Killing with Kindness

Some time ago, I was standing at the corner of an intersection when a small car pulled up. The driver smiled and gestured for me to cross the street, and I smiled and gestured for her to drive through. We stood there for a couple of minutes, smiling and gesturing to each other. Five annoyed drivers were behind the small car by the time the person I was waiting for came out of the shop behind me, and we walked off together.

I would not like to have heard what the driver had to say.

Since the beginning of the New Year, I’ve thought about similar occasions of excessive consideration I’ve observed and experienced over the previous year. For example, at the church I used to attend, they tell the congregation, ‘Stand/kneel if you are able.’ It’s an empty attempt at accommodation and consideration. If I can’t stand/kneel, I’m not going to, and permission to not do what I can’t makes me feel uncomfortable and conspicuous. (I speak as a person with physical disabilities going back more than forty years.) I don’t suppose that was what was intended, but I’m not certain what was.

However, I am told that I have ‘unique sensitivities’.

I’ve made similar mistakes myself. When I was young and foolish (instead of just young, as I am now), I met a man from Germany, and began speaking with him in German. He was offended at my presumptions—he spoke English well—well enough to be rude about it. It hadn’t occurred to me I was offering a consideration he didn’t need or want, and I was wrong to do so. Several ESL friends have been upset when I’ve spoken their language to them, because they felt their privacy was threatened. I was just trying to be friendly.

Over the last several years, there have been numerous examples of this sort of ‘kindness’—the consideration that, in practice, achieves the opposite goal. People can’t blend in when others are trying to be like them (to make them comfortable). Sometimes accommodations are offered to people who, in a reverse situation, would not offer them to you. For example, in inviting dinner guests, some of whom are vegetarians, you might make a point of serving only vegetarian food. But, if you were a guest at a vegetarian’s home, would they only serve meat? Is the consideration needed, or welcome?

We would do less harm if we waited to be asked. Conversely, we might do less harm if we asked first.

One of the most memorable sermons I ever heard was preached by a deacon who worked in Chicago’s inner cities. He said: Sometimes the best thing you can do for your fellow man is leave him alone.

Fellow woman, too, to avoid offense.

Paul TN Chapman
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