On any given day at the UMass campus, there are millions of interactions between people. During my career here as a student for the past two years, there hasn’t been a day on campus where I successfully stayed in complete isolation. It might actually be statistically impossible considering the 28,000 students crammed like sardines into this cement jungle. We’re just bound to see people.
Some interactions don’t evolve much farther than some awkward eye contact or maybe even the standard “cool-guy-head-nod.” The bicyclist who seeks my blood as road kill will undoubtedly make my day worse. But that simple friendly gesture or the sight of a close friend throughout my travels on campus is extremely encouraging and can be the extra cherry on top that makes the walk from Southwest to the Lederle Graduate Research Center that much more bearable.
There was this one interaction I had with a woman that I’ll never forget. It wasn’t because she was a good friend of mine—in fact, I never caught her name. It was what she did that blew my mind.
I was getting a bit hungry so I decided to take a little stroll downstairs from the Mackimmie dorm in Southwest and try my luck at the Berkshire dining commons. I stood in a line of about seven or eight kids who were having their cards swiped with superb patience (not to offend the Berkshire Dining Commons staff; they were merely doing their job of matching each identification card with its owner with the precision of a customs officer at Logan International Airport).
Seven minutes and six people later, I found myself one person away from swiping into the all-you-can-eat food playground when suddenly I came to the realization that I had forgotten my UCard in my dorm. Rain clouds instantly rolled in over my head as I began to curse my own stupidity. I peeked over my shoulder and was far from comforted to see a line that had experienced miraculous growth during my wait.
Then, out of nowhere, came the interaction that I’ve been building up for the last three paragraphs. The woman in front of me said three words that would grant me access to gluttonous freedom: “guest swipe please.”
Let’s talk about grace for a minute here. Grace seems to be a word that’s thrown around a lot but never truly understood. We use grace to refer to kindness, compassion, or even that cute girl in Histology class. I used to think that grace was mercy but soon learned that it is quite different. Where mercy is not getting something that we deserve, grace is simply getting something that you do not deserve. When you act out in third grade and clearly deserve a fifteen minute staring contest with a corner but are not forced into one by your teacher, you experienced mercy. When you sit in class day dreaming about being a rock star and your teacher brings in ice cream sandwiches for everyone, you experience grace.
With only 15 guess swipes to use for friends and family throughout the semester, it is not common for a student to guest swipe another student in. Throw in the fact that we have never met and I have my own meal plan, this act of “grace” from the woman seems almost illogical and could arguably be just plain stupid. But that’s grace—it rarely makes sense.
When the Berkshire staff member hit that “Guest” button and swiped the woman’s card a second time, I was in awe. I don’t think humans are used to experiencing grace and you could tell from my knee jerk responses. I’m not a psychologist but from what I can tell there are three things that the victim of grace will try and do: deny it, earn it and accept it.
“Wait, you don’t have to do that,” I finally managed to shoot out after the card was already swiped. “I can just go get my card.” Denial that I deserved or needed the guest swipe fails. She smiled at me and said, “Don’t worry about it.”
She began to walk away into the dining commons and I chased after her. “Can I give you a guest swipe? You know, to use in the future for a friend?” She laughed at me and said, “Really, it’s nothing.” With that she spun around and strolled away. My sad attempt to earn her grace fails. All I could do at that point was try and accept what just happened.
Your interactions with people go a long way. You could lead people into a spiral of anger and self depression, or fill someone with happiness that spreads on to other people. Make the best use of your head nods, smiles and guest swipes in a culture that is utterly dumfounded in the face of anything free, including a genuine act of niceness. You’d be surprised at how much of an impact you can have.
In the event that the woman who inspired this article is reading this, thank you.