Steven Petrow: Acts of kindness provide hope even in these hard times
Stephania Ergemlidze brings her basketball hoop to Black Lives Matter protests in Philadelphia to help alleviate tensions between protestors and the police. USA TODAY
Even in the current struggle to ensure that black lives matter, myriad acts of kindness are taking place.
A few weeks ago it seemed that all we could talk about was kindness.
“Even in the midst of a pandemic, we see the best in humanity,” read one headline. On NPR you could tune in to hear listeners “share their stories of random acts of kindness during the pandemic.” And who can forget the videos of New Yorkers — yes, those hardened denizens of the Big Apple — who headed to their windows and fire escapes to cheer and clap for the city’s health care providers and other essential service workers.
Then George Floyd died at the hands of the Minneapolis police and all hell broke loose. “Protests intensify across U.S.,” read one headline. “We appear to be more divided than ever,” trumpeted another.
What happened? Was the recent wave of kindness an aberration? Or is it the violence, especially police brutality against African Americans, that’s the anomaly?
No. And absolutely not.
The acts of kindness witnessed before Floyd’s death were genuine, frequently spontaneous and often viral. One morning in the midst of the Phase One lockdown, I woke up to find a calendar on my front stoop, left by Elaine O’Neil, a neighbor whom I didn’t know.
Later O’Neil explained, “I wanted to do something to show our community that I was thinking about them, feeling the way they were feeling, trying to add something colorful and cheerful to a gloomy atmosphere of worry…”
She also wanted me to know that she’s “gotten many email thank you notes and written thank you notes regarding the calendars. People have told me that they were touched by the gift. I don’t know everyone I dropped a calendar off to, so it’s a bonus to have made acquaintance with those folks.”
Far from here in North Carolina, New York City yoga teacher Nick Potenzieri has led "pay what you can" classes on Zoom for three months. He said he's experienced "an innate sense of joy" from his teaching and that "this joy can be a very powerful motivator. It can have a ripple or karmic effect on our lives."
Kindness also is rooted in our past. Especially at times of crisis or disaster — think 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina — “the soul of the country manifests itself in an inclination to open our arms rather than to clench our fists; to look out rather than to turn inward; to accept rather than to reject,” wrote historian Jon Meacham.
Kindness begets kindness.
Violent acts also haunt us
Tragically, though, violence also has a ripple effect: George Floyd’s death at the knee of a white police officer came in a long line of African Americans' deaths: Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old African American boy carrying a toy gun who was killed in Cleveland by a 26-year-old white police officer; Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old African American woman found hanged in a Texas jail cell three days after being arrested during a traffic stop; Eric Garner, who died after a white police officer in Staten Island, N.Y., put him in a chokehold while arresting him; Travon Martin, the 17-year-old African American teenager shot dead by a neighborhood watch coordinator in Sanford, Fla.; Breonna Taylor, the black woman fatally shot by police in her own kitchen in Louisville, Ky.; and Ahmaud Arbery, the unarmed black man who was fatally shot while jogging in Atlanta.
These are only recent deaths in a long thread of violence against Blacks, an indelible stain on the American experiment that reaches back 400 years, to 1619, when 20 enslaved Africans first arrived in the colonies.
Kindness and violence, they are the twisted DNA of this nation.
It can be difficult to see hope against the dark. In the past three weeks, violence has dominated headlines and newscasts, most notably the egregious actions of law enforcement and the Trump administration. The righteous anger of those protesting brutality has been met with more violence: rubber bullets, tear gas and excessive force.
Neighbors step out to help
But even in the current struggle to ensure that black lives matter, myriad acts of kindness are taking place. In Nashville, stylist Shawn Marqus Dromgoole expressed his fear of leaving his house on Instagram. "I was afraid to walk by myself in my childhood neighborhood, because I was afraid I wouldn't live to see another day," he captioned his photos. "When I shared this fear with my neighbors they said we will walk with you. This is only the beginning."
In Columbus, Ohio, The Dispatch reported, “Strangers walked Downtown streets with trash bags and buckets, cleaning up their city. Some of them had been at the protests the night before. Others saw the protests on TV and knew they could help restore peace, one strewn plastic water bottle at a time.”
Kindness is not an antiquated concept — it’s alive and well, here and now. And more important than ever.
Jamil Zaki, a Stanford professor who studies kindness, explained its role in the current movement. “People often ask me why I titled my book 'The War for Kindness',” he said, implying that kindness and fighting are incompatible. “I don't think they are. In a culture of increasing inequality, loneliness and anger, we must fight back to reclaim our common humanity. In today's world, kindness is a radical act.”
To be a warrior for kindness is not antithetical to protesting injustice. In fact, kindness — often embodied by empathy and respect — can help create a more just and loving world. To that point, historian Meacham remains confident that Americans will choose “light over dark (as) the means by which we pursue progress.”
Indeed, there’s hope in the dark. We just have to look more closely to see it, to find our way.
Steven Petrow, a writer on civility and manners and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is the of five etiquette books and host of The Civilist Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @StevenPetrow.