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Business Casual: Acts Of Kindness

On a hot Sunday afternoon this summer, a family – a father with three children, including a toddler having a meltdown – was parked in a grocery store lot, with the hood of their ancient station wagon propped up. A young woman with a baby and I, at the same time, approached the family. She asked if they needed help. Maybe some water? The dad indicated yes, then said the car was running hot and they needed gas for the hour-long drive ahead of them.

The young woman returned with two big bottles of water, and I handed the man a $5 bill and wished him luck.

I learned later that the woman left the parking lot, went to a nearby service station and purchased two gallons of gas, which she brought back to the family.

The genuine help and the kindness she offered to strangers put me and my perfunctory gesture to shame.

She told me she didn’t feel generous, just guilty. If she were the one in trouble, she suspected, people would be more likely to stop to help a young white mother with a baby than an African-American dad with an overheated car and a cranky three year old.

As a long, hot, not-particularly-relaxing summer draws to a close, I am looking for answers, replaying some major events of the past few months and trying to comprehend their scope and reach: landmark Supreme Court decisions affirming marriage equality and upholding the Affordable Care Act; the massacre of nine people assembled in their South Carolina church for Bible study followed by a swift renunciation by many of the Confederate flag and symbols that fueled their assassin’s hatred; the beginnings of a contentious presidential campaign.

Smaller, less consequential personal matters intrude as well, like sick pets and the vet bills they generate; saying goodbye to a friend moving away; wondering if my aging air-conditioning system has another summer in it.

There have been lots of conversations and commentary to digest on the nature of love, hate, racism and fear. Clearly, it’s no longer enough to proclaim, “I’m not a racist” and feel righteous. Guess what? Nobody is giving out medals simply for not being a racist; more is demanded.

And what are those demands? More importantly, how do we attempt to respond without feeling overwhelmed or powerless and retreating into futile hopes that “they” will do something about it?

We, as it turns out, are they.

In talking with friends about all that has transpired, it seems I’m not the only one pondering these larger-than-life questions.

One of the first responses we are conditioned to make is to give money – financially supporting charities and organizations that are fighting for worthwhile causes. Always a good idea and a fine starting point, but with great potential for cop-out. Write a check and feel good – no engagement, no getting your hands dirty. No real cost. And there’s that nice warm feeling of having done “something,” like I had briefly in the grocery story parking lot when I handed over $5.

But I am wondering whether something a bit more is required. Some human involvement – like that offered by the woman who delivered the gasoline to the people who needed it. Something that might actually require some effort, some inconvenience.

Call it simplistic, but maybe the world could use a bit more kindness – along with all the other things it needs. We have become so cautious – not that that’s always bad – but so on the lookout for scammers and cheaters and others who are out to take advantage of us, that we build pretty tall fortifications around ourselves. Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to temper caution with kindness.

Of course, there’s personal safety and the safety of those you are responsible for and the need to be aware of your surroundings.

But there are times when just a little human interaction is what’s called for.

I’m not equipped financially or temperamentally to be a Good Samaritan 24/7, and I wouldn’t urge that role on anyone else. But trying to be on the alert for opportunities to be kind seems like a pretty good idea. I don’t expect that to change the world, but if it improves one small corner of it – maybe that’s a good start.

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