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Stearns: Unexpected Kindness

A man waiting at the post office motions to me as I fuss with packing tape and sticky labels. It’s the height of the holiday rush, and lots of people are streaming in, lining up.

“I saw you walk in here first,” says the genial stranger with an Englishman’s acute sensitivity to the unwritten rules of queuing. I slip in front of him, with thanks and a smile.

The next day at the gym, a woman I’ve never seen before overhears me complain about an achy back and hands over a gift certificate for a massage. “You need this more than I do,” she says. I demur, of course. “I wish you’d take it,” she insists, and eventually I do.

Two little acts of kindness, back to back. They are small, quiet gestures in a big, busy world but they have stayed with me, simple gifts of the season.
Kindness doesn’t often get the attention it deserves, which may be one reason that the words of George Saunders caught fire last summer. Saunders is a celebrated short story writer who was asked to address the graduating class at Syracuse University. An uncommon stylist who spins weird and wonderful tales, he chose on this occasion to speak plainly, and soulfully, about life's regrets.
Saunders recalls a girl he once knew in 7th grade, a small shy girl in unfashionable glasses who chews nervously on her hair, a girl teased and taunted occasionally but most ignored by her classmates. And then one day she moves away.
That’s it, Saunders says.
“Now, why do I regret that?” he asks. “Why, 42 years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
“But still, it bothers me” he continues.

“So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded… sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly...” he concludes.
We all know that awkward girl with strands of hair in her mouth, and we all know that we’ve failed her and countless others simply by being too restrained, reticent or indifferent. Perhaps that’s why a speech about kindness became such a sensation: his story is our story.
Or perhaps its appeal has to do with the fact that Saunders managed to strip kindness - corny, sappy, boring kindness - of its banality.
We are all guilty of failures of kindness. But then we are also beneficiaries of its success. Courtesy, generosity and charity are all around, binding together strangers at the post office or the gym. I don’t quite know what to do with my recent encounters with kindness except to mention them, and resolve to fail less.

Kathryn Stearns has spent 30 years in journalism as a writer and editor. She is a former member of the Washington Post's editorial board and stepped down as editorial page editor of the Valley News in 2012.
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