Back from a shiva visit to a family who had lost a 20-year-old son in a freak accident, I marveled at the mother’s capacity — even while suffering — to notice the small kindnesses of close friends and absolute strangers. I looked her in the eyes, “But it’s nothing, absolutely nothing. It’s just the smallest thing we can do. It’s because we can’t do what we really want to do, which is to bring your son back.” I felt desperate and pathetic. Running errands, bringing food or visiting felt worthless, helpless.
I shared this frustration with a friend. Her reaction: “You’re wrong. When we were in the hospital with my dying father, we were held up by that very love. We were carried by those unexpected kindnesses. Of course, they’re not worthless.” But I still didn’t buy it. I was mistakenly thinking in terms of compensation instead of affirmation.
Small gestures of kindness matter because in a world where suffering is commonplace and despair is almost a currency, a little package of tenderness pushes away the pain if only for a moment. True, it’s a temporary salve, but it creates a moment of grace and generosity in a landscape of emotional scarcity. It fills you up just a little when you’re feeling depleted. Perhaps this is the meaning of the end of Proverbs 15:30: “…good news brings fat to the bones.” When we’re down, we need good news.
As I get older, I appreciate the preciousness of redeeming moments and no longer expect that happiness is my due. Temporary goodness is fleeting, but right now I’ll take it. On days that have been particularly rough, I’ll often tell a friend that she needs to get me one piece of good news before close of business. Just one. And one is sometimes enough because it’s all we have. The regular sharing of good news should be a daily mandate among friends. It doesn’t have to be earth shattering to do the trick.
This was a healing thought at the funeral for this young man — the second in less than two months in our broader community — while new revelations surfaced daily about Rabbi Barry Freundel’s allegedly immoral escapades. It was all that anyone was talking about. Preparing to go to the funeral I thought to myself, “How much can one community take?” These were two absolutely inexplicable wrongs (if in fact the charges against Rabbi Freundel prove true), but wrong in such different ways. And although they were not in any way connected, they mired a community in a difficult and conflicting emotional range of darkness, one fresh punch in the stomach after another.
Ironically, the funeral was a deep comfort. There was a lot of longing in the room, longing that this surreal gathering was one huge mistake. There was a lot of crying from huddles of students and friends and random outbursts of tears from parents. But for the grace of God it could have been any of us in the front row. There was also intense love in the room, the love of a community that takes care of its children, that takes pride in each of its fine young and women. It was the noble glue of living among others in a state of responsibility limned with compassion. We were all parents of this child in some cosmic and spiritual way and shared the pain, even if we could never fully imagine it, even if ultimately this family sat shiva alone.
All day I pondered why this funeral had the power to push away the dark cloud of scandal when it was itself such a dark cloud. Then I recalled a line of David Gelernter’s “Drawing Life,” his response to being the Unabomber’s 23rd victim: “…if you insert into this weird slow machine of modern life one evil act, a thousand acts of kindness will tumble out.” I read that line again and again when the book first came out to pause on a truth, and this was a big truth. We cannot stop evil. We can only respond to it with the oppositional force of kindness. The more evil, the more kindness. It’s not a theological response. It’s a practical one.
Don’t wait. Act now. In the immortal words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.” We may diminish the worth of small gestures in the face of huge and mounting crisis. We may at times forget the wisdom in Psalms, “olam hesed yibane” — the world is held up by kindness [89:3]. That wisdom is not only descriptive. It’s prescriptive. Do the math. If one act of evil unleashes a thousand acts of kindness, then maybe just when we think we’re losing, we’re actually winning after all.
Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month. Her most recent book is “Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death” (Simon and Schuster). Subscribe to her weekly Internet essays at ericabrown.com.