Reading Time: 4 minutes

by Alexander Weaver

I drove from Sacramento to Portland (Rancho Cordova to Wilsonville, technically) last night (as of the original writing on 11/08/06), over mountains and through rain and what I would characterize as “pea soup fog.” This is important in other contexts, but for our purposes the main relevance is that it got me to Portland. I got in at 05:30, slept for 6 hours and then booked a flight back to Sacramento, departing at 16:50. The flight was fully booked, and for a change everyone who had reserved a seat actually showed up. I was in the second boarding group, so my options were limited, and I chose a window seat three rows from the back of the cabin, on the right side. The seat immediately to my left was vacant; a woman with a bag and a cup of coffee sat down a minute or so later in the aisle seat of our row.

As the plane and the overhead bins filled up, I became exceedingly glad that all I’d brought was a backpack, which I’d stuffed under the seat in front of me. The seats around me filled up, and I noticed that two children had made their way to the back, just ahead of a flight attendant. I’m a notoriously poor judge of ages, but I initially guessed 13 for the girl and 10 for her brother (later, while getting off the plane, I estimated more like 11 and 9). A middle-aged couple were sitting in the aisle and middle seats in the left-hand aisle corresponding to mine, and the window seat was vacant. Two men were sitting in the row behind them, with the middle seat empty, and the flight attendant guided the girl to the window seat and suggested to the boy that he take the seat in the row behind his sister. Both of them looked a bit discouraged and confused at this, but sat down as suggested.

I looked at them for a moment, then at the empty seat next to me. I thought about it for an embarrassing number of seconds before leaning over and getting the flight attendant’s attention. I asked him to tell the girl that if she wanted to sit with her brother I would be willing to trade seats with her. The response seemed to be affirmative–I believe the kids brightened up visibly, but my imagination may be embellishing—and as I was gathering my things I was heartened to hear the woman sitting next to me stand up and offer her seat as well. She wound up sitting where the boy had been, and I got the girl’s window seat. After a moment resembling a game of musical chairs played in a walk-in closet, a woman I hadn’t noticed—the kids’ mother, perhaps (or older sister, or aunt, or…)—thanked me and commented that it was “sweet” of me.

The first words that came to mind and left my mouth weren’t the traditional “you’re welcome” (which I said the second time she thanked me and the others who moved to allow the three of them to sit together). They weren’t the “no problem” which seems to be gradually replacing it despite the protests of grammatical traditionalists. Instead, what I found myself saying was “it’s the least I can do.”

I don’t know if they heard that first reply, but after I had stuffed my bag under the seat in front of me, sat down, buckled in, basked for a moment in the warm-and-fuzzy feeling, finished the chapter of Anansi Boys I had been reading, watched the ground hurtling away as the plane took off, and successfully distracted myself from the bizarre juxtaposition of brilliant engineering with the seeming insanity of people voluntarily hurtling through the air in a pressurized aluminum tube with a multi-mile fall below them and at a speed probably sufficient to pulverize their skeletons in a collision with a solid object of sufficient mass, I thought about that for a while. I realized that it was true, and what’s more, it was important.

Had the family been forced to sit in separate rows, they certainly wouldn’t have suffered greatly, yet as I type this, I glance across the aisle and have the distinct impression that they are significantly happier now than they would have been. And I realize that it was such a simple thing, to pick up my bag and squeeze across the aisle and into the seat on the other side. It was such a simple thing for the woman sitting next to me—who would have had to get up anyway to let me through—to offer her seat as well, and yet with a minimal expenditure of effort, we gave this family a chance to sit together. It was the least we could do.

It’s easy, in a world with so much suffering and horror, with so many massive problems that desperately need solving, to despair. It’s easy to feel that the world’s problems are beyond us, to look at the heroes—soldiers, humanitarians, activists, philanthropists, and volunteers—who make great sacrifices and dedicate much of their time, money, and energy to relieving this suffering and say “wow. I could never do that.” And it’s easy to leave it at that. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that, while such heroism is both beyond commendable and in desperate demand, there are a great many “little” things we can do to make the world a better place.

Examples flood my mind. Switching seats on a plane, on a train, in a stadium or theater, so that a family can sit together. Offering one’s seat in a bus to someone who would have more trouble standing up and holding on than oneself. Buying a couple bucks worth of sandwich for a homeless person. Leaving a good tip in a restaurant even when the service is “only” satisfactory. Giving compliments and showing gratitude, in general. Remembering to hug one’s family more. Visiting The Rainforest Site and its sister sites and clicking through once or twice a day. Dropping a quarter or two in someone’s expired parking meter. Holding onto the pennies so many people carelessly throw away long enough to drop them in a donation jar or box instead.

I’m sure we can all think of many more instances where a minor expenditure—of effort, of money, of time—on our part will make someone’s life easier, and make that person, if only for a moment, happier. It is my hope and my wish that all of us remember this always, and perform these acts of small-scale generosity whenever the opportunity arises, with the knowledge that everyone will be better for it in the end.

It’s the least we can do.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...