Last Word

Four days in Arkansas
Photo by Darla Young | Capture Arkansas

As I exit the plane and enter the terminal, everything’s quiet and still. Airports are usually such a flurry of activity, travelers flowing in every direction. But at this particular minute on this particular morning, nobody appears to be in a hurry.

Within seconds I realize what’s happening: In a case of surreal timing, at the exact moment I set foot in Arkansas for the first time, its former First Lady is delivering her concession speech to conclude the presidential campaign. Passengers have stopped what they’re doing to gather around the overhead television monitors and listen. Some fight back tears. Others are euphoric.

While I make my way to baggage claim, the split between those mourning and celebrating becomes even clearer. Some shuffle along in a state of dazed grief. Others are buoyant, an exuberant bounce in their every step.

As I wheel my luggage to the curb, a question rolls around my mind: If someone wants to help bridge these divides—but stay away from politics—what can they do?

Before I have a chance to give much thought to the question, my lift to Hot Springs arrives. I’ve been looking forward to this commute. In advance of my trip, I researched the area online and happened upon the website for The Maxwell Blade Theatre of Magic. Out of curiosity, I called and spoke with Maxwell. Rather than rush me off the phone, he politely answered my questions and then asked some of his own. When I mentioned my upcoming visit to Arkansas, he made a remarkable offer. Despite his packed schedule—and, you know, not knowing me—Maxwell volunteered to pick me up at the airport.

I accepted, grateful for the ride and intrigued by the chance to learn more in person about someone who’d go out of his way to make life easier for a traveler.

As we ride along Interstate 30, Maxwell shares stories about his kids, his career and his community. When he drops me off outside my hotel, I thank him again for his hospitality. He smiles and says, “Each day, I try to do three random acts of kindness. Today, this is one of them.”

Over the course of my four days in Arkansas, I saw and experienced many small acts of kindness. There was the young store clerk who put aside her work so she could listen to a veteran tell her a story about his service. There was the woman whom I asked for directions to the Mountain Tower. Instead of just pointing me toward the path, she spontaneously joined me for the hike. There was the customer at a restaurant who insisted on sharing her cake when she learned it was my birthday, too. And there was the couple who graciously welcomed me into their home for a night—a guest room ready and waiting—even though I’d only met them once prior to the trip.

At week’s end, I return to the airport. As I walk to the gate, I think some more about the people I encountered over the past few days. A civic-minded resident named Kristin comes to mind.

When we met, we talked about community engagement. At some point, the topic turned to the brunches and dinners I’ve hosted to increase dialogue between neighbors of diverse ages, races and backgrounds. She liked the idea and wondered what the biggest obstacle might be to replicating it.

As I told her, the biggest obstacle was starting. It almost always is. Somebody must initiate the conversation. Everybody can. Yet, some bystanders are so understandably discouraged by the depth of the divide—so convinced it’s impossible to overcome—that they don’t take that first step to bridge it.

Kristin decided to give it a shot and host a dinner for people who don’t already know each other. She reserved a table at Lulu’s Latin Rotisserie & Grill in Little Rock for two nights later and sent out invitations. Despite the short notice, 14 people chose to attend.

I know it’s idealistic to imagine every effort will succeed as smoothly as hers—just as it’s naive to suggest every stranger will honor our trust, and foolish to claim our country’s chasms will be mended overnight. These little displays of humanity are only one step, but I believe they lead us in the right direction. And it’s precisely because these small deeds are so simple that they offer a good place to begin. They don’t require wealth or wisdom. They involve little preparation or planning. These are things that can be done by almost anyone, anywhere, any time.

While waiting to board the plane, I glance at a monitor overhead. My thoughts flash back to what I observed when I first arrived here, and the question that scene prompted me to consider. It dawns on me that the people I met in between then and now have illustrated the answer.

In our day-to-day lives, if we want to help bridge our country’s divides, we can start by extending ourselves further, in moments that are smaller, involving people who are less familiar to us. In other words, each of us can be a little more like the Arkansas I experienced for four memorable days in November.

Greg Forbes Siegman is a recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service. His books (The Silhouette Man and the condensed student edition, The First Thirty) are available at GregForbes.com/store.