I hadn't planned to do more than plus Liz Klimas' story about the obituary of Mary "Pink" Mullaney:
...but the commenters have goaded me to say more. Right. Mary Mullaney was an old lady, and some of her ideas of acts of kindness are sort of quaint. Some are Hallmark-ish; some seem based on the false belief that everybody is or wants to be an extrovert. And then again some are radically brave, and always were, which is why I like them.
I'd like to encourage everybody not to try to make nice in a Hallmark-ish emotion-focussed extroverted way. Smile less. Don't greet people with whom you don't want a real conversation. Don't pretend to be interested when you are bored, or happy when you are sad, or enthusiastic when you can't wait to get out. Apart from being dishonest, cowardly, and servile, those behaviors can cause people to think that they're doing what Jesus (or Buddha) would have done when they're doing the precise opposite. So try this: Respect other adults' right to have lives and thoughts of their own, and not want to waste time repeating polite nothings with you. Act as friendly and supportive toward other people as, in fact, you are. Smile when you are particularly pleased or amused, but never force yourself to smile when you're not.
Pay attention to what is really going on with the people around you. Instead of fawning on the ones who seem most powerful or popular, try to focus on meeting real needs. Get to know the retired people who are afraid of losing their nice house, the working parents who are afraid of losing contact with their children, the young people who are afraid of never being allowed to become independent adults in an overcrowded economy that doesn't have enough full-time job openings to go around. Face the terrifying possibility that the reason why many of these people angrily reject phony smiles and Hallmark-ish platitude just might be that they know, and deep down you know, that you can and should be doing more to make a real difference in their lives.
It's disheartening to read how many people, who sound young and rebellious, and ought to be physically strong and brave, are wimping out. If they invite a homeless person to keep warm in their car while they're in church, the person will steal their car! Rrreally? Well, maybe we need to go back to the ABC's here. All homeless people are not identical. "Pink" presupposed that you have personal relationships with homeless people some of whom you can trust not to steal your car. (She also presupposed that you live in a city where there are a lot of homeless people; I don't.)
I ask these timid young people: How long ago was Hurricane Katrina? I remember that when it seemed as if everyone else in my city neighborhood had an evacuee staying at their house, I wasn't afraid that an evacuee staying with me would do me any harm; I was afraid that I'd lose the money I needed to charge a renter. So I didn't find a renter, lost the money anyway, and probably deserved to. I remember, though, dozens of baby-boomers and even the younger generation signing up to share their homes with as large a family as they could squeeze in, as recently as 2005.
Maybe it's because I'm car-free that I think this trend toward cowardice has been created by the greedhead insurance corporations. They don't want to pay back any of the money they've been squeezing out of you, so they tell you you have to play it safe, assume that the worst thing that could possibly happen--something that's happened maybe ten times in the history of the world--is going to happen any time you have any contact with another person at all. Don't share your car with passengers, even if they're relatives, even if they carried you around on their shoulders when you were a child, because you might have an accident and they might sue you. Don't invite anyone to visit your home. Don't have anything valuable in your home, because you might lose it in a fire. Don't date, marry, have children, or share your home with your parents...because the insurance company might have to pay a little money back.
If it falls for a scam as obvious as that, is it human? How many Blaze readers are zombies and don't know it yet?
No. It's always been true that the majority of people prefer to be nice, a small minority of people are too brain-damaged to have any idea what niceness is, and an even smaller minority of people are vicious and dangerous. At many times in history the chance of a good deed being wasted on evildoers has been greater than it is in these United States today. (Consider all the wars that have taken place between groups that lived close to each other--when people didn't know which side someone was on, or whether someone had even chosen a side, but everyone agreed that it was good to kill people on the other side.) Nevertheless, at all times in history, the people who get beyond the greeting and simpering routine and actually do some good for someone else, regardless of what they might have to fear, have been recognized as the heroes.
In Old Testament days, when people saw and heard strangers approaching, there was some chance that those people were spies or raiders from an enemy tribe. Not only children, but mature people of high social status, were likely to be killed--or kidnapped for use as slaves. Abraham's nephew Lot, and David's wife Abigail, were among those kidnapped along with their whole households. So when rich people went out to offer hospitality to strangers, as Abraham did, or even directed their children to do so, as Laban did with his daughter Rachel, they were displaying real courage. If something went wrong, they could not pick up a phone and ring 911. They were the local law enforcement. Nobody else was going to protect Abraham; if anything they might, like Lot, send someone to beg Abraham to try to protect them. This background information may help us understand why the stories preserved in the Bible are about people who showed courage and courtesy to strangers. That is the kind of people whose stories were considered worth telling.
Later, in New Testament history, we find people who lived in cities that had something in the way of law enforcement. Maybe they are easier for us to relate to. St. James describes churchgoers who were not physically afraid of being attacked by people they met at church, but, more like most of us, were afraid of being bored, or annoyed by different opinions, or continually asked for favors. There was nothing heroic about them, no resemblance to Abraham or Rachel or David. They would try to be seen talking to the rich people in the congregation, and edge away from their poorer, worse dressed fellow believers. They wanted to believe that they were showing Christian love and fellowship to people who were in real need when they said politely, "Depart in peace, may you be warmed and fed." James told those people plainly that they were not helping or showing Christian love. Polite phrases are not enough. If you want to help someone with money problems, you have to give that person food or money or whatever the person needs.
"What if you try to offer a home to someone in need and s/he murders you in your bed that night?" Well, for one thing, at least you'd become famous, because incidents like that are incredibly rare. If you try to offer a home to someone in need, it's much more likely that you'll end up living with a housemate whose company you don't really enjoy, at worst someone who does really rude and obnoxious things like throwing wet towels on the floor for you to pick up (because one of his ancestors was a Brahmin and Brahmins don't hang up their own wet towels). Then you'll feel great relief and satisfaction when he moves out. I've known people in real life who've had that experience, although I've also known people in real life who came to love the people they were trying to help. I don't know anyone who's had the kind of horrible experience cowards like to hold up as an excuse for not trying to help anyone in any meaningful way.
I hear people whine about being afraid to offer help to pedestrians or stranded motorists because they heard about a carjacking once. These people do not buy state lottery tickets because they don't expect they'll ever win enough to get their money back. Yet somebody or other wins a state lottery every day, and years go by in between carjackings.
I hear people whine about being afraid to rent out rooms even though they need the money, being afraid to adopt or foster children even though they want children, being afraid to recommend someone for a job because it might not work out perfectly. I have heard people whine that after buying a house with a fireplace because they were married to a person whose romantic fantasy was to snuggle in front of the fire, they were afraid to light a fire. It makes me wonder exactly what these people are so afraid of. Of death? But if a person is all that much a slave to fear, is the person alive?
Be heroic, Gentle Readers. If you go to church, forget about who shook whose hand a little too warmly; offer a starving student or struggling senior citizen Sunday dinner. If you own a house, share it with people who are in need (whose homelessness is not a symptom of more serious problems). If you drive, share your car. If you have money, choose your causes wisely; personally I believe Christians should spend only enough on ourselves to live frugally, such that in many ways the way I live on $200 a month is similar to the way I lived on $2000 a month. If you are scraping by on a pittance of a pension and can only just afford groceries, it's possible to spend even "just" grocery money mindfully. The world needs fewer people who try to live by actuarial "policies," and more who live by faith.