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.