Kindness needs no introduction. We know it when we see it.
That’s not to say that we, ourselves, are great practitioners of the art of kindness. But we are great consumers, when the need arises, and the need always arises.
We are nearing the end of our study of virtue, making use of Karen Swallow Prior’s 2018 book On Reading Well. The format of her book is balanced between examining the classical and theological definitions of various virtues, while encouraging us to take a deeper look into literary works as they provide, in a sense, living examples of these virtues. This week we experience the virtue of kindness through the short story Tenth of December by George Saunders.
Don Eber is a middle-aged man dying of cancer. He has come to the woods on the tenth day of December to commit suicide; death by hypothermia. As part of his plan he sheds his winter coat at a time when the air temperature – appropriately enough – is a mere ten degrees. Robin is a young boy, a doofus. He has come to the woods on that same day, caught up in the fantasy of rescuing the girl of his dreams from a nefarious foe as equally fictitious as his heroism. He is in effect another Charlie Brown lost in a vain pursuit of the little red-haired girl. What Robin does find is Don’s winter coat and his footprints in the snow. Enter kindness.
Robin follows the tracks, a real adventure still glazed over with a tinge of fantasy. His lack of true foresight puts him on thin ice, literally. Robin falls through the ice and into the frigid waters. Don Eber sees Robin’s plight and, despite his frail condition, stumbles to the boy’s aid. Although Robin is able to gain the shore on his own, the chill air and his wet clothes are killing him. Don gives the boy his own clothes in a life-saving gesture, which assures his own doom. Maybe.
I’ll stop there. If you want to know how the story ends, you can find it in a collection of Saunders’ stories published under the eponymous title Tenth of December. For our part, and pertinent to this message, is that kindness is endemic to both of these lost souls. Robin leaves his reverie out of concern for the owner of the coat. Don abandons his romance with death in order to give a dying boy a renewed chance at life. Though they are strangers to one another, their common humanity prevails.
This thought of kinship is a key feature of Professor Prior’s own perception of kindness. She provides us with the etymology of the word and demonstrates its relation to the word kin. She then uses the parable of the Good Samaritan as another type of literary illustration for the topic of kindness. This one stems from an encounter between Jesus and his detractors, which imparted his own theory of how kindness is a valid indicator of the nature of kinship. Those who understand the connectedness between kinship and kindness are not deterred from helping others they don’t know but recognize as a member of the human family.
There’s an issue of greater significance for Prior and the Tenth of December short story, which overwhelms the ending of her own narrative. It is rooted in the thinking of the character Don Eber. The man’s reason for committing suicide is his belief that he will be doing his family a favor. He sees his death in a lonely place as a release for them from the burden of caring for an emaciated, terminally ill person. This is based on his own bad experience presiding over the death of his stepfather, whose behavior became cruel at the end.
Don’s apprehension about his own slide into a dissipated state, where everything must be done for him (or even worse to him) causes him to seek solace in isolation and a reasonably quick end to his sense of humiliation by being “lessened” in his helplessness. Robin’s plight and Don’s role in saving the boy’s life changes all that. It is the beginning of an epiphany about love and care and family brought on by an act of kindness for a stranger.
Don’s reasoning changes to one of acceptance. “Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them?” Anyone who has watched a loved one die from the ravages of cancer knows that it can be a messy, seemingly demeaning even degrading process. But that is so only if we make it so. Dignity can be found in the doing as it renews the spirit through the refreshing of the body.
Still the thought of being lessened haunts us all. It does Professor Prior. In her candor she acknowledges her own kindred thoughts to those of Don Eber. She writes, “You see, I am so terribly afraid of dying. My own dying and other people’s dying and animals’ dying. I am afraid of the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping to come. I am afraid of the blood and the fluids and the suffering and the pain. I am afraid of being weak, sick, immobile, demented, blind, deaf – whatever of these might come to me and those I love.”
In our household we’ve had both experiences of a loved one who died alone and another who died in the comforting presence of family. The first was my older brother. At the time of his passing death was considered to be something of a taboo, kept hidden so as not to unduly upset anyone. The upset, however, if you ask my mother is dealing with the consequences of knowing your child died alone, unattended by even the hospital staff.
The clinical isolation of the terminally changed significantly following the 1969 publication of On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Hence, when my father died, he was home in his own bed with family present. My mother’s grief was still palpable but far less traumatizing compared to my brother’s passing.
I know the love I’ve given through kind and gentle acts which needed to be done. There is a peace of mind in the aftermath that all that could be done was done without resentment for the messiness of a protracted death. The ordeal fades from memory for the survivors as we fix on the good things of life, which long preceded a loved one’s difficult transition from this life to the next.
Those experiences shape much of how I view and value every aspect of life these days. It shows, I guess, in something as simple as my commitment to pick up the litter that defaces my daily walk. It is my gift to the neighbors I never see but who are my kin for merely being human.
Kindness is love in a minor key.