For some people, life is a choice between kindness and survival, trust and paranoia, generosity and miserliness.
As my mom used to say about herself, “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?”
It was a rhetorical question, of course, mostly intended for amusement, but could be understood as raising a very important issue for everyone: who am I and what is my relationship to my fellow-man? What, if anything, do I owe him?
We see it asked and answered all the time: in response to charitable solicitations, in requests for advice or assistance, and in decisions we make about whom to help (perhaps only family, friends, co-religionists, or countrymen) and those whose pleadings are ignored or disdained.
Most of us aren’t as kind as we could be, but have benefited from the kindness of others. I am certainly one such person who has had the good luck to have been on the receiving end of considerable generosity of spirit. And that, of course, leads to a story.
During my second year in graduate school I was a research assistant. In return for tuition and a stipend on which to live, I coordinated the research data-gathering of a number of Northwestern undergraduates who worked for my advisor. The latter was a big man in his mid to late 30s. I learned a lot from him about the proper attitude toward social science research and how to do it.
I remember that one of the first communications I ever had from him included a line about his intention “to work with me and on me.” That he did, much to my benefit. Coincidentally enough, his work focused on altruism, defined as that quality of unselfish concern for the wellbeing of others that is so highly prized, at least in the abstract, by most of the major world religions.
As I said, my mentor was a big man, with a personality to match. And, in that age just before the concept of “political correctness” became so firmly established as it is today, he would say, and get away with some outrageous statements.
My advisor occasionally referred to himself as “The Chief” or “The Big Chief” alluding to his size (about 6’6″) and his authority over those of us in his charge. But where he really went off the rails, I suppose, was in calling all of us — the undergraduates who collected his data and me as well — his “slaves.” I’m sure he meant no harm by this clumsy humor, but he was a colorful person and, as I noted, said some things that would have been over-the-line for most other people in a university setting.
One day he mentioned, very casually, that there would be a new “slave” coming to his lab the next day at 3:00 PM; he wasn’t going to be there, so he wanted me to greet her and show her the ropes — let her know what she needed to know and do in order to collect his data and to receive the “independent study” credit that would be her academic reward for helping “The Chief” with his research. By now I had instructed and supervised his undergrad helpers for quite some time, so I thought nothing of his request and simply made certain that I would be in his lab at the appointed time the next day.
Sure enough, at 3:00 PM precisely the following afternoon, I heard a knock on his laboratory door. I turned and saw a very pretty and well-dressed young woman.
“Is Professor X there?” she asked.
“Oh, you must be the new ‘slave.'”
It was then, and only then, perhaps a quarter of a second after I’d said those words, that I realized something especially critical to the interchange and perhaps, to the rest of my life:
She was black.
“Oh my God,” I thought to myself. “What have I done? What is she going to do?” These and other thoughts flashed through my now feverish brain, as my entire life — my entire unrealized future — passed before my eyes and perhaps out of my reach forever.
I do not remember what precisely I then said. But, I know it was some form of apology and explanation. I’m sure that it was inadequate. Certainly I told her how that expression was used in the context of the Professor’s lab — the bad joke some of us had too readily imitated — as opposed to the world of civil rights, the history of slavery in the USA, and so on.
And then something amazing happened.
This charming young black woman accepted my explanation and apology.
She didn’t complain to my advisor or the Chairman of the Psychology Department, or the Dean or the President of Northwestern University. She didn’t call the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun Times so that they could run a front page story. She didn’t contact a local or national radio or TV station to report the wrong done to her. She didn’t file a law suit against me and the University. Nor did she contact the NAACP or get her older brother, assuming that she had one, to break my legs.
I would have deserved it. Any of it. All of it.
Yes, it’s true, I meant no harm.
It is also true that at the moment that I saw her, had I been more racially conscious, my brain probably would have registered BLACK PERSON, BLACK PERSON, BLACK PERSON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
And, in that event, I wouldn’t have said what I said.
But instead, it simply registered pretty girl!
And so I spoke the unspeakable, entirely to my discredit.
No excuses here, just an explanation, but I was certainly wrong and deserved some sort of punishment.
My life could have been irrevocably altered that day. But for the generosity and kindness of someone I didn’t know, someone who owed me nothing, someone who I had just injured, I might be doing something very different from practicing clinical psychology; someone very different from a Ph.D. graduate of a major university.
As my friend Rich Adelstein has written elsewhere, “all of us (who received financial support for our education) have been helped in the course of our lives by many kind and generous people whom we never met and whose names we never knew.”
I sure have and also by one particular person who I did meet and who heard my tactless speech before she knew anything else about me.
As Blanche Dubois says in Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, “…I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
I haven’t always depended on it.
But I am enormously grateful that it has happened more times than I deserve; and especially grateful to a pretty Northwestern undergrad for the uncommon grace and beneficence she showed me at precisely 3:00 in the afternoon on a day many years ago.
The above image is Love in the Afternoon 1970 by Lisl Steiner, with permission: http://www.lislsteiner.com