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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Kindness of Strangers

people reaching out to help another person

people reaching out to help another person

Hana Callaghan

One of my favorite lines from theater is from Tennessee Williams’ Street Car Named Desire, when Blanche Dubois drawls, “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.”  Last night I lived it.

I am the Director of the Government Ethics Program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and as such I am totally immersed on a daily basis in the stories of politicians behaving badly. This is increasingly causing depression at the end of the day. Last night I was particularly morose, because yesterday was the last day for the Ethics Center’s iconic executive director, Kirk Hanson, before he steps down. 

As I stood in line at the grocery store, cranky, contemplating the lack of ethics in the world, the woman in front of me turned to me in embarrassment because we were in the express lane, and she had way more than 15 items.  I laughed and told her no problem.  In my world, an express line violation was the least of my worries!

The young couple behind me in line and I exchanged pleasantries as we waited.  When finally it was my turn to be checked out, I realized in horror that my wallet was not in my purse.  I panicked. Was it stolen? Was this just more evidence that the world is going to hell in a handbasket?   I asked the checker if I could write a check, but of course I couldn’t without ID. 

I started to collect my items so I could get out of line when the young man behind me removed the barrier between our items and said to the checker, “This is on me.”  

I stared in astonishment. “I can’t let you do that,” I said.

He said, “I insist.”

“No really, you’re very kind, but I’m sure my wallet will turn up.”

But he was adamant. “You were kind to the woman in front of you, now it’s time for someone to be kind to you.”  He turned to the checker and nodded to her to ring up the items.

I was going to absolutely refuse to let him do this when I took note of the impact his generous gesture was having. His wife had tears in her eyes as she looked at him adoringly.  The checker was stunned.  The people in line behind us were grinning from ear to ear. And most spectacular was the joy emanating from this man at the prospect of doing this grand good deed. He is one of those people who truly subscribe to the notion that it is better to give than to receive. I didn’t want to diminish the significance of his gift or the power of the moment by rejecting his kindness.  So with great embarrassment, guilt, and gratitude, I let this total stranger buy my groceries.

He refused to let me know his full name or contact information because he didn’t want recognition or to be repaid. I only know his name is Ricky. As I drove home from the store I realized Ricky had given me a lot more than dinner.  He had given me hope. In spite of how our leaders behave in Washington, I have renewed faith that we are going to be OK. Last night in spite of differences in race and age, a young man impulsively helped someone he had never met because it was the compassionate thing to do.  I have renewed belief in the generosity of the American spirit and hope that we will always be able to find comfort in the kindness of strangers. Thank you, Ricky.

Aug 17, 2018

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