In an increasingly cruel world, the social weight of kindness is magnified
Some years ago I was leaving the apartment that I had moved to after the end of my marriage. It was on the fourth floor, at the top of an old brick walkup that was stiflingly hot in the increasingly warm summers, and I had found a new space which was not only bigger and cheaper, but blissfully cooler. While carrying a box of my possessions down the stairs for the last time I ran into one of the other tenants and took the opportunity to say goodbye. We didn’t know each other well, but had always been polite.
“Oh, that’s awful,” she told me. “I mean, I really hope you’re happy in your new place,” she hastened to clarify, “it’s just that I’m going to miss bumping into you. You’re the happiest person in the building. You always have something nice to say.”
Happiest person in the building? This was news to me. There were some good memories and accomplishments worth celebrating in my nine years there, but I had been seriously depressed and in poverty for much of it. There were whole years I was just barely keeping it together. I figured I was the most miserable sod in the whole building. A stain on its entire mood.
As a casual acquaintance, she didn’t see it. Not closely, anyway, although I knew she observed some of the ebb and flow of my spirits. What she remembered the most, what made the strongest impression on her, was the fact that I had always tried to have something nice to say. I was raised that way.
Although our civilization retains many trappings of what we might call polite society, they’re vestigial. How are you? I’m fine. So rote it’s effectively meaningless. Informality has advantages, but there’s a coarsening of social interaction that comes along with it. We are in an epidemic of loneliness. I am old enough that when I was born it was still reasonably common in the place where I grew up that when you took sick a neighbour might come by with a casserole, or when you left on vacation a friend would water your plants and walk your dog. Many of us don’t have friends like that anymore. The old neighbourly niceties have mostly been monetized, so if you can’t afford to pay someone to water your plants, they don’t get watered. I don’t know how many young men were trapped in a place where the only social interactions they had were basically only the ones linked with financial transactions — with the woman who sells them their pizza or the guy next to them at work — even before the pandemic isolation came along, but it’s above zero. Among strangers, even the smallest of social niceties can be hard to find sometimes. A please or a thank you. Holding the door with a smile. They’re little things, and hardly extinct, just…dwindling. Sparse. A shred less common, but sometimes enough to miss.
A benediction is the utterance or bestowing of a blessing. Typically this takes place at the end of a religious service, but I am not here in any way to endorse religion. Again, we retain a bare minimum. Have a nice day. As social animals, it gives us something to say. Waitstaff and cashiers say it with immense regularity, outside of rare days when it is replaced by a happy Halloween or enjoy your Easter or weeks of yuletide variations. I’ve heard thousands of have a nice days with a smile in someone’s voice that seemed entirely heartfelt, and heard it as a joyless recitation a thousand more, no more emotionally meaningful than do you want fries with that. I never wanted to be that guy. So I offer up a little extra. A genuine wish for something more than just “a nice day.” If I know something about their lives, I offer a kind wish about that. I hope your grouchy boss shows up in a great mood tomorrow and offers you a raise. I hope those pesky garden slugs realize that they like it better on the other side of that big hill. It sounds like you’re having a rough day, so I hope that tomorrow is better. One wish apiece, to all comers. After years and years of it, I even have a standard go-to that has never failed me, and seems to bring everyone from the delivery person to the dental receptionist out of their routine for a moment: I hope the rest of your day is stress free with something in it that makes you laugh. A whole lot of days don’t work out like that, but it’s always nice to hear, and it’s nice to have a goal.
That was it. That one impulse, to offer up just a few kind words to everyone I talk to, because I know that so many of us aren’t hearing enough of them, transformed me from the sad bastard bemoaning his fate in unit 23 into the happiest guy in the building for a neighbour who would miss me. It took less than ten seconds of my whole day. I could be miserable, but that wasn’t what made the strongest impression. It was just saying something kind when kind words aren’t always easy to come by.
I’ve never much been a materially ambitious guy. I want to make some kind of positive difference in my world by being in it, and some of my efforts to do so work out better than others. At the end of the day, if I feel I can respect the face I see in the mirror, even failed efforts feel worth it. Today, I am more secure than I was in that little apartment. Safer, happier, calmer. I am lucky enough to be in a place where I’m more able to be generous, because I’m not on the bleeding edge of dire financial crisis all the time, and it does my heart good that I’ve been able to do things like open up some space in my home for a friend in need when circumstance seems to call for it. But I also remember this: it really doesn’t take much to make some kind of small positive difference in another human being’s day. Not a one of my perpetual benedictions cost me a dime to utter, and I often walked away from things as simple as buying groceries with one more smile in the day than it might have had otherwise.
If you are troubled by the increasing divisiveness and fury that seems to define our world more completely by the day, and you wish to wake up in a world that is a little kinder tomorrow than it was yesterday, no act of kindness is too small, and it doesn’t have to come with a price tag any bigger than a moment of your time. Good things start small, like seeds. Plant a few kind words. We can all use more of them. You can still be a miserable cuss if you really need to be, but you can apparently also be a good neighbour at the same time.