“Kindness, I’ve discovered, is everything in life.” Isaac Bashevis Singer
Recently, I was standing at a coffee bar in New Hampshire, waiting for the woman next to me to finish adding cream and sugar to her java. The plastic lid I needed for my cup was in a bin just beyond her. I said nothing. She’d be done shortly. It was no big deal. But as she reached for another sugar, she also grabbed a lid and handed it to me. I thanked her. We smiled at each other. I returned to my table feeling good about the world.
That small act of kindness, unsought, unexpected, started me thinking about other kindnesses I’ve experienced over the years. The pub owner in Dublin who, when asked if he knew a good breakfast place, left his morning preparations to escort my husband and me to a sunny café three blocks away. The woman in Ramsgate who my friend and I asked for directions to the ferry to Paris. She was on her way home from work, but she walked us the mile or so down to the harbor terminal. I was a student then, yet the memory of her kindness has lasted these decades. We are more powerful than we think.
In the midst of our current public turbulence—the anger, the hateful talk, the violence—it’s easy to forget this most basic of truths: At every moment, we are ALL depending on the kindness of strangers.
In our lifetime, we each encounter a vast number of strangers. We pass them on the street, ride with them on the subway, sit next to them in cafes, work out beside them at the gym. We don’t know their names, but we are relying on them not to cheat us or assault us, not to steal our wallets or break into our homes, not to detonate a car bomb as we pass by or shoot up our children’s school. We are depending on them as they are depending on us.
There is something so basic in this, that we must all trust it or go mad. It is the most fundamental of all social contracts. It is what makes events like the November 2015 Paris bombings so shockingly frightening—the betrayal of that elemental trust.
The tensions of our time make us wary. We live in the maelstrom of a 24-hour news cycle for which spectacle of the most sensational and violent kinds boosts ratings, hence advertising dollars. Even if we turn off our TVs and silence our radios, we cannot escape the suspicions and doubts aroused by the media. We begin to size up people we don’t know—their accent, the clothing they wear, the vehicle they drive, their occupation or lack of same, their race or nationality—and apply a kind of “media profiling” to make hasty judgments about the person’s values, the way they think. Uncertain, perhaps, we avoid eye contact, eschew the friendly nod, waiting to see what the other person is going to do. And so our common humanity often goes unacknowledged
We cannot live this way and stay sane. We cannot live this way and be happy. To paraphrase CBS chairman Les Moonves’ recent cynical comment: It may be damn good for CBS, but it’s not good for America. Or the world.
Fortunately, there are other ways to live, other choices. Seneca said “Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” It was good advice circa 40 CE, and it continues to speak to our deepest needs. Kindness is a stone that cast out upon a seemingly indifferent surface, ripples far beyond its original point of contact.
I was reminded of this recently when, stuck in local traffic, waiting in a long line for a short light, I became conscious of a woman in a car looking for a chance to turn left into my lane. I had a lot of work on my desk at home, groceries to pick up for dinner. I wanted to get to the gym. Letting this stranger into my lane almost certainly meant missing the light, losing more precious minutes. But then I remembered all the times I’d sat waiting for a break in traffic, how grateful I was to the person who finally let me in. So when the cars ahead of me began moving, I waved the woman in. A moment later, in my rearview mirror, I saw the driver behind me doing the same for another car. My heart lifted. We are more powerful than we know.
The world has always been a good place. The world has always been a hard place. But, at every moment, we have the choice to be kind or not, and so tip the world on its axis one way or the other. Like the woman in the coffee shop. Like the woman in Ramsgate, surely tired from a day at work. They stopped for me, a stranger. And in doing so, made the world a better place.
[Note: I penned this post before the violent events in Brussels today. The deaths of more than 30 people in that city and the wounding of several hundred others make remembering our common humanity feel more essential than ever.]