In the before time not so long ago, when my 2003 Buick Land Yacht had a valid registration sticker (but after a hole had rusted through an exhaust pipe making it sound like a tank), I had occasion to be in a McDonald’s Drive Through at about 5am. I was just getting a morning coffee, but behind me was a Niagara Regional Police vehicle, and on a complete whim I paid for his breakfast then sped off before he got to the window. I half expected to see his lights go on behind me down the road. They didn’t. Another time, same McDonald’s, same time of the day, a young man was standing on the sidewalk by the street exit with a little cardboard sign that was unreadable in the low predawn light. I drove up in the wrong lane and gave him the money I’d still had in my hand after breaking a ten, about $7 and change.
It’s not my intention to make anyone think I’m some kind of saint for telling these little stories, but rather I want to tell another from a different time in my life, and the distinction between them I hope will eventually illustrate a point. So don’t get all huffy on me just yet, you judgmental bastards.
As a paramedic, I made a decent wage. Not as much as the police or firefighters, mind you, but plenty comfortable. One day on shift I’m walking out of a Mickey D’s in Toronto and someone was selling those newsletters you may have seen, the kind printed for those under the poverty line to offer in exchange for spare coins. As I walked past, completely ignoring him, he made a remark about my well-paying job and I recall turning back to him and saying something I feel shame over to this day. I said, “Maybe you should get one, so you don’t have to embarrass yourself like this.”
Go ahead, I’m cringing too.
It can easily be said that when I handed my change to the panhandler not that long ago, it was because I finally understood poverty. It was a tangible thing to me at the time and still very much is right now. Police sergeants, though, and I knew he was because his vehicle was one of those big over-compensating Chevy Tahoes, make pretty good money, so what was that all about? On the other side of that same token, when I was rude to the man in Toronto it could’ve been because I was just bitter and angry at the world.
But I don’t like because in this context. It’s an overused word that causes us to make simple excuses for both bad and good behaviour when the real reasons for these can run so much deeper.
I believe we’re born with a preset bit of bootstrap code that includes kindness, tolerance, and minds open to different, often contradictory ideas. This isn’t a tabula rasa, though, rather an innate ability not just to suck on a nipple or stop breathing when we’re underwater, but to be good to each other and wrap our brains around things outside of our personal experience. Our environment, the influence of people and things close to us as we grow, can contort the basic understanding we’re given of our place in the human tribe, and hide, if not deform, key tenets of our very nature. Things like kindness.
Now look, I have read the super happy fun time works by people like Kant and Rand, and others, as well as the multi-volume History of Philosophy by Frederick Copleston (which was actually pretty good). My brain hurts just thinking about the definition of altruism and the conflicting ideas of it put into the ether by these guys. Academic philosophical debate upsets my calm, and my calm is very important to me, so keep it to yourself Bubba.
I do know that kindness is often equated to weakness, but that as well is a fence built by experience and sway from those that have come before us who’ve built one themselves. It is in fact a primitive muscular strength, one pillar of many holding up the foundations of the homes we continually build for ourselves throughout our lives. YouTube clips about kindness, random or plotted, are a pretty popular feel-good watch, and you know why? Because they appeal to that very simple, still very easy to access, bootstrap code at the heart of our being.
So I gave enough money to a man in dirty chinos so he could buy a Sausage Egg McMuffin with hashbrowns, and also bought some random cop his breakfast for the same reason you probably hold the door for people or reach to pick up something someone has dropped even though it’s just as easy for them to do it themselves. Not because it’s the polite thing to do (it is), but it’s our nature to be kind. When we’re not it’s because we’ve buried that under a big pile of stinky pig shit.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Aristotle.