From an early age, children are encouraged to express gratitude and display thanks towards others. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – and mind your Ps and Qs.
There are everyday scenarios that fit nicely into the “please and thank you” template, such as ordering a coffee, being served lunch or having a door held open.
But there are also occasions that fall outside the norm, situations that surprise us, perplex us and leave us embarrassed. What are we to do when we are confronted with unexpected acts of kindness?
A friend found herself in such a position during her morning commute into Snow Hill station in Birmingham city centre. It was the chilly depth of a recent cold snap and the office worker – let us call her Sarah – was cursing herself for not having her gloves. The previous day, she left a glove from her favourite pair on the train. She realised just as she was getting off but did not have time to return to the carriage and look for it as the train was preparing to depart.
Twenty-four hours later, Sarah’s train was slowing down to pull into Snow Hill and Sarah got up from her seat. As she got into the slow-moving queue heading towards the train door, she felt someone tug her arm.
Looking back, Sarah saw a dishevelled, unshaven man in an old coat. He was carrying an old supermarket plastic bag and was wearing fingerless gloves. She thought he looked homeless.
The man tried to speak to Sarah but made no sense. She thought he might be drunk, and worried that she was being accosted, she said nothing, turned away in embarrassment and headed towards the door of the carriage.
She walked a few more paces and was close to stepping down to the platform when she was tapped on the shoulder. Fearing the worst, Sarah turned and was confronted by the same man. Again, he made no sense as he tried to speak but this time Sarah realised he had a bad stutter.
Despite her very English discomfort, she held his gaze and realised he was saying: “Your glove. Your glove.”
As the words formed, the man reached down into his tatty bag and withdrew Sarah’s lost glove. He must have seen her the previous day, spotted she had left her glove on her seat, picked it up and kept it with a view to returning it.
Grateful for the stranger’s kindness and slightly ashamed of her own behaviour, and the assumptions she had made, Sarah did the only thing she could do – and said: “Thank you.”
She had never seen the man before, and has not since.
Later that day, as she recounted the story, Sarah said she wished she could have done more than utter two simple words. She had considered giving the man some money, as she thought he was homeless, but decided her action could have been patronising. What if he took offence? Would she offer a “normal” person a cash reward?
She kept repeating: “Thank you wasn’t enough. It just wasn’t enough.”
Evidently, saying “thank you” was inadequate to convey Sarah’s feelings and her sense of gratitude towards a man who, despite facing his own daily trials, had gone out of his way to help someone who to all intents and purposes looked like the model of a successful young professional.
I suspect part of Sarah’s reaction was wound up in the guilt she felt for assuming her fellow passenger on life’s journey into Birmingham was a drunk, a vagrant and possibly a “weirdo.”
In fact, the man might have been all of these things, and none of them. And that, I suppose, is the point. Gratitude cuts across social status and it defies prejudice, awkwardness and isolation.
And if gratitude is the parent of all virtues, as well as being the greatest, it may well be that a stranger on a train can teach us all an important lesson. In our troubled times, we ignore it at our peril.