The Kindness of Strangers

Erring in the Right Direction

Not too long ago, I had a bad day.

The events that led to my bad day are trivial in the way that all suffering is relative: they were events that felt great and terrible in the framework of my own life. I could explain that I felt far away from people I loved, or miserable about unkindness someone had done toward me, but my level of pain relied on incidents specific to me. That’s why, that pain scale that doctors use in the hospital, when you’re supposed to rate your pain from one to ten, it fluctuates wildly, depending on the person. Relativity.

If I had to define bad days, then, they’d be the indefinite titles for days of little lonelinesses: days when a collection of unfortunate moments—a lower-than-expected grade, being rejected by someone you liked, not enough sleep—coalesce into one kaleidoscopic entity of “bad.” A day like this is a day when maybe you cry, or try not to, or when maybe you shoulder the sadness and move on. They’re the heavy days.

It could’ve been that this specific day felt like it weighed more heavily than others, or that I felt sad and tired and like fissures were beginning to form in the way I hold myself together. But whatever it was, the act of someone holding open the door for me as I walked into the Blue Room became one of the greatest acts of a small kindness. The extra seven seconds it took for whoever it was, and I wish I knew, to hold the door, and to smile as we exchanged the holding of it was enough to make me smile back. That smudge of kindness on a dark day was enough to lighten it all, just a little bit.

Because just as pain is relative, so is kindness. It may not have seemed to be very much, to hold open a door and to smile, but to me it was, it was enough.

George Saunders, among other things a writer of unsettling short stories, delivered a convocation address to Syracuse University for the Class of 2013, and if I had to embrace a philosophy for my life, I think I would borrow it from him. He says in his address that it’s important to do all the ambitious things living is made for: “travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes,” but as all this is done, to “err in the direction of kindness.”*

Be kind. It’s a simple enough motive, to lean in toward the kindness in you and allow it to permeate the lives of other people. Sometimes, this is hard. I know this—when I am having my own heavy days I can be sharp and insolent, and unkind because it is easier. There are many, many clichés about kindness, but there is also one about misery and company.

Bad days are inevitable, because life is long and life is complicated. It seems recently that I’ve had more bad days than good, but that could be the weather. Or it could be that bad days stretch out longer than the good ones, and they stick out like dog-eared pages. But after this moment I had, when someone waited seven seconds and chose to smile rather than not, I’ve tried to reaffirm to myself the importance of erring in the direction of kindness. When I am old and grey, I want to look back on my life and be proud of the way I treated other people. I want to have been someone who was kind when it was easy to be, and when it was hard to be. When I reach the end of my life, I also want to look back and see that I loved as much as I could, and I think part of that loving is the extension of self into a realm where kindness is the norm, not the exception; I want to orient my life around the outward expression of the joy I know is present in what it means to be part of a great, wide world. I believe in kindness: one of its synonyms is humanity.

There is a quotation, often misattributed to Plato, but that actually comes from the writing of a Reverend named John Watson, who used a pseudonym when he put pen to paper. “Be kind,” he said, “for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Of all the things I’ve learned while living, I think this idea is one of the most important, because I know I have been guilty of judging too quickly, and loving too little – we all shield ourselves against the pain of other people in order to protect ourselves. This, this is why we must err toward kindness, because if in our ignorance of others we tend toward the unkind, these are the people we become: ignorant, and unkind. This is the erring toward a closing door.

The relative nature of kindness, such as pain, means that it isn’t necessarily the huge, newsworthy act of kindness that will save someone. I guess it’s a different kind of relativity, one in which all kindness is important, but to someone else, that receiver of the act, your small act is the most vital.

I had a bad day, and I will have many more days like that before I don’t get anymore, but in the end, a bad day gets tucked away into the recesses of a life that is also full of joy, and of kindness. I wish I knew whom it was who held the door open for me, who took a moment to smile, so that I could thank him or her. Thank you for wandering in the direction you did, and I want you to know that I will follow.

*A paragraph isn’t enough for George Saunders, and I would encourage you to read his speech in its entirety at: http://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/31/george-saunderss-advice-to-graduates/?_r=0