled at my greetings — most New Yorkers are instantly wary of affability, since it usually precedes an attempt to sell something — but now they all return my smile, sometimes even beating me to it. These brief exchanges never take more than a minute or two, and it makes for a better start to my day.
I make an extra effort in connecting with people with whom I would otherwise have fleeting interactions because of a powerful story I heard as a child. The story, from Yaffa Eliach’s “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust,” tells of a renowned rabbi in Poland who took a daily stroll around his neighborhood. Mindful of the Sages’ teaching to greet every person with a pleasant expression, the rabbi met each person he passed on these walks with a smile and a sincere “Good morning!” In this way, he made many friendly acquaintances, including a neighbor of German descent. “Good morning, Herr Mueller!” the rabbi would say. “Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!” the man replied.
When World War II began, the rabbi’s daily walks came to a stop, and many non-Jews, including Herr Mueller, donned S.S. uniforms and went off to war. The rabbi soon found himself in one of the infamous lines of the concentration camps, where a flick of a hand towards the right meant life and where a flick to the left signaled imminent death. The weak, frail rabbi was sure to be sent left, but at the front of the line, a flash of recognition crossed his face. “Good morning, Herr Mueller,” the rabbi said to the guard. “Good morning, Herr Rabbiner,” Herr Mueller couldn’t help but respond. And then, “To the right!” The rabbi ultimately survived the war, and all because he had taken the time to say good morning.
This story left a deep impression on me, but I had only ever remembered its lesson in what a simple salutation did for the greeter, and never realized what it did for the recipient. But now, I see the ounce of compassion that was summoned from deep snide the recesses of Herr Mueller’s hardened soul when he heard the rabbi’s familiar greeting in the camp. He may have become a monster, but in that moment, a Nazi experienced a brief glimmer of humanity.
This new perspective on the story came to me in the weeks following the news of two people who allegedly took their own lives: one I knew personally, and one I only read about. There are more suicides making headlines as I write this. It hurts to think of them, and others like them, so deeply entrenched in their misery that they feel there’s no way to escape the pain but by ending their existence. And it’s a selfish thing, but a very human one, to think with regret about what you could have done differently, how you could have reached out to the people who were suffering, which might have allowed for a different ending to their story.
For those people in deep anguish who feel generally ignored and unloved, hearing someone acknowledge their presence with warmth and sincerity can be a validation of their whole existence. Much of the literature on suicide corroborates this point, emphasizing the tangible difference that a common hello can have on the outlook of someone who thinks that no one notices him.
In my casual, unscientific observations, it’s pretty rare for people to attempt meaningful contact with people outside their “inner circles.” Most people are just too immersed in their own thoughts, personal business or in verbal or texting conversations on their phones to initiate these small moments with people who too often tend to fade into the background: the bagger in the supermarket, the person who cleans the floors in your office — or the friend you’ve lost touch with who you know is struggling.
It’s such an easy thing to smile at someone and inquire about his day. These are simple gestures to most people, changing the course of their morning at best. But to those on the fringes, being recipients of your “hello” might just change their entire lives.
Tova Ross is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.