Close Encounters of the Think Kind

culture personal growth Oct 19, 2021

Stripes in varied widths decorated his short sleeve jersey knit shirt.

Medium thick gray. Wide pale yellow. Thin light blue. Loose, but not baggy, brown trousers skimmed the top of simple black tennis shoes. Over his shoulders worn, but not ragged, backpack straps hung. In his hands laid a black folio. Our eye contact was fleeting, like the flicker of a firefly on a hot summer night. Yet it was long enough. He smiled and moved across the parking lot in my direction. I groaned. Maybe if I looked down as if intently reading something or pulled out my phone and began a fake conversation, he'd disappear.

I’ve never been good at responding to situations in the moment. I think of the perfect comeback, humorous anecdote, or brilliant idea as I’m driving down the road after leaving an event or a day after a conversation ends. And so it was I didn’t rally myself sufficiently to come up with a polite but sufficiently off-putting look of “don’t bother me” before he appeared at my truck window. Now, to be sure, it’s not that I would have opened this protective shield to anyone in any circumstance. My sloth-like response tendencies do have some limits.

Nor is it that I can’t say “no” to pleading eyes, downcast faces, or cardboard signs proclaiming “Hungry.” Just ask my kids. (To be clear, they haven’t yet stood on busy street corners begging for sandwiches – so far as I know -- although they had plenty of rehearsal practice growing up.) I also know there’s a difference – albeit not always a distinctly clear one – between helping someone who’s down on their luck and perpetuating a cycle of dependence. It’s not only okay, but sometimes the best response, to say “No, I can’t help you.”

A wide smile revealing white, misaligned teeth accompanied the brief spiel delivered respectfully and quietly. “I’m selling these to raise money to help poets. They’re $3 each. Would you like to look?” At least he wasn’t asking for a 100% handout. As I thumbed through the stack of glossy 8x11 inch prints, obviously printed from online sources, I pondered. As a writer, I’m sensitive to intellectual thievery. If I purchased one, would I be hypocritically advancing a practice I abhorred? He remained quiet. No pushing. No sad stories. No hard sales pitch. Just silence. And waiting.

He seemed like a young boy who’d fallen through society’s cracks and, by the time he’d climbed out, discovered himself a man.

We Americans pride ourselves on independence. (Although there’s a strong cultural counter-tide rolling in.) Hailing from hardy pioneer stock and growing up on a farm, I’m a hearty advocate for hard work and have zero patience for entitlement attitudes.

Elbow grease lubricates not just opportunities but character.

Yet it’s also true one must have boots to have bootstraps by which to pull oneself up, and everyone who’s barefoot isn’t so by choice.

I selected one of the prints and handed him a $5 – a miracle considering I never carry cash. Half of what I’d pay for a lunch. He grinned, nodded, and said, “Thank you!” Then he strolled to another car in the restaurant parking lot and began his pitch with a new potential customer.

The incessant dismal news of a world gone wrong bullies our souls into dark corners of cynicism, irritation, and suspicion.

We ache to be free but the reports of abuses of power, civil wars, natural disasters, and scams from the lowest to highest order keep marching towards us. Close behind are the oppressors we or someone close to us face: devastating betrayal, tragic loss, aching disappointments. Darting in and out are the annoying pests who taunt and tease with sarcasm and shame, somehow knowing just where our greatest vulnerabilities lie and poking them incessantly.

Life isn’t kind to kindness.

Compassion, cordiality, generosity, graciousness, sympathy, and solicitude don’t grow natively in our heart. These must be cultivated. Not just planted. But tended to. Constantly. The weeds of overwhelm, self-focus, and discouragement are continually seeded by the winds of a fallen world. And while many tools are required to produce a bountiful harvest of “peace on earth, good will towards men,” one crucial implement is kindness.

Courage is required to wield kindness.

Amongst our friends, colleagues, and family, we’ll often reap the harvest of kindness. With strangers, it’s unlikely. Yet it’s still worth sowing. Not because of the benefit it brings to us, but because a dark world needs every bit of light it can get.

He advanced across the pavement, heading to the adjacent parking lot, turning his head ever so slightly. From my al fresco dining table I caught his eyes. Briefly. Inwardly I started. Would he come over, wanting to deliver another or a different pitch? He smiled. Only bigger and wider this time. As if greeting a friend. A slight sparkle had replaced the doubtful cloud in his eyes as he gave a slight nod.

What did my $5 go to buy? I have no idea. I don’t care. In that connection, momentary and fleeting, the news reported: “There still remains in this world: faith, hope, and love.” I needed that message more than he needed the money.

As the youth group chorus from the mid 20th century proclaimed, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” May the despair of darkness never bully us into fearing to strike another match of kindness.

For it is kindness we find our closeness.



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