One kind ges­ture at a time can change the world

Post Tribune (Sunday) - - Front Page - Jerry Davich jdavich@post-trib.com Twit­ter@jdavich

Earl Bowers greeted me the same way ev­ery Fam­ily Ex­press em­ployee does when I walk into one of their ubiq­ui­tous stores.

“Hello! Hello!” Bowers said cheer­ily from be­hind the pizza counter.

I’m never sure how en­thu­si­as­ti­cally I should re­ply to these em­ploy­ees. They’re ob­vi­ously trained to say hello and then con­di­tioned through a Pavlo­vian re­sponse to any­body who walks through their doors.

I’m also not sure if they do it strictly to wel­come cus­tomers, or to ver­bally ac­knowl­edge that they see you en­ter­ing their work­place, which has been known to re­duce theft. To be po­lite, I typ­i­cally re­spond in the same ro­botic tone as many of those em­ploy­ees.

“Hello, hello,” I mut­tered to Bowers with­out look­ing his way.

I just hap­pened to be hold­ing the door open for a guy be­hind me, who then held the door open for a woman be­hind him. Bowers no­ticed this ges­ture of gen­tle­manly eti­quette, un­re­mark­able as it was.

“Look at that,” Bowers said joy­fully to no one in par­tic­u­lar. “Open­ing a door for the lady.”

To be hon­est, I didn’t pay much at­ten­tion to my ges­ture. I was in a hurry to get in­side for my lat­est fix.

I’ve been ad­dicted to Fam­ily Ex­press’ maple­cov­ered cin­na­mon rolls. I should be in a 12-step pro­gram, but that’s an­other col­umn. Any­way, af­ter putting gas in my car that day, I popped into the Val­paraiso store to see if any rolls were avail­able. They weren’t.

I shrugged and be­gan to walk out when Bowers again caught my at­ten­tion.

“That’s how we can save our world!” he said to no one in par­tic­u­lar. “One kind ges­ture at a time! Yes sir! One kind ges­ture!”

I po­litely smiled and nod­ded my head in agree­ment as I ex­ited.

It was a few min­utes later, while driv­ing to my next ap­point­ment, when Bowers’ words be­gan echo­ing in my head: “One kind ges­ture at a time.”

Hmm, I thought to my­self.

My rose-col­ored glasses cracked a long time ago. Still, there was some­thing about Bowers’ en­ergy level and pos­i­tiv­ity when he said those words to any­one lis­ten­ing. He se­ri­ously meant it. You could just tell. I ad­mired that qual­ity about him more than the words he spoke.

I fig­ured that Bowers not only preached it, but also prac­ticed it — in that mo­ment and prob­a­bly al­most ev­ery mo­ment in his life, I’m guess­ing.

On that day, I was head­ing to in­ter­view a Crown Point woman whose teenage son took his life. And I would later be call­ing a Gary woman who said she was raped by the grand­fa­ther of one of her foster chil­dren. Yeah, my work days aren’t al­ways seashells and rain­bows.

In be­tween those in­ter­views, I lis­tened to a talk ra­dio news seg­ment about some­thing called “Head­line Stress Dis­or­der:

When break­ing news is bad for your health.” I won­dered about the le­git­i­macy of this lat­est 21st cen­tury mal­ady.

Each day, I read three to four print news­pa­pers, plus sev­eral news sto­ries on­line, and I watch at least three TV news shows. To­gether, that’s dozens of news head­lines ev­ery day, mostly neg­a­tive sto­ries about our crum­bling coun­try and self-de­struc­tive world.

Here is a sam­pling of re­cent news­pa­per head­lines from a thick stack on my desk.

“Sit­ting tied to in­creased risk of death from 14 dis­eases.”

“Earth get­ting sicker, has a bad fever.”

“Rudy Gi­u­liani says ‘Truth isn’t truth.’”

“Bac­te­ria growth in pub­lic re­strooms.”

“Horse­face, Miss Piggy and other slurs against women from Pres­i­dent Trump.”

“Study: Mis­lead­ing so­cial me­dia posts ex­plod­ing glob­ally.”

“Opi­oid epi­demic reach­ing into small-town Amer­ica.”

Look fa­mil­iar to you? Maybe this Head­line Stress Dis­or­der is a real thing. Maybe not.

Re­gard­less, it’s no se­cret that our coun­try is more po­lit­i­cally po­lar­ized than I can re­mem­ber in my adult life­time. The mere men­tion of the name Trump can di­vide a room. And we may be liv­ing amid the most hos­tile racial ten­sions since the 1960s.

Our na­tional dis­course has turned into a na­tional tragedy.

At the gro­cery store last week, a check­out em­ployee low­ered her voice to ask my thoughts on nowU.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice Brett Ka­vanaugh. I wasn’t sure if I should be hon­est or po­lite with her. Po­lite­ness would cost me less than a minute. Hon­esty could take up to an hour. I agreed with her opin­ion and bagged my gro­ceries.

Ca­sual chats have turned into con­ver­sa­tional land­mines. What to say. What not to say. How deeply should we share our feel­ings with oth­ers, not to men­tion our opin­ions with strangers? It has be­come so easy – too easy – to make ca­sual ene­mies in our so­ci­ety. Not peo­ple you ac­tu­ally hate with a pas­sion, but peo­ple you in­stinc­tively avoid with a shrug.

Our pol­i­tics seem to de­fine us in­stead of help­ing to de­scribe us. Every­one seems touchy about some­thing. Or on some days about ev­ery­thing.

All of these jagged thoughts rat­tled through my mind af­ter leav­ing the Fam­ily Ex­press that day. I could hear Bowers’ merry mantra: “That’s how we can save our world! One kind ges­ture at a time! Yes sir!”

I re­called his spirit, his smile and his hope­ful­ness.

I won­dered if the Earl of Kind Ges­tures was onto some­thing af­ter all. His up­beat at­ti­tude sure beats my chronic pes­simism and cracked rose-col­ored glasses.

I came to the con­clu­sion that I left Fam­ily Ex­press with­out a maple-cov­ered cin­na­mon roll, but with some­thing I needed more – a hope-cov­ered change of heart with our dis­taste­ful world. If only for a mo­ment.

A cou­ple of days later, while en­ter­ing an­other gas sta­tion to buy a lot­tery ticket, I pur­posely waited a few ex­tra sec­onds to hold the door open for an older woman.

She didn’t say thank you.

I forced a smile any­way. One kind ges­ture. Yes ma’am.

JERRY DAVICH/POST TRI­BUNE

Earl Bowers pre­pares piz­zas while cheer­ily chat­ting with cus­tomers at the Fam­ily Ex­press gas sta­tion on Calumet Av­enue in Val­paraiso.

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