The “Size” of Kindness

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A meeting of Tiny — and Tinier! — Friends


A couple weekends ago, sugar crashing, I was racing home to cook when something stopped me in my tracks. There in front of me, a snail was sliming its way across the sidewalk on my block. This tiny friend was a languid race to doom; I have no idea where it *thought* it was going (I’m guessing the torrential downpours earlier that afternoon might’ve washed its trails away.), but it was on a heavily-trafficked sidewalk, moving AWAY from a small planter, toward a weedy, curbside rock bed. If pedestrians didn’t kill it, the aridity of the rock bed likely would. And if THAT didn’t do the trick, then probably all the driving/parking cars would’ve finished it off. I hate interfering with nature — I hesitate to pick flowers (or even to BUY flowers), and I even have been known to leave a desperate fly in a spider’s web (out of guilt about the prospect of stealing food from a spider whose dances across the web made it very clear it was VERY much looking forward to this tasty meal) — but I could not allow Tiny Friend to die like this. After all, what about sidewalks and roads really says “nature?”

. . . But I can’t just decide to do a thing and DO the thing, so I just paused there, engaging in way more analysis than was necessary, lost in questions like, “When I pick it up, what if I put it back down in the wrong place? Because what about its friends? Do snails bond? Would it miss anybody? Will any other snails be heartbroken about it? Could they find each other again?”

Also, there was the question of HOW to pick it up. Should I use a stick, a leaf, a tissue, an old receipt, a piece of plastic? (I wasn’t keen on using my bare hands because I’d read about snail-transmitted encephalitis. Again, way more analysis than was necessary.)

As I dug around in my backpack for something to use as a carrier, a couple rounded the corner, engrossed in conversation. If ever there was a time to bust out my non-existent German, the moment, ladies and gentlemen, was NOW.

“Ahhh, eine. . . eine SCHNECKE IST DA!” (Uhhhh, a. . . A SNAIL IS THERE!”) I spluttered this out as quickly as possible, awkwardly thrusting my arm in front of them to point toward the ground.

The couple gave a tandem “Ah!” and a little shuffle-step, clearing Tiny Friend and continuing on. (And how did I, a beginner, know the word for snail? Because it’s also the word used for a pastry roll. Thank God for my love for German bakeries. This was fate.)

A cyclist had been stopped on the corner since before I arrived on the scene, and he’d been watching me with curiosity through this whole deliberative process. I eventually decided just to use my bare hands, and as I crouched down and Tiny Friend initially tried re-routing away from me, Curious Cyclist offered, in an accented English, “Just pick it up by the shell.” (How EVER did he surmise from my stammering that I am not a native German speaker?)

“I’ve read that can hurt them actually.”


“Yeah, I’ve read that if you pull on the shell, and they’re sticking, it can wound them, because the shell’s attached.”


Eventually, after a few exploratory chewing on my pinky finger, Tiny Friend decided to climb on for the ride, and for the first time in my life, I felt the soft-but-powerful, tiny rippling contractions of a snail’s body. It was pretty damn cool.

“Good on you!” Curious Cyclist cheered. I turned around with a smile, not really knowing what to say other than a genuine, “Thanks!”

When Tiny Friend was safely toward the middle of my palm, I stood up on my wobbly, sugar-crashing legs and was about to leave. Curious Cyclist gave a final remark. “They’ll remember you.” Or was it, “I’ll remember you”? I couldn’t be sure. I just continued beaming at Tiny Friend as I struggled a socially awkward explanation.

“I always pay attention to the snails. I like the snails.”

Curious Cyclist gave a parting grin and a nod, hopped back on his bike, and was gone.

I knew just where I wanted to bring Tiny Friend: a few yards away from where I found it, there is an elevated planter inside the courtyard of my complex. I’ve seen as many as 70 snails on the wall around it. There, I figured, Tiny Friend would have TONS of food, TONS of additional snails (German: Schnecken!), and would be safely away from cars and pedestrians, even far enough off the ground that curious dogs and curious children out playing in the courtyard couldn’t harm it. Tiny Friend would now inhabit a Land of Plenty; thus, I had saved a life. I felt good. And I didn’t do this TO feel good. I did this without even really thinking about it. . . aside from my over-analysis, that is. My deliberations were all about how to cause the last harm — but there was NO deliberation at all about whether I should help Tiny Friend in the first place. That was just instinctive.

The thing is, earlier that very same afternoon, I had been feeling guilty. I hadn’t offered any money or food to any of Berlin’s myriad beggars who stand out on the sidewalks, outside the grocery stores, under the railroad tracks, everywhere, everywhere, hungry. Hungry, forgotten people barely hanging on to existence. Cities are filled with opportunities to help — and, on the other side of that coin, for walking past without helping, and then feeling remorse. I have felt this guilt often over the past few years, in Berlin and in Shanghai, knowing that my own financial situation is too precarious for helping. Hence, I spend lots of time regretting the people I pass by, the money I don’t have (for them, let alone for me), the leftovers I need to hang on to for myself, even the local languages I don’t speak to even do so much as offer a few moments of friendly conversation.

When this happens, I don’t stop to think about all the other small gestures I can make, and DO make, without even a second thought. Like rescuing Tiny Friends of all stripes. Saving tiny little lives. Though perhaps I should ask: “How unthoughtful am I?”

I’m not going to tell myself that, “Since I help snails, I don’t have to help humans.” That’s not the point. But this interaction has sort of helped me be more forgiving with myself. Ever since, I’ve started feeling a little less guilty about the money that I can’t spare, and letting myself remember the lives that I do.

Even snails need help too.

I’m glad Curious Cyclist was on the scene for this rescue mission because, frankly, while I didn’t need congratulations or praise, his reaction in hindsight highlighted for me how out-of-the-ordinary my behavior was. Most people don’t stop to “dirty” their hands with these creatures. Or bite the bullet and self-consciously mangle foreign languages just to warn other pedestrians, “Don’t step there.”

But that’s me for you.

And as I worked on processing my guilt about being “too poor to help” people, I was suddenly hit with this even more philosophical, outright trippy thought: snails might be tiny, but each life is an expression of The All. As such, we would do well to remember that, any time we render aid anywhere, our compassion sends ripples outward for all eternity. We don’t know the full effect of our caring. In many respects, we can’t.

For all I know, maybe Curious Cyclist, later on — remembering the weirdo who took genuine care over a tiny snail — was inspired himself to stop on the street and lend a hand to someone else. Maybe another snail. Or maybe one of the people I myself had passed and couldn’t feed. Or maybe he just went home and was inspired to be a little sweeter that day to his wife or his husband or his roommate or his kids.

We are all interconnected in this web of life. We all inhabit the world that we build by the threads we spin. Thus, we all feel the vibrations along those filaments too. Let’s craft this web with reverent tenderness. With love.

. . . .

There is one MORE trippy piece to this, though! It’s that, I also realized, what happened for Tiny Friend can happen for any of us. We’re just going about business as usual (and/or maybe heading for near-certain doom) when — WHOA! — a HAND reaches down from the sky. It lifts us gently — if we allow it to — and it deposits us all at once into a wonderful new world, ore peaceful, secure, and abundant than any we’d seen before. A garden ripe with places to explore, delights to savor, friends to appreciate.

In other words, at any moment, external circumstances we never even imagined can rearrange everything for us. Completely. In a flash. And for the better.

Laura left a Ph.D. program at age 26 to make good on long-forgotten dreams of nomad'ing and writing. She currently lives in Berlin and writes about the magic of everyday life — most especially, the magic we find when we open our hearts and choose to follow them.

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