“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” (Winston Churchill)
I was driving along in August—98˚ in the shade, rush-hour traffic inching forward, some Cars tune on the local oldies station—when I noticed a bumper sticker on the Honda to my left: Be kinder than is necessary. Something lifted in my heart. A breeze penetrated the mug. At the next opportunity, I pulled over to the side of the road and jotted down those words on the back of a grocery receipt. Be kinder than is necessary.
To say we live in divisive times is like saying arsenic will kill you. Duh. And there are real issues we must confront attached to these divisions—racism, immigration, misogyny, healthcare, the environment, democracy itself—but that’s in the aggregate. On a molecular level, each of us deals with the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker—our neighbors and fellow community members. Not cardboard demographic representations. Not a frenzied TheRUMP rally mob screaming “Lock her up!” Or a deluge of polls dividing us 60/40, 40/60, 50/50. But real people with real faces. If we want to build a better world, this is an excellent place to start.
Wax and Wane
Homo sapiens are a quirky little species. We are both caring and cantankerous. Principled and sheeplike. Social and self-absorbed. Among our many tendencies is the kindness we demonstrate in moments of major crisis—natural disasters, wars:
Houston resident Jack Schuhmacher rescued numerous people trapped by the rising floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey, ferrying them to safety in his 17-foot fishing boat.
Hermine “Miep” Gies, her husband, and three other Dutch citizens risked their lives for more than two years to hide Anne Frank’s family and four other Jews from the Nazis. It was Miep who grabbed Anne’s diary in the mayhem of the arrests, keeping it safe until Anne’s father returned from Auschwitz in 1945.
Sadly, the sense that we’re all in this together tends to go dormant once a crisis wanes. People return to insular mode, making a living and looking after their own turf. Petty concerns predominate and rancorous rivalries erupt. Twitter wars ensue. But the reality remains: We ARE all in this together every day. If anything ultimately dooms us, it will be our failure to recognize the truth of this.
Be kinder than is necessary. But, what is “necessary kindness”?Is it merely good manners—holding the door for someone carrying a child or packages, thanking someone who does the same for us? Is it mouthing the expected platitudes in certain situations? I was so sorry to hear that your father died/ I hope you’ll find another job soon/Wishing you a speedy recovery. Perhaps the word necessary here serves as a synonym for the minimum response required to not be thought rude or heartless. We are busy, busy people after all, and it’s just not possible to extend ourselves to all the need out there.
Until it’s us. Our sorrow. Our disaster. Our need.
Fortunately, being kinder than is necessary rarely involves the sort of mortal risk Miep took in hiding the Frank family. Sometimes it’s just—literally—going that extra mile.
In my student days, while doing a semester at the University of London, several of us decided to go to Paris for a long weekend via the Hovercraft from Ramsgate to Calais. Taking the train to Ramsgate was easy, but we had no idea where the docks were once we debarked. This was in the days before satnav, before the Internet and Mapquest. You got around mainly by asking the locals “Which way?”
The woman we asked for directions in Ramsgate could have reeled off a list of street names and left/right turns, as most people do. But she didn’t. Instead, she offered to walk us to the ferry landing, despite the fact that she was on her way home after a day of work, despite the fact that the docks were in the opposite direction of where she was heading. “It’s only a mile or so,” she said cheerfully, and off we went. I have never forgotten her.
A Simple Gesture Can Mean A Lot
Sometimes that extra shot of kindness is as simple as picking up your phone.
When I got into my VW Bug in the summer of 1983 and moved to Boston, I had just written my first novel. I had an IBM Selectric III, but nothing in the way of connections to editors or publishers. About a month after my arrival, I went for a haircut. During the usual salon banter, the hairdresser, Donna, asked what I did for a living. I explained I was the editor of a business publication for retailers, but what I really loved was writing fiction. Then I told her about my novel.
Now, she could have said that’s nice or I wish you luck or how exciting. But instead she said, “My cousin is an editor at Addison-Wesley. They don’t publish fiction but she might know someone working at another house. I’ll give her a call if you like.” I liked and she made the call right then. Her cousin invited me to have lunch with her in Reading (then-headquarters of A-W), at the end of which she called her old college friend, an assistant editor at Random House. My manuscript went out in the mail the next day. I received a lovely, enthusiastic note about the book from this woman. And though a senior editor later decided not to go with the manuscript, I was really grateful to my hairdresser, her cousin, and the RH assistant editor. It was my first experience wading into the often muddy waters of publishing, and their kind support kept me going.
A double-shot of kindness is walking the walk. Demonstrating our compassion by offering material assistance, or bending the rules when people need help.
After a health emergency put the kibosh on a trip to London and Sicily—just days before we were scheduled to leave—I was faced with cancelling a slew of theatre tickets or losing a lot of $$$. Our Air B&B reservations and flights were refunded because we had trip insurance for those, but theatre tix always come with the disclaimer that all sales are final, no refunds. I wrote the various box offices anyway, briefly explaining our situation and asking if anything could be done. All but one of the twelve theatres refunded our money, and many wrote words of sympathy, expressing hope that Ed would be better soon. I was deeply moved by their kind notes and willingness to respond in a human way to a human situation.
Paying It Forward: The Ripple Effect
And sometimes kindness with a capital K simply comes down to paying it forward.
Jerry took his first trip to America when he was just 23. Sent by his London employer to represent their firm at a meeting in New York City, he was cabbing to what he desperately hoped was the correct address. Upon sharing his anxiety with the cabbie, he was stunned to hear the man say, “Don’t worry. I’ll wait out front for you while you check it out. No charge.”
Jerry couldn’t believe it. After everything he’d heard about the stereotypical New Yorker—self-absorbed, indifferent—he was blown away by this man’s kindness. “I promised myself right then that I would always seek ways to do something nice for Americans visiting the UK.”
He told me this story as I was dining out with two friends in a cozy restaurant off London’s Baker Street. Jerry was a regular—knew the owner, the kitchen staff, loved to mix American-style cocktails for the diners. Overhearing us chatting, he came to our table to ask what part of the States we were from, a conversation that lasted well into the evening. And then he offered to take us to Pinewood Studios and show us around. He worked for Lloyd’s of London in their film insurance wing, and was scheduled for a meeting at Pinewood in the morning.
We were excited—Pinewood Studios is a legend in British filmmaking. Fiddler on the Roof. The Man Who Would Be King. All of the Bond films. Jerry picked us up from our dorm in Regents Park the next morning and drove us to the studio where we enjoyed a tour of all the major sets and lunch with Pinewood’s director. I have kept this photo of Jerry for decades, a memento of one man’s generous spirit.
Show a Little Faith
When I finally managed to make it through the drive-time traffic last August, I googled Be kinder than is necessary. The full quote, variously attributed, is Be kinder than is necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.
One of the bummer side-effects of our deeply-divided society is the suspicion and uncertainty it breeds among everyone. Rather than nodding and smiling at people we pass, we are now sizing them up at twenty paces—seeking clues from their clothing, hair, make of car, accent, job, vocabulary—and making snap assessments. Friend or foe? The anger out there becomes anger everywhere.
Is this making us happier? Is this solving our deepest, most pressing problems?
Categorizing comes easily to our species, but people as individuals are a lot more complicated than that. Yes, we have a swamp of BIG pressing issues and we need to fight for a more humane, just, sustainable world, but if we can’t show a little faith in each other, can’t open our hearts and stand by one another, what hope do we have?
Be kinder than is necessary. We must make that extra effort. Take that extra step. Open our generous hearts. Because we ARE all in this together. Every day.