The story behind ‘The Seventeen Second Miracle’

You’re in line at Walmart with enough groceries in your cart to feed the mouths and wipe the noses of everyone living within 50 miles. In fact, there is so much in your cart the wheels haven’t been spinning since the produce department. And if you stack one more Charleston Chew on the mound of groceries, someone from OSHA will appear and demand you wear a back brace while checking out.

Meanwhile, behind you in line, there’s a guy buying the travel-size version of Connect Four, a box of Pop Tarts and a single Yoo-hoo.

Just as you set your first item on the belt you glance backward and notice him. You smile and say, “Sir? Would you like to jump ahead?”

His mouth says, “Well, OK, I guess, if you’re sure, why thank you.” But his mind says, “Sweet granola, yes! Thanks, lady!”

You, dear shopper, have just performed a “Seventeen Second Miracle.”

You and your family are walking into a restaurant or your favorite fast food spot and you see an elderly person eating alone. You ask if they’d like some company and they say yes.

You, fine diner, just performed a 17-second miracle.

You opened a door for someone? That’s also a 17-second miracle.

Befriended the new kid at school? There’s another.

Loan someone $5 for lunch? You get the picture. There are opportunities to perform daily miracles all around us. But are we seeing them?

I was fortunate to grow up in a home with a father who was constantly looked for opportunities to serve others. Hardly a day passed without him performing some unscheduled act of kindness, some 17-second miracle for someone in his path.

Earlier this year I set out to write a novel that could give life to these acts of service, these daily miracles. I based the novel in my hometown, Charlottesville, Va., and unfolded the action on the same streets and around the familiar landmarks where I saw my father perform countless service miracles.

The novel, of course, is a work of fiction and my father never referred to his knack for service as 17-second miracles. And, frankly, if he were alive today to give me an earful, he probably would. He didn’t live his life for credit or accolades.

So why 17 seconds? I’ve come to believe that in many cases that’s all it takes to change the course of someone’s day. Too often we think of how life can turn tragic in a matter of seconds: car accidents, drownings, bad news from the doctor. But can’t life also turn for the better in the same blink of an eye?

Opening a door takes five seconds, saying hello to the new kid might take 10, and changing a tire might just take 20 minutes. But those are the very best kinds of service. No grade, no ribbon, no certificate. You get nothing but the sweet satisfaction that this time, at least on this occasion, you had your eyes open.

I like to say that with each book I’ve written I’ve taught myself something I’ve long needed to learn. In crafting “The Seventeen Second Miracle,” I learned that life isn’t so much about the grand organized service projects we undertake at church, school or in our neighborhoods. They have their value, naturally, but I think a long life’s quilt is made up of much smaller pieces. It’s those few seconds here and there each and every day that define who we are.

I wish I could say I’m the perfect ambassador for “The Seventeen Second Miracle.” I’m not. I’m simply thankful that I’m surrounded by generous people who are far greater examples of the power of simple service than I’ll ever be. If my parents, my wife and my siblings all play professionally in the service big leagues, unceasing in their desire to lighten someone’s burden, then I’m in the pee wee division just hoping someone brought the juice boxes and fruit snacks. Yes, I’ve got a long, long way to go.

Now as I embark on another book tour I’m excited to meet people from Salt Lake to Charlottesville and to hear their experiences. Call them what you like, but every single one of us has been the beneficiary of a daily miracle, a moment of unexpected kindness from someone living their life with their eyes wide open.

So the challenge is this: Will you pledge to perform a daily 17-second miracle?

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