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PENNING: Kindness of strangers is still in fashion

• Apr 12, 2018 at 2:00 PM

There is an old line about relying on the kindness of strangers. It comes from “The Glass Menagerie,” a play by Tennessee Williams. The character, Blanche, who utters it, has mental health problems attributed to a past of suppressed trauma.

But sometimes, depending on the kindness of strangers is not an indicator of mental illness or any kind of trauma. It can be a happy and unexpected circumstance. Such has been the case with my wife and I in the past few months.

Back in January, I was invited by a friend and professional colleague to a Super Bowl party at his new office. It was a bunch of advertising professionals talking shop about the annual ad extravaganza. My wife, meanwhile, received a sweet invitation by a single lady in our neighborhood who decided to get out of her comfort zone and have a Super Bowl gathering at her place. My wife may have been bored with me and my ad buddies, but she had a great time with the neighbors.

Meanwhile, I forget exactly when, but several times during this long winter, I was inside when the snowplow came through our neighborhood. It cleared the streets but in the process placed a huge snow dump at the end of our driveway. A neighbor who has a tractor appeared out of nowhere to push it clear. It’s nice to have bored retired guys living nearby. But seriously, it was a very kind and appreciated gesture.

On another day, my wife and I decided on a whim to drive over to North Beach Park and look at the sunset and icebergs. The parking lot had not been plowed, but we saw other cars there. So we entered in, and promptly got stuck on an icy section. A woman and her son immediately started helping to push, and then another man got out of his SUV and started to push. It took some doing but we got back to dry pavement. I was relieved. The sun had set and I was nervous we would be stuck there ‘til morning.

Not long after that, with some snow still on the roads, my wife found a bag with a pair of slippers and a notebook in it on the street near our house. She mentioned it to me, and we both shrugged. I later read on our neighborhood Facebook page that someone had lost a bag matching the description. My wife had not only retrieved the items but she washed them before delivering them to a grateful neighbor. She in turn stopped by with a pot of blooming tulips as a gesture of thanks.

More recently, our yard waste container was put back next to our garage after the truck had come through the neighborhood. A small thing, but it made us smile nonetheless.

And then, two sisters who live a few houses down left an adorable Easter basket on our front porch. One might say we’ve outgrown Easter baskets, but we were delighted.

All of these things might seem simple, not a big deal, easy to do. But they loom large in our current cultural context. There is such a thing as a “Be Kind” campaign and organization to address girls bullying girls in school. “Be Nice” is a similar campaign of The Mental Health Foundation to encourage civility. We had a movie called “Pay It Forward” that sparked a movement that warmed people’s hearts, although we probably should have been paying it forward all the time.

A former pastor at my church happened to post something on Facebook recently that relates to all of this. “If you have to chose between being right and being kind, be kind.” It gets at the nature of our discourse on social media and in life. It seems like a trite expression, but it is unfortunately a necessary reminder.

But that’s why I mention the examples above. Kindnesses by neighbors and strangers still occur. Holding open a door, allowing another car to go first at a four-way, carrying a bag of groceries, even just a smile. These are small things with huge impact. We may not depend on them, but it would not be so terrible to expect them, and to return them. To do so would not be, as in the play, a sign of a mental health problem. On the contrary, to give and receive kindness is the clearest evidence of a culture that has retained its sanity.

— By Tim Penning, Tribune community columnist

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