Our immediate sphere—that's where our power is. As insignificant as we might feel within the larger realms of a society or a country, there is a circle of influence radiating out from our individual conduct. This is where the impact of decency flourishes and abides.
A friend used to walk the streets of her neighborhood every week wearing rubber gloves and dragging along a large black plastic bag, picking up beer cans, cigarette stubs, candy wrappers, and all manner of detritus. For two miles in either direction from her house, the roadside was immaculate. She also made a practice of dropping in on sick, lonely , or grieving people in her vicinity, bringing baked treats and good cheer. When she died, the enormous church in her town was filled to overflowing. The tributes went on and on, so widely had her generosity of spirit inspired those who knew her.
The measure of a good life is local; true satisfaction emerges most vividly in our immediate surroundings where we see the effects of helpful actions day by day. If we are able to live somewhere for a while, contributing to the lives of others leads to the slow accrual of respect and loyalty. Over time, we gradually become wealthy in relationships. A neighbor never forgets how you picked up their groceries or mowed their lawn during an illness. The more we seize upon opportunities to be kind and act generously, the more we can count on the kindness of others.
In these divisive times, it may be tempting to give up on the cumulative reciprocity we call community. The thousands of humble, person-to-person exchanges that add up to a sense of belonging can seem flimsy and insubstantial, not enough to build a life around. One person's actions don't make much of a difference, anyway. Such a stance absolves us from having to get involved, take responsibility, or even practice respectful restraint. Pulling inward, retreating into a "me first" pessimism , is seductive in its temporary convenience.
When I see a beer can at the side of the road, I often wonder what someone was thinking in the moment prior to throwing it out the window. The world is one big garbage receptacle? The people who pick up garbage at the roadside are suckers? Maybe it feels like freedom. Considering the needs of others is, after all, a constraint on our whims, a tie that binds us. Tossing the can, disregarding other people in that one defiant gesture, is an elevation of the self above others that grants a flagrant, if fleeting, gratification.
Such self-absorption leads to a circle of insecurity based upon a dismal view of others. Everyone's in it for themselves, so I'd better look out for myself and take what I can get. Those caught in this point of view are often suspicious of help when it is offered. With a self-fulfilling expectation of betrayal and bitterness, they tend to shun an extended hand and thus rarely get to learn what goodness looks like firsthand.
A preponderance of decency is the only answer. I'm not saying this to be glib or to dismiss the weight of hardship that produces this rejection of hope. But I am staking a claim for the power of kindness, even in the midst of the deepest despair. In blighted urban areas all over this country, for instance, many have turned abandoned lots into community gardens with the labor of their hands. At the end of each summer's growing season, some of these gardeners have set up giveaway tables where extra lettuce, tomatoes, squash, and other vegetables are put out there for the taking. The hand-lettered sign says FREE. It's hard to insist on bitterness when such giving asks for nothing in return.
Inspiration lingers and grows. One morning years ago, I drove past a traffic circle a few blocks from where I lived, going out to run a few errands. There a woman was energetically pulling out weeds and digging out the rocky soil to replace it with the bags of healthy topsoil she had stacked beside her. It was tough work, and she was going at it with unmistakable zeal. When I drove past there a few hours later, she was planting small flowering bushes around the edge of the circle. It was beautiful. I honked my horn, signaling my gratitude , and she waved. Immediately, we were both beaming. I did end up moving away from there and two decades have passed, but I haven't forgotten her diligence or the exchange of our smiles.
Let's use our power. The people who are sewing double-thick masks with good quilting cloth and giving them away, the ones who are bringing bags of treats and useful items for nursing home staff to take home with them after exhausting shifts, those who start making a better world by doing what they can to improve their neighborhood—these are our current exemplars. Kindness is never wasted. You never know whose life changes as a result of having this glimpse of something so beautiful. This is how we prevail.
Copyright: Wendy Lustbader, 2020
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