A missed chance to ‘err in the direction of kindness’

In a few paragraphs I’m going to get out of the way and let a couple of much wiser men — George Saunders and the late David Foster Wallace — illustrate a lesson in kindness that I forgot the other night.

I accompanied my dear friend to the service counter of a grocery store so she could get $20 worth of quarters. The clerk said the maximum exchange per person was $10 in quarters, and frankly was rather unpleasant about it.

Her attitude got my Irish up. So I got in line, pulled out a $10 bill and made sure I got the balance of the quarters. I wasn’t nasty about it, but the fact that my first reaction was to prove some lame point left me feeling like a heel later.

The extra quarters weren’t essential. On the way to the parking lot, my kind friend pointed out — quite nicely — that maybe the clerk was having a bad day. She was right. The exchange wasn’t about me, but I made it so.

Only then did I think of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, beautifully portrayed in the short film, “This is Water.” His point was that we can choose to respond with empathy and grace in such situations, but too often our “natural default setting” is to act as if we’re the center of the universe. It is up to us to make that choice.

And then my friend and I talked about George Saunders’ speech this year to Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, and his heartfelt plea to the graduates that they “err in the direction of kindness.”

Their words are well worth reading and listening to. Next time I hope I remember them, and think before I act.


About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in college, Irish Investigations, role models and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A missed chance to ‘err in the direction of kindness’

  1. Patti Fitzgibbons says:

    Great point, thanks for the reminder! I try to be kindest to those who aren’t so but sometimes I fail. Great piece Cousin Jim!


  2. markbialczak says:

    Thank you for making me think about my default reaction. The world would be better if we all “erred in the direction of kindness.” And if people whose job description is “customer service” would take that seriously and not get our dander up in the first place. Just saying. I like the calm Jim and the riled Jim both, by the way. Part of life.


  3. gjroma says:

    I watched that video, This Is Water, and wow! I think that was me just yesterday at the Rite Aid when there was about nine people in line with a new cashier that didn’t know what she was doing! Slowly, with God’s help, may I reset my “default” setting to make my universe not about me.

    Thanks for sharing Jim. You’re awesome!

    Always for Africa, G


  4. Renee says:

    Thanks for sharing a moment many of us recognize. I wonder if there’s any way to measure the effect of these speeches …. how often we rethink our responses in the context of DFW and Saunders’ words.


  5. Jim McKeever says:

    Thanks everyone, and good question, Renee! Perhaps someone who studies the behavioral impact of social media could look into that. I’m guessing there’s at least some anecdotal evidence out there.


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