Way back in 2016, I was heading into Safeway, and I passed a car in the parking lot covered with bumper stickers that made me think, "The owner of this car is definitely not my people." I got my stuff and got in line, and an older woman got in line behind me. She looked frazzled, and just had a few things that she was struggling to hold without a cart, so I let her go ahead of me. She couldn't have been more gracious, telling me that she was already late to a family gathering, laughing because she's perpetually late. She was charming and, of course, when I walked out of the store a few minutes later, she was pulling out of her parking space in the sticker-covered car.
She's not who I expected to see driving the car. When I told a friend about the incident, my friend suggested maybe the nice, frazzled lady was borrowing someone else's car, and maybe that's true, but for the sake of the point I want to make, let's assume her opinions were reflected in the stickers on the car. The niggling thought I had then (and now) wasn't about the nice, frazzled lady. What I wondered is this: If I'd known she owned the car, would I have offered to give up my place in line?
It's a small thing, really. If I hadn't given up my place, no one would have thought ill of me. It wouldn't have been mean for me to stay where I was. But would knowing that she and I came from opposite ends of the political/gun-owning/women's rights/climate change spectrum have stopped me from performing an act of kindness?
I've been thinking about that incident because I recently heard author George Saunders in an interview talking about how to be a kind human in a cruel world. Saunders said that kindness is the only non-delusional response to the human condition. He said that we're all in our own little flawed thinking machines, and when we see someone else in their flawed thinking machine, it seems crazy to start judging that person. "You might more reasonably say, "oh wow, you too."
And here's where I pause to consider my friend's suggestion that perhaps the nice frazzled lady was borrowing a car. After all, my flawed thinking machine can only surmise.
I love what Saunders said. I think it's right, but I don't think it's simple. We are complicated beings, containing multitudes as Whitman said. But in these times, when I often feel anxious and angry and disillusioned, kindness feels like a good goal for me. Or maybe a starting place...
And then, ever and always, onward.