Creative writing professor Michael Orlofsky reflects on the power of simple acts of kindness to shape people's lives.
As I grow older, I reflect on my life’s “great expectations.” I’m coming to the conclusion, based on the ontological insights of the philosopher Mick Jagger, that “you can’t always get what you want . . . but if you try sometimes, you just might find—you get what you need.”
I never amounted to much as a football player . . . wasn’t much of a Casanova . . . haven’t been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize yet as a writer. But it’s dawning on me that something I can provide is something that people, especially young people, need: encouragement. It may be my life’s raison d’etre. We never know when someone, perhaps a complete stranger, needs to hear a good word.
Living is continuing to reinforce in me that lesson, but I also encounter the message in the literature I teach. For example, in The Odyssey when Odysseus after twenty years finally returns to his home Ithaca, the goddess Athena disguises him as a beggar. He first visits the hut of the pig tender, Eumaios, who grew up with Odysseus from childhood. The unsuspecting pig tender warmly welcomes the wayfarer. The reason as Eumaios explains is that “all strangers and beggars come from Zeus.” Who was he to refuse help to someone in need? In ancient Greek belief, that stranger might be a god checking up on us.
I’ve been thinking about random acts of kindness done unto me over the years—particularly an action in which someone went out of his way to help.
When I was no more than three years old, I wandered away from a birthday party on the other side of our coal-mining town. Somehow, I got home. Someone must have recognized me and dropped me off on my mother’s doorstep. I was too young to have walked home alone and too immature to explain what happened, and my parents were never able to find out who came to the aid of that lost little boy.
* * *
When I was seven, I transferred to a new school. Standing by myself in the playground, two boys approached. The older boy was eating a soft pretzel and gave me a piece . . . he went on to say that if anyone picked on me I was to let him know and that he and his brother would stand up for me. I would learn that he was the toughest kid in the schoolyard. He had to be tough—his name was Francis. He died young after rough years as a traveling rock guitarist, but I still keep in touch with his brother, James, and whenever I’m in the St. Casimir’s cemetery back home I stop by his grave.
* * *
During the winter of that same second-grade year, at the end of the school day our teacher, Sister Cecelia, lined us up at the front of the classroom where we raised our chins. Sister made sure to tuck our scarves into our jackets, and buttoned and zipped our coats before releasing us into the Pennsylvania cold and ice.
* * *
On a grey November day in fourth grade, it began to snow. The first of the season. We were in the midst of a lesson but my classmates and I couldn’t concentrate and stole glances toward the windows. The snowfall was so beautiful—big, fat slow-falling flakes. Sister drew back our attention to the board. It was no use. Our gaze strayed to the windows. “All right,” she said, “I’ll make a deal with you. You’ve got five minutes.” She turned off the lights and in the silent grey classroom we watched the lovely falling snow.
* * *
I don’t remember any acts of kindness in high school, unless one allows Mary Coulson’s letting me kiss her in the back seat of her girlfriend’s Chevy.
* * *
When I was nineteen and backpacking through Spain, late one night I found myself in Barcelona. Rather than looking for a youth hostel, I made a pillow of my pack and stretched out on a bench along Las Ramblas. At daybreak, I cracked open an eyelid and saw an elderly woman eating breakfast on the next bench. I dozed off again, but when I awoke later I found a hard-boiled egg beside me, with a little salt.
* * *
I tell my graduating seniors that it’s not easy starting out. It wasn’t for me. One of my first jobs after graduating from college was working as a short-order cook in an all-night waffle and egg diner. One Thanksgiving Day, I pulled a double shift so the married workers could spend the holiday with their families. I was single and unattached at the time, and I didn’t have any plans for the day so it was no inconvenience. In the afternoon, one of the cooks, June, brought me a Thanksgiving plate from her home table with all the fixins’. A little later, one of the waitresses brought a plate; still later, another waitress brought more food. I ate Thanksgiving for three days.
* * *
Parker the dog would follow us home when I pushed my daughter through the neighborhood in a stroller. In the back after our walk, I let Anna toddle around exploring the yard. Without fail, Parker would allow Anna to stray just a certain distance from the back steps before he moseyed over to her and herded her back to me.
* * *
Here in Troy after teaching a late class, I was broke down in my truck at the intersection of Elm and Brundidge. The engine of my old, blue Ford just wouldn’t crank. A passing motorist asked if I needed help. Ray did some tests with nothing more than a screwdriver and said that my alternator was shot. He removed it with a few wenches he had and then he drove me to the parts store where I bought an alternator. Back at Elm and Brundidge and under the light of a flashlight we installed the new component. I turned the key, the Ford sprang to life, and I shook Ray’s hand. I said, Can I pay you for your trouble? “No charge,” he said.
* * *
Of the many passages I like in The Odyssey one is, “The son is rare who measures with his father, and one in a thousand is a better man. . . .” I will always feel that way about my late father. He lived a long life, and when I called or visited him in the nursing home, he made a point of asking about my wife and children. One day, unsolicited, he said, “You know, you’re a better father than I was.” It broke my heart to hear him say that, but to this day, it is the greatest compliment I have ever received.
* * *
These are only a sampling of the many acts of kindness that I have received, and assuredly, there are many others for which there is not space here. However, I take pause and wonder if more good hasn’t been shown to me than I have shown to other people.
We have all done acts of kindness, but the examples cited above contained more virtue than simply opening a door for someone or letting the other driver go first at the stop sign. These actions cost—in either time, money, or effort—without concern for reciprocity.
In Ethics, Aristotle posits that man’s highest good is the pursuit of virtue. He sets out a line of argument starting with the question what is the object of life? All right-minded people seek the good, and that good brings happiness. True happiness then involves the “virtuous activity of the soul” that comes from a habit of practicing moral virtue. He concludes by stating that “complete virtue” is justice. But it takes work to get there. He writes:
. . . it implies a relation to somebody else—justice is the only virtue that is regarded as someone else’s good, because it secures advantage for another . . . the best [person] is not the one who exercises his virtue towards himself but the one who exercises it towards another; because it is a difficult task. Justice in this sense, then, is not a part of virtue but the whole of it.
Separated by over two thousand years in time but close in spirit, the political philosopher Aristotle and the moral philosopher Martin Luther King, Jr., come to the same conclusion about justice. King said famously that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
Yet, it is not quick and easy to get there. Even King himself had to take the long view and admit that he personally would not get to the Promised Land.
As Chris Weigant observes in The Huffington Post, “that arc doesn’t bend on its own. It takes effort. It takes action. It takes time and it takes energy. . . . It takes a firm commitment by multitudes. . . . The arc doesn’t passively bend on its own. It must be bent. We all must bend it together.”
Perhaps after generations and generations of random acts of kindness we will reach a state of collective being which Wordsworth describes as “. . . that best portion of a good man’s life, / His little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and love.”