that's what he said, by Frank Wilson

Plain and simple kindness is true and real

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One of the great passages in modern poetry occurs in the opening section of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” the section called “The Burial of the Dead”:

… There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

I remember when I first read this in college. It struck me then — as it still does — as a most ingenious and effective representation of existential terror. I thought of it again early one morning last week.

I get up very early, usually around 5 a.m. On this particular morning I awoke not just from sleep, but from a dream. The details of the dream have become vague, but it had something to do with an experience — in the dream — of déjà vu. In the dream, apparently, I suddenly found myself being somewhere I had been before and doing something I had done before. I have no idea if it had anything to do with something I actually had done or somewhere I had actually been.

This experience was accompanied — in the dream — by what I can only call terror, an encompassing and saturating fear, a sense that at the very heart of being alive lies a profound fear born … of being alive. And it was this, this terror, that I experienced upon waking.

It was not easy to shake off. It lurked in some remote corner of my mind all day. Eliot’s lines came to me as I was making coffee, and kept coming back to me throughout the day.

Readers of this column will know that I am in the habit of wondering at times if everything we think we know about life and the world is perhaps entirely wrong, that reason and even experience are not necessarily reliable guides to understanding.

This thought also occurred to me throughout that day last week, which seems hardly surprising. After all, it is pretty unsettling to think that, not only do we not know what is going on, but that we can never know. This is doubt both undiluted and pervasive.

John Henry Newman defined faith as meaning “being capable of bearing doubt.” But this degree of doubt is pretty unbearable, and I honestly cannot say that faith was much help in dealing with it. I felt more like the character in Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnamable: “I can’t go on. I must go on. I’ll go on.”

My spirits did lift somewhat, though, on Sunday at the sung Latin Mass that I attend. I think it had something to do with participating in an ancient tradition. It may not have strengthened my faith, but it gave me hope that such devotion over so many centuries has not been in vain.

But then something happened that gave me just what I needed: one single certainty.

There was a woman in a pew near me. She is there every week in the same pew. She needs a walker to get around, and it is difficult for her to make it to the altar to take communion. Usually, there is a fellow in the pew in front of her who helps her. But he wasn’t there yesterday.

So I offered her my arm, and we went to the altar and back together.

Obviously, there is nothing at all extraordinary in what I did. It was pretty commonsensical, in fact. But it still can be placed fairly under the rubric of kindness.

And it was kindness that I began to think of, not my ostensible kindness in this case, but kindness in general. And the thought that occurred to me is that kindness is real and good and has value to both the giver and the receiver of it.

For kindness is more than one person doing something for another. The accepting of a kindness is every bit as important as the offering of it, because the acceptance closes the circuit of the encounter. The very sweet smile that woman gave me yesterday brightened my whole day.

That, more than anything, convinced me that there is at least one thing certain: Everything else we think we know may be open to question, but plain and simple kindness is irreducibly true and real.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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10 Responses to “Plain and simple kindness is true and real”

  1. ‘The accepting of a kindness is every bit as important as the offering of it, because the acceptance closes the circuit of the encounter.’

    Indeed! Simply put, and quite profound. What do I mean by profound? Irreducibly true and real.

  2. Frank, Funny to read this at this time. I am in the middle of reading Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful book about Michel de Montaigne, “How to Live”. He was chronically aware of his own uncertainty but somehow managed to cheerfully override it by conversing and generally being good-naturedly engaged with his fellow human beings. Not exACTly to your point about kindness but he had a similar answer to his own befuddlement.

  3. Frank, your closing line, “plain and simple kindness is irreducibly true and real,” took me back to a discussion I was sucked into while attending college. We were discussing possible evidence for behavior that was not only human, but humane, among our late cousins, Homo neanderthalensis.

    The fossil record at that time included the skeleton of an individual who had suffered a crippling wound – yet had survived long enough for the natural process of recovery to begin, for bones to knit. It was suggested that hunting-and-gathering BY this individual was impossible … but hunting-and-gathering FOR this individual provided time and strength for the recovery.

    The ‘doing’ of kindness and the ‘acceptance’ of kindness. I like to think it is something fundamental to us – something that some of us may have to re-discover, but is there always in our thought, waiting for expression through our action.

    I’m not certain of this … but I AM hopeful.

  4. Whenever I see or participate in a discussion like this, I walk away more thoroughly convinced that what society defines as real and unreal are completely opposite. Emotions, kindness, artistic expression, love — these are the only realities. Taxes and concrete walls are artificial constructs. Sounds hippy-ish or tao-ish, but so be it. It may be an ineffectual viewpoint, but it needs to exist. So litlle is truly real. Kindness is one of the real things, for sure.

  5. Thank you for this. It moved me.

  6. My understanding of this is that you’re realizing you cannot make the world an object of your consciousness, but you can intuit the nature of the world that is larger than what we are capable of knowing.

    You recognize that when you make the kindness the object of your knowledge, it becomes superficial. I was kind. Whoo-hoo. Hooray for me. It’s all about me. But living the kindness created an intimacy with the sphere of reality beyond that which you can define. The sphere which cannot be pinned down into concepts because it is constant change. Your sense of ego dissolved on the “accepting of kindness” when you recognized that there is no two points being connected, but only the connection itself.

    Just my thoughts!

  7. I think that is exactly correct, Steve.

  8. Don’t worry. I won’t tell the little old lady at your church that you’re a buddhist.

  9. “Real” or “unreal”, “this -ism” and “that- ism”, “reason and experience”, faith = blah, blah, blah.
    The Golden Rule is all we need.

  10. And clearly, Gracchus, you never fail to practice it.

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