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Low Tide | 2017 | False Starts for a Star


Kindness has converted more sinners than zeal, eloquence, or learning.  

-Frederick W. Faber

Greedy Kindness

I am endeavoring daily for one kind act. I do this for myself, so it is far from altruistic. When I can imagine I have improved a stranger's life a little, I get a jolt of pleasure and perspective. Maybe I am wrong and only flatter myself. The notion of kindness is only real in the mind of the one performing it. There are no guarantees on how it will be received.

(I won't tell you my presumptive acts of kindness. That deprives them of what little honor they may incidentally have. Kindness for bragging rights is no kindness at all.)

The targets of my actions must be strangers, as that prevents me from thinking in terms of social capital and Friendship Points. I wish to believe my friends find me kind, but it is a different texture. Theirs is a kindness I must maintain, one tied to my name and ego. This must be anonymous to give me the satisfaction.

Most days, I do not succeed in my anonymous attempt. I encounter only my students and Amber, one who I am obligated to nurture because I am paid and may be the first to treat them with the potential that they can be soothed back to society. The other is so kind to me always, kinder than I can even hope to deserve, that it would be a mortal sin not to honor her with all the softness I can afford.

I don't say any of this to seek praise for boasting vaguely about trying - selfishly - to be kind. While not offensive, I do not think I am a particularly good man. I would have made a fine guilty Catholic, talking of how we are all sinners in the hand of an angry god. (My gods are lowercase conceptions and do not notice me enough to be angry; my sins are against my own gratification of how I think the world ought to be and who I ought to be within it.) I do not think a daily, often ignored act of kindness improves my moral position, but I hope it makes some other corner of the world more pleasant. In my more optimistic moments, I pretend this echoes outward so I may one day, unwittingly, feel the ripples reach me in acts I do not even realize as kindness. It is still a greedy act at its core.

I do not know that all altruism is in actuality an elevated self-interest, even as mine is. I am no longer inherently suspicious of the motives of others because it tends to amount to the same thing in the end. I give the performers of kindness directed my way genuine thanks as though they meant their actions without conditions.

Despite all of this, my middling conviction that it amounts to nothing much but a charge of reward chemicals in my brain, I cannot fathom not being kind whenever possible. It is my Pascal's Wager: maybe my kindness amounts to nothing when the tallies are in, maybe this is low-impact smugness, but what if it isn't? What do I lose, really, by my tiny act of kindness in a cold and indifferent universe? What I may gain, if I am ever right in my fantasies of kindness echoing out, is so much greater. (See how, even now, I am fixed on a potential reward?)

Writing this now, I cannot recall a solitary act of isolated kindness that affected me. I recall moments of pain and cruelty that shaped me, though. Maybe the kindness goes unremembered because we are implicitly ungrateful creatures. Maybe the absence of other pain was the kindness. Maybe I act this way because some tiny kindness programmed me and I want to give that to others. Even the greater kindnesses often went unnoticed until pointed out to me after the fact, as when my high school English teacher told me the faculty had conspired to protect me from the worst elements of the school. They couldn't save everyone, but I could be shielded from cruel reality of my inner-city school. The kindness was absenting me from cruelty that might have twisted me. This may have kept me from getting broken enough to commit conspicuous acts of malice or getting too hard to let myself be kind. The evident truth is that I will never know what could have been, only what I remember of what brought me to this point, desperate enough for validation that I write things like this, musing over my motivations for acting like a decent person.

If I believe in goodness enough to not wish to claim it as mine, does that imply evil? I do not think evil people exist in profusion, or don't long. I have encountered hundreds of felonious youths, but I have yet to meet an evil one. Mostly, they commit evil deeds because something within them has been broken, often by the so-called adults in their lives. We do not mend the brokenness. On our best days, we point them to some bandages and watch them fumble because they think scars are cooler. We are not kind to them. The system in which I toil is not built for kindness or we would give them the loving discipline their upbringings lacked. We are a bureaucracy and those are only ever lawfully neutral. We cannot exorcise the devil from desperate boys and maybe that intransigence is evil on its own, even if we are not individually evil. If I thought my labor were a net loss to the world, that I had not incidentally inspired kindness where there would otherwise only be the lashing out of the damaged, my job would only exist for the paycheck. I would maintain because my efforts give Amber a home and the opportunity to find her destiny - a sure blessing to her and all she will help by her studies - but the soul would go out of my teaching. I have encountered teachers who have lost the hope for growth in their students, who no longer have faith in the mission, and their apathy creates an evil where one does not need to exist. So long as I believe I have some purpose greater than myself, that my life is a net gain to the world, I may not be a good man, but I know I combat the evil that men, women, systems do.

I prefer my singular acts of kindness because I get a quick hit of satisfaction without having to maintain the relationship tomorrow. I don't have to see my compassion overshadowed by brutality the following week. I don't have to see the recipient of my kindness turn around and commit an act of evil themselves that throws me into existential regret, making me question what good I had truly done if they can rape and murder. My tiny kindnesses are almost cowardice in this light, something that lets me feel good without follow through. Maybe I should allow myself this pretense of goodness because I see so many failures.

Maybe this naughty little sensation of emotional generosity is my kindness to myself, so for a few minutes I can pretend I am good and this goodness can thrive outside of me, that goodness has a place in this world that is, at its core, a self-perpetuating bureaucracy - lawfully neutral to our existences; indifferent to our kindnesses. We hoist a few of the extremists aloft - Malala Yousafzai and Osama bin Laden, Jesus Christ and Adolph Hitler - but it is a distraction to the world in which most of us live, our far tinier kindnesses and cruelties. We are only ever cogs in an uncaring machine, imagining our prescribed role makes us who we pretend.

The trouble is the distance from which one sees the act. I see it from behind my eyes and know to question my motivations because most sweetness I exhibit is filtered through miles of piping of self-interest (albeit farsighted self-interest) before it meets the world. I do not have the luxury or opportunity to trace anyone else's plumbing, so I default to taking their actions more or less at face value, because deducing the antecedents and agendas of so many would be psychologically exhausting and might induce a state of permanent paranoia.

My treatment for this is believing in the benevolence of those I meet, whether or not it is true. This makes the world an easier and more magical place in which to live. Most people don't believe in magic, but it is harmless at worst in this application. I always have an agenda. It is just one I believe results largely in benevolence. I want to live in a most pleasant world. It is why I do my dishes.

Soon in Xenology: Navel-gazing? Ethnicity. False starts for stars.

last watched: Iron Fist
reading: Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis
listening: The Hush Sounds

Low Tide | 2017 | False Starts for a Star

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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