What I do for a living offers constant perspective; I hear every day about what can happen in people’s lives, both the good and the not-so good. I hear about tragedy, abuse, and I hear about tremendous courage people muster while facing it.
Yet I also hear about the kindness of others: how a grandfather’s love as he stood in for an absent dad kept his granddaughter going; how a third-grade teacher’s supportive words still echo in the now-adult student’s head. Or how a stranger, holding a crying toddler, gratefully waved in thanks and hurried across the street as you held up traffic for them to cross. These things matter, large and small, and you never know the effect you’re having on those around you.
What you may not realize is what difference your own kindness or concern for others makes in your own life.
One summer, years ago, I decided to hike the Utt Trail in Aspen, Colorado, but I made three basic errors in judgment. First, the woman who’d recommended the hike was a well-muscled athlete, a point that I’d somehow discounted – as I was far from that status. Second, I went by myself. I’m not sure where the rest of my family was, but I decided there would be a lot of people on the trail, and I’d be fine. And third, I’m afraid of heights. I can’t look over a two-story balcony without my stomach turning. But I reasoned that I’d hiked before, and it hadn’t been a problem. I simply stared at where my feet were going a lot. It’s true that I missed much of the scenery. But I could proudly say I’d hiked.
There were a few people on the trail, but not a lot. It started out fine. I channeled my inner mountain goat and up I climbed. The trail had very sharp twists and turns as it meandered up the mountain, and I slipped a little here and there. But overall, I felt quite proud of myself.
Then it was time to descend. Aspen had received very little rain within the last few weeks, a fact that I knew, but didn’t understand how it might affect the trails. They were very dusty. And thus it was harder to get a secure footing on the descent – at least, for the amateur hiker, of which I was most definitely one.
About a third of the way down, tears were springing into my eyes. I tried not to look at how steeply the path fell off the side, but my gaze would shift there. And more tears would come.
I also couldn’t help envision slipping and having nothing to stop my fall; I started to literally wonder if I was going to die. I grew increasingly terrified.
But then I heard two high-pitched voices coming up the trail, the sound ricocheting off the rocks.
I later learned the first speaker’s name was Emily. And she said, “Jeannette, you go on. I’m too scared. I can’t do it.”
“No, I’m not going to leave you. We’ll both go back down. I don’t have to do this.”
“You’ve waited to hike this trail for months. I’ll just wait for you.”
I took a deep breath, looked around and found some branches to hold onto. And slowly crept down the trail to the two women. And I offered help. I couldn’t quite believe the words that popped out of my mouth.
“I’ll take you down. We’ll be fine.”
So that’s what happened. I took the much-more-terrified-than-me (or seemingly so) Emily down the mountain.
She thanked me for my kindness. She had no idea what she did for me — how having someone else to show where to put her foot, or what rock to hold onto, or which branch to reach for – saved me. I found my own courage by focusing on her.
You can make a difference in someone else’s life today, perhaps in ways that surprise even you. And you choosing to do so might make a difference in your own; you might find you have more strength and resilience than you realized.
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Originally published on Apr 23, 2016; updated and republished on June 23, 2022.