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How kindness appreciates

One gracious act can resonate for a lifetime



Image credit: Richard Mia

A long time ago, when I was eight or nine, my father had a risky surgery. These days, that particular procedure is pretty much an afternoon’s inconvenience, but back then it was a roll-the-dice long shot. I wasn’t old enough, or maybe smart enough, to understand how dangerous it was. And the adults around me, though never less than honest, saw no reason to lay out the odds to a nine-year-old.

The day before the surgery, one of the doctors asked to see me. I went into his office cheerfully; at that age, just the idea of an adult wanting to talk to me made the occasion special. What he told me was very direct. There was a possibility, he explained, that the next afternoon I might be feeling very angry. If that happened, he said, I should come and be angry at him.

I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember what he looked like. I have a sense that he was tall, though to a nine-year-old, a lot of people look tall. But I remember what he said, and many decades later, that memory still has the capacity to warm me.

Kindness can do that.

The doctor owed me nothing except his best efforts to keep my father alive. But he went out of his way to reach out to a small boy who didn’t even realize that an abyss could soon open up beneath his feet.

We think of kindness as a way to ease our way through a day, to help us get to the other side of a situation. But an act of kindness can be much more than that. It can cast a light down decades and provide a warming feeling long after the occasion has grown cold. Gifts like that aren’t used up and forgotten; they’re remembered and cherished.

One message of the Harry Potter books is that being deeply loved as a child can provide a kind of protection throughout your life. It gives you a sense of self-worth and confidence when you’re threatened by the forces of darkness, or even by a disappointing SAT score. Being the recipient of an act of kindness can have a similar effect: It not only reassures you of your own worthiness, but also provides a permanent belief that the world is not as dark a place as that registered letter from the IRS might suggest.

There’s a reason we remember great kindnesses. It’s not that people are keeping accounts and preparing to repay them. In a transactional world, a luminous kindness is a combination of the act and the time, and that produces something beyond evaluation. Trying to repay it is like calculating the price of Versailles as an Airbnb.

The inability to figure out an exchange rate, a way to have the same impact on a giver’s life that he had on yours, has spurred the concept of paying it forward. If you can’t repay the person who lives permanently in your appreciation, you can at least adjust your balance sheet with the universe — and maybe plant yourself enduringly in someone else’s memory.

A decade after my father had that surgery, I was at college when I received a late-night phone call telling me that he had died unexpectedly. Numbly, I asked a friend with a car if he would drive me to the train station the next day. Instead, he immediately drove me the 2½ hours home, dropped me off, and in the middle of the night turned around and headed back to school. I don’t remember what we talked about on the road. I vaguely imagine that I tried to keep things relatively light, both not to burden my friend and to shove the fact of my father’s death into a far corner of my mind to think about later. But I know that on every mile, I was conscious that my friend was bestowing on me a great kindness, even a blessing.

I haven’t seen my friend in decades. He may have forgotten the whole episode, although I certainly haven’t. After all, his kindness to me reached not only to that occasion, but to all the times since when I’ve been nourished by remembering it. It’s a debt, and a dividend, built on massive emotional compound interest.

The kindnesses that stay with you, the ones that light your life for years to come, don’t involve the bestowing of stuff. Material generosity, the giving of things, is admirable, but our appreciation may last no longer than the stuff itself. A meal or a sweater or even a watch carries an expiration date; someone putting himself forward for you at a key moment stays with you as long as you yourself deal with other people. In the long-term database we each carry around, there are more entries filed under “Kindness, Deeply Remembered Acts Of” than most of us imagine.

In 1970, after James Baker’s wife died of cancer, George H.W. Bush suggested that his fellow tennis club member might find some distraction in helping out on Bush’s Senate campaign. Baker was reluctant; he noted that for one thing, he, like most people in Texas at the time, was a Democrat. Oh, said Bush, he didn’t care about that. He just hated to see Baker looking so sad all the time.

Bush’s reaching out to a friend led to Baker’s eventually becoming White House chief of staff, secretary of the treasury, and secretary of state. It didn’t work out badly for Bush, either. And 48 years later, in his eulogy at Bush’s state funeral, Baker quoted the former president as saying, “When a friend is hurting, show that you care,” and “Be kind to people.”

Very late one night, a long time ago, a sudden problem developed with my wife’s pregnancy. As we bolted for the hospital, I called a neighbor to say we would be dropping off our three-year-old. I wouldn’t say it was a request, because the possibility of our neighbor declining never occurred to me — nor, I’m certain, to her. The individual who caused my wife such great discomfort on that occasion is now 30 years old. But that night, and that phone call, doesn’t seem nearly that long ago. I see my neighbor frequently, and always with a sense of a bond between us much deeper than our having each other’s house keys for emergencies.

Kindness is more than an action. It’s a power, even a superpower. It empowers the receiver, giving him something that can strengthen him years later, after the original circumstances have faded like old election predictions. It also empowers the giver, because making a positive impact on someone’s life is the most powerful ability imaginable, much stronger than Superman’s X-ray vision.

In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut’s hero works out a baptismal speech for his neighbor’s newborn twins: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies —: ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

And if you are, the glow can last those hundred years.

David Sarasohn, a longtime columnist for The Oregonian in Portland, has written for the New York Times and the Washington Post. He has published three books, including Waiting for Lewis and Clark: The Bicentennial and the Changing West.

• This story originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.