No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

I’ve been celebrating Lent this year. As some of you might know, the Lenten season is the 40 days leading up to Easter, where some Christians (e.g. Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans) fast and prayer and do good works. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, where Christians receive ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads, to remind ourselves and others that we are all sinners who need the saving power of God.

As part of my Lenten commitment, I’ve decided to do a random act of kindness each day. God knows that Berkeley and the nearby cities desperately need some niceness, that the populace is starving for some decent human behavior. But what I didn’t realize is how hard it would be for people to accept it. I learned this lesson on the first day of Lent.

I was in a local Safeway, which is a national grocery chain. I was waiting on line with a few items, and in back of me was a stressed out mom. She had three young children in tow, a couple of them wailing because it was way past their nap time.

Pleased to find my first recipient of my random act of kindness, I smiled at her and said, “You can go in front of me.” I thought that this would be the end of it, but the young mother stared at me as though I were speaking Swahili. When she realized that I was serious, she protested, saying, “No, that’s okay.”

Seeing that this would be harder than I thought, I insisted. I said, “No, please. Please go in front of me.” 

Reluctantly, and still glancing at me out of the corner of her eye, she gestured to the children to come in front of the (obviously insane) woman in front of them on line.

But before she actually took the gargantuan step of placing her items on the conveyer belt, the mom gave me one final chance to back out. She said, “I actually have more items than I seem to because there are several in my bag.” 

I said that this was okay, that she could bring up as many items as she wants. (At this point, I was close to hollering, “Lady, I’m trying to do an act of kindness because it’s Lent. . .so can you please place your frigging items on the counter!!” — which of course would have blown the whole nice, kindness thing.)

Finally, summoning up some courage and inner faith that maybe things would be okay and that this wasn’t a cruel trick, she proceeded to place her groceries down and pay her bill. After it was all over, she breathed a sign of relief and thanked me.

Reading this, you may be scratching your heads wondering what in the world I am talking about. Where you live, being nice to a stranger wouldn’t elicit suspicious looks. But in this mean, depraved and deprived area, the culture does not encourage niceness, to put it mildly. For instance, if you’re a helpful male who tries to hold the door open for a woman, you may get barked at that she can hold the door open herself. And if you try to help a disabled person, don’t be surprised if he purposely runs over your toes with his wheelchair. (True story, happened to someone I know.)

This is an area where there are so many feral, antisocial people that one never knows when someone will lose it. Giving or receiving kindness may be hazardous to one’s health. And yet I am convinced that some people are truly hungry for it. Case in point.

Not that long ago, I was in yet a different grocery store and was second on a line. A checker opened up the register next to me. Rather than participating in the common practice of mowing people down to get to the head of a new line, I leaned over to the woman in front of me, who was distracted by her cell phone, and gestured for her to go next. Well, you would have thought that I had just rescued a kitten from a burning building.

A couple around my age on another line were smiling and pointing to me. I thought that maybe I had something disagreeable hanging out of my nose, when the man yelled out, “That was so nice of you!” And the woman shook her head in agreement, adding, “You just don’t see anyone doing anything so nice for someone else these days.”

Pleased, though a bit flustered that my basic politeness elicited such enthusiasm, I said to them, “Well it is so nice of you both to notice! Most people wouldn’t even notice that I was being nice.” 

We all smiled at each other for this rare moment of being able to express our humanity; perhaps, we were even transported back to another time and place where civility existed in our worlds.

There are some deep seeded reasons why local people are so wary of each other and keep their heads buried in their IPhones. Given the plethora of mental illness, violence, and political agendas, one walks a gauntlet down the streets. You just never know when someone will get in your face and go off on you, which inevitably leads to a frightened and distrustful populace. As one friend commented when I told her my Safeway story, “The mom was wondering what your angle was.”

And yet to reside among hordes of people and rarely find friendliness creates inner starvation and unfathomable alienation. The lack of human kindness is one of the many reasons why this area is totally unlivable.

Given my experience at the Safeway, whether I can actually find another 39 people who will allow me to do something nice for them this Lent is an open question. I hope and pray so. Because when we’re robbed of the ability to receive and offer kindness, it is not just a very bad thing for a community. It is a bad thing for one’s very soul.

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