How a Tiny Token of Humanity Showed Me Anyone Can Improve the World
How an unexpected encounter with a pebble changed the author's outlook during a tough time.
I live in a city that once prospered as a steel town. Still today we celebrate the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, co-star of so many Sydney Opera House postcards, built with our steel. But that bridge went up in 1932. Things have changed. The industrial skyline of my home has slowly dropped away, and unemployment has risen. People in my town are struggling—financially, physically and mentally. In 2018, we were branded the “suicide capital of the U.K.” And COVID hasn’t made matters easier.
But if anything, the pandemic has convinced me: When times get tough, people stick together. As you navigate the gloom, as we all must, look for the kindness and consideration of others to shine through. Here’s how I found my own, in this harsh year.
Lockdown eased just in time for my mother’s birthday. We spent the morning unwrapping presents, reading cards and visiting relatives online—something that has become second nature to us during the pandemic but which does nothing to stem our cabin fever. That afternoon we decided to drive to the coast.
Even a Quick Dose of Nature Can Make the World Feel Normal
Fresh air. A cool breeze. This was the scene change we needed. Our new, strange reflexes—zigzagging to avoid people, holding our breath as we passed crowds, dousing our hands with sanitizer—reminded us that we were still living in a warped world. But it was nice to feel a kind of normality might be on the horizon.
We took a stroll along the seafront, moving deliberately, to take in the things we would have once overlooked. An unusual insect on the wall with petrol-blue wings and red spots. The warm glow of yellow petals peeking through the overgrown grass. The sound of the waves crashing against the shore. I had never before appreciated the soothing powers of nature, and in that moment, I was transfixed.
As I absorbed the sights and sounds, I noticed something unusual. A green, painted pebble was sitting on the wall beside the grass bank. No explanation. Just a green pebble. Puzzled, I wondered how and why it came to be there. A young child must have put it there, I thought.
We continued along the seafront, wind swirling through our hair, smiling at fellow travelers while silently judging how far away they were from us. As we approached the end of the promenade, the meaning of the green pebble revealed itself.
On a raised mound of grass near the end of the path was a basket overflowing with a rainbow of colored pebbles like the one I’d seen. I walked over to the unassuming little basket and crouched to read a handwritten note beside it: “Please take a pebble and give it to somebody to let them know that you are thinking of them or leave one nearby for others to find.”
When We’re Struggling, an Anonymous Gesture of Goodwill Just Hits Different
It might seem trivial to some, but I recognized a deeper importance. Finding that pebble was a reminder from someone—a stranger, perhaps even someone I swerved away from on my stroll—that we are all in this together. Someone made this gentle gesture just as everyone was suffering quiet, slow-motion breakdowns as a result of lockdown.
The message behind the pebble gift really resonated with me. I am lucky enough to have gone through the mental strains of lockdown with family and friends to support me, but not everybody was able to do so. For a person living alone or who felt like they had nobody to talk to, this simple pebble may have been a symbol of hope and a reminder that they are not alone.
It made me recognize that the smallest gestures can have the greatest impact on somebody’s day. At a time when everyone is struggling it’s all the more important to help those around us—even strangers. I’m not suggesting we go around showering people with the gift of painted pebbles, but a smile, a short phone call or a neighborly “good morning” as we walk by could warm people more than we imagine.
We really are all going through this together, and even in our most isolated moments we should never feel alone. Any gift we give each other out of kindness can be enough.