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Reaching out to others with kindness can be a contagious act

Let's begin with the editor's note from a magazine titled "Mental Floss." This editor, who is also co-founder of the magazine (www.mentalfloss.com), is Mangesh Hattikudur.

"There is a story I think about when the holidays roll around. Years ago I was studying abroad in Dharamsala India. I was walking down a busy street chatting with a friend when I spotted a male leper sitting on a stoop asking a female leper to scratch his back. Neither of them had hands, but the woman hobbled over and started rubbing what was left of her limbs against the man's paper-thin shoulder blades. Clearly what she was doing wasn't helping, and though she was trying he was desperate for the smallest satisfaction that a fingernail could provide. And on this road filled with people, everyone just kept walking, including me. I kept talking until I realized my friend had disappeared. A second later I saw her scratching the leper's back. For a full minute she made the tiniest gesture of humanity, touching someone no one else was willing to. And on his face I witnessed the most beautiful smile I have ever seen."

I read this a week ago and realized I would not be able to put it out of my mind, or fully integrate its lessons, unless I shared it in some way.

Let me start by saying I was uninformed; I did not know that leprosy, or "Hansen's' Disease," a chronic, infectious condition that can cause permanent, disfiguring damage to the skin, nerves and eyes, still existed. I thought it was a part of biblical history.

But leprosy does exist in parts of the world. The global burden in 2012, according to the World Health Organization, was 182,000, largely in Asia and Africa. It's not contagious in the way originally thought, and drug interventions developed in the last several decades, as well as early detection, make it treatable and curable.

Let's pause for a minute. This is not a column about leprosy — it is just masquerading as that.

This is a column about reaching out and touching people who may not readily beckon us to them but need our acknowledgement — a hand outstretched. Did you see the recent photographs of the Pope doing that?

Over the holidays we have many opportunities, but this year, prompted by the story about a man with leprosy who benefited from a back-scratch, I am suggesting that we try to do something that pushes us out of our comfort zone. Consider some kind of holiday outreach that has an enduring impact.

Maybe you do more than put canned food in a bag for hungry, homeless people; maybe you invite them for Thanksgiving.

Or maybe you are in a grocery store line with a sad-faced, aging person and you offer, with a smile, to pay for her groceries. She delights in the gesture (and your smile) and responds by taking some of those same groceries to a neighbor without easy access to a store. Maybe that neighbor is so surprised by the bag of groceries that she "¦

Well, you get the idea. Maybe it's contagious.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at Sharon@hmj.com.