I’ve always been amazed by random acts of kindness. I don’t know what has to happen in a person’s childhood for them to believe that the world is an inherently good place. Maybe they were raised on a farm or in a TV show, but I’m pretty sure if you rear a kid the right way (and they aren’t autistic) they are going to come to the same conclusion as everyone else: that people are robots programmed for evil.
So if take for granted that civilization is a festering hole of iniquity, how do you reconcile that with some people’s random acts of kindness? I remember a particularly introspective episode of “Friends” in which Joey claims that all good deeds are selfish, and Phoebe tries her hardest to prove him wrong. Joey’s logic was that people do good deeds so that they will feel good about themselves, thereby making the causal justification inherently self-seeking as opposed to its projected altruistic façade. (I think Hume made the same argument, albeit to a much uglier group of friends.)
But I’m not so sure I buy that. Like when I’m at an event with an open bar, yet there’s still a tip jar sitting out. I guess tipping for the service is the “kind” thing to do, but seeing as how I’m now paying for my supposedly free drink, a free drink which is the last bastion of happiness in a superficial world, I don’t feel so good about doing it. So who’s right: me or Joey? (God, I hope it’s me.)
Then this happened: Last week, I was driving home from a wedding in Maryland. As I pulled up to one of the thousand toll booths between here and there, I rolled down my window and held out the fare, which was $5.00. The woman in the booth looked at me and said, “You’ve been paid for.” The gate went up in front of me, freeing me to pass. I was so surprised I didn’t even ask her to clarify. I just drove through with a suspicious look on my face, like I was rolling through a trap, and a trap of the worst ilk – a kindness trap, where on the other side I would be met with a punishment worse than the fierce grip of the law: I would be expected to be a better person.
As I sped away, I tried to wrap my head around what had happened. Obviously, the person in front of me had paid for me. But why? The last good deed I did that deserved any sort of repayment was when I nursed a bird back to life after it fell out of a tree in my backyard. I was nine, and I doubt very much that that bird grew up to be the first bird ever to drive a car, so I know it wasn’t him.
And it’s not like I was a homeless man begging on the street. I was driving a late-model, environmentally unconscious SUV on a toll highway. I knew what I was going into. Obviously I had the five bucks. So why? The only conclusion I could come to was that whoever was driving that car was a genuinely good person who enjoyed doing nice things. Either that, or they were so ridiculously rich that they refused to carry bills smaller than $20’s and didn’t want to the change. Part of me wanted to believe that he paid for me because I was such a pleasure to be on the road with, but then I remembered an incident where I called a woman “a dirty asshole” because she changed lanes without using her blinker. I doubt that was the reason either.
Since then I have obviously settled into the fact that sometimes good things happen and there’s nothing you can do about it. But then today I witnessed something else that made me question my faithlessness in humanity.
Every so often, for a long time now, when I finish washing my hands in the bathroom I will approach the paper towel dispenser and notice that a perfectly portioned sheet is already hanging out of the dispenser waiting for me. I don’t know why, and I don’t trust things I don’t understand, so I rip it off, throw it away and get my own towel. (Writing that out makes it seem a lot more assholish than I intend it to be. I’m just worried it’s another cruel trap, but instead of the punch line being kindness, it’s “someone peed on the towel and let it dry.” Come on people, it’s a bathroom. You don’t trust anything in a bathroom.)
But today, as I was finishing up in the bathroom, there was an older, well-dressed man washing his hands next to me. I didn’t make eye contact with him for obvious reasons (we’re in a bathroom) but I watched him out of the corner of my eye as he cranked out a towel at the dispenser. When he was finished getting himself a sheet, he proceeded to dry his hands and then, using his sheet as an ill-fitting glove, crank out another portion of towel, which he let hang there, unused. After he left, I looked long and hard at the sheet hanging there flapping in the dirty breeze. It was an intense, profound gaze, the way a person might look at a horizon in an Indie film. The reason these cloths have been hanging here, these cloths I had so precautiously discarded all these years, was because of this man, this kind, germaphobic soul, was so thoroughly offended by the idea of touching the handle on the towel dispenser that he took it upon himself to spare whoever happened to follow him the awfulness of its terrible plastic form.
So for the first time I took that towel, and I used it. then I fixed my hair in the mirror a little, because I need a haircut and it’s all over the place, and when I was done I absent-mindedly threw the towel in the trash. I had intended to “pay it forward,” to carry on the old man’s tradition of cleanliness, but now I would have to touch the handle in order to get another towel, then wash my hands again, then use that towel to dispense another towel. And it all seemed like a lot of work for nothing, so I just left, content to let other people fell good about themselves at my expense.