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I was trying to define my conception of kindness to some older women and at one point was using the standard story of the good Boy Scout helping the old lady across the street at an intersection. This has been an iconic good deed for a teenage boy, but when I introduced the idea of doing the good deed in such a way that it didn’t deprive the old lady of her self-reliance and independence the conversation quickly hit some snags.

Wasn’t my supposing the old lady needing help imposing on her privacy? Was asking her if she needed help demeaning to her dignity? Was walking slowly to provide a “shadow space” from potential traffic really helping, or just confusing everyone? Why was I trying to help someone in the first place, wasn’t there an ulterior motive? Isn’t it better to just stay out of other people’s affairs, unless they ask? All of these questions were confusing to me, particularly because this particular group was one that verbally claims that love is the answer to practically all of human problems. I was thinking wasn’t helping an act of love?

The whole problem came up when I was trying to explain why the ideal form of helping another person was to do some little thing that didn’t need a thank you, because it was such a natural act in the flow of ongoing things. It seems most people operate on a transactional basis when dealing with other people, and there must be some form of payment given for any deed. My idea of a tiny helping act that doesn’t require any kind of payment becomes an intentional gift, and it helps one become kinder to oneself, and that is the reward. People talk about being kind, but they don’t seem to mean much behind the words other than smiling, and saying superficially nice things. To just keep smiling and talking about the beautiful weather in an upbeat way will get one through most of these short conversations, and that will be thought of as kind.

Those old women made me feel like I should be in training to be a “nice” teenager.