Recently, when I was recovering from a bout of Covid that hit me like a nor’easter, I had a chance to catch my breath for once. The irony was that I came down with a mild case of the coronavirus on the day of our school’s spring vacation. (Nice timing, Teach). As I slowly recovered and tried to keep my wits about me, I came to the conclusion that the antecedent of pain – kindness – might just be the abiding answer to the avalanche of problems we face collectively and individually.
Like you folks, I have observed that millions and millions of people have been swallowed up by the enduring anxiety that has assaulted our culture for the past two years plus. The irony, of course, is it has often been masked in braggadocio or it’s-all-about-meism. We have lost the notion that human dignity is a virtue without borders and comes without compromise as it is draped in goodwill and empathy. Sadly, in the pain that all of us have experienced as a nation – the coronavirus and the threat to our democracy – gratitude, grace, and humility seem to have disappeared like a summer fog.
I recently conversed with a veteran teacher at a local school who said that she used to receive 30-40 handwritten thank you notes from students and teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week. This year, she received one such note. When I recently held the door at Dunkin Donuts for a young man, he exclaimed, “Thank you! People don’t seem to do that to one another these days!”
Yes, we, YOU can be the solution and not the problem, and it starts with such minute acts of decency as I exhibited when I opened up the door for a stranger at Dunkin Donuts. But we could – especially if we remembered that everyone is on their personal liferafts for survival in a world gone amuck. After all. it’s the unexpected gestures that bring about the most pleasure in life. As many great philosophers have written over the past three millennia, you have no idea what burdens people carry in life – and they probably have more on their plate than you have.
Over the past 67 years, I have met many influential people who were presidents, literary legends, great scientists, fabled musicians, and Hall of Fame baseball players. Still, none of them touched me to my core more than an amiable, intelligent, and engaging bookseller at my local bookstore in Wellesley, Massachusetts. For two decades. Barry Hoberman greeted each customer effusively no matter the circumstance and made sure that their needs were met – with an earnestness that glistened like gold.
When Mr. Hoberman died last year, his former place of work, Wellesley Books, published this poignant memorial in their monthly newsletter: “Beloved by staff and customers alike, Barry held court at our front register for over twenty years—he was proud of having been hired on the very first day the bookstore opened on Central Street in 1999. Considered by many the unofficial mayor of Wellesley, he took a genuine interest in those around him, warmly greeting customers (and their dogs) by name and recalling every detail of previous conversations. Barry was a gifted writer and a formidable scholar, possessing a deep knowledge of history, religion, baseball, and music. He always relished the challenge of helping a customer track down some esoteric and often out-of-print treatise on one of his favorite subjects. We will miss his sense of humor, affectionate banter, freely-expressed opinions, extraordinary intellect, and kind heart.”
In the end, Barry Hoberman served as a role model for our times. He cared. Kindness can extinguish someone’s melancholy with a burst of light that can cast away the darkness.