Kindness Unifies

I’m sharing with you advice about accepting without sufficient thought two assumptions. The first one: if you must drive in bad winter weather, don’t assume that interstate highways will have the highest priorities when salting and plowing are essential. The Pennsylvania Turnpike recently mocked that assumption, which I had been gullible enough to buy into. The second piece of advice, to be shared later, stems from a more deeply-rooted assumption, demolished the way my front bumper was by my misguided confidence in the first one. Here’s what happened: on that slushy, slippery highway, I was forced to brake abruptly by an idiot who suddenly and precipitously cut in front of me. My car fishtailed on the untreated surface, and the bumper smashed into the center divider. Fortunately, neither Elaine nor I was seriously hurt. Fortunately, too, no other vehicle was involved and airbags didn’t deploy. Only later, of course, did we realize fully how much worse consequences could have been. In the immediate aftermath, I pulled off the road, gratified the car was still drivable. I inspected the bumper carefully. Ahead of us lay a long trip to a professional conference, followed by a 700-mile drive home. Since Elaine had been scheduled for several presentations at our first destination, both of us wanted to proceed, but I worried about parts of the bumper hanging close to the roadway. We needed to locate a repair facility close enough to reliably secure the damaged area if we were to go on. By phone, we contacted the closest repair shop, roughly a half hour’s drive away. The proprietor, a friendly man, assured us that if he couldn’t do the job, he’d send us to someone close by who could. That thirty minutes or so getting there amounted to an adventure in itself as we maneuvered country roads that were narrow, hilly, and slippery. We passed sporadic farmhouses, many of which I noticed by force of habit conspicuously displayed American flags. In the past, similar encounters had often prompted me to tease Elaine. “Uh oh,” I’d remark, “looks like we’re in Trump territory!” Before she got wise to me, she’d respond seriously that it was her flag, too, and that no one, however misguided, could compromise its meaning for her. I was often puzzled and, yes, moved by her unequivocal patriotism. Her advocacy was based on the assurance that every dark night gives way to a new dawn. I, conversely, am a pessimist, obsessed about damage already inflicted by recent political misadventures. This time, otherwise occupied, I kept my reactions to myself, but I was positive we had entered alien turf. In popular parlance, we were “elitists” who had crossed the border into “base” country. Anyone interested in defining us could do so by consulting our license plate, which indicated the car’s university affiliation. The physical distance covered in our quest for assistance was being supplemented by a growing feeling of psychological displacement. Given the circumstances, I uncharacteristically tried to downplay that perception. The repair shop was located close to the center of a small town. Some of my tension was assuaged by the cordial greeting from the proprietor, who told us he’d been waiting for our arrival. In the next few minutes, though, spirits nosedived. After inspecting the damage, he doubted he could administer the temporary fix we sought, but, true to his word, he recommended a mechanic at the service station across the street. His first words weren’t encouraging either. “I’m not a body guy, but I’ll take a look at it.” He went out, surveyed the damage, jiggled a few exposed parts, then came back. Wordlessly, he picked up a roll of thick wire and a large cutting tool. For the next forty minutes, in the damp cold, he wove the wire through original openings as well as some unplanned ones of recent vintage. When he finished, he appraised his work carefully and invited me to take a look. Anything, however improvisational, that promised to allow us to continue on would have satisfied me, so I gave my O.K. Inside the station, I asked how much I owed him. I felt bound by any figure he named. “Oh, a couple of bucks,” he answered. That was the second shock of the day, obviously the antithesis of the first. “You’re kidding,” I said. “Nope, that’ll do it,” he confirmed. I slapped some bills on the desk, and when he hesitated, I told him to keep them and accept my heartfelt gratitude. As an afterthought, I asked whether he knew of any good motels close by. Elaine and I were tired and open to an early evening. He pondered briefly, then went to a grocery next door to gather some of his buddies for serious consultation. And consider they did, very diligently. One would suggest, another would veto. Example: “How about X’s down the road?” “Nah, they do dope there!” Obviously, they wanted sincerely to help us, but the discussion was morphing into mini- debates. Elaine and I looked at each other in silent agreement, and I told them we had decided to push on further for the sake of our schedule. Touched and, yes, surprised by their real concern, I thanked them deeply, then got back on the road. During the next couple of hours, as Elaine dozed, I tried to make sense of all that had recently happened. A potential disaster had led to an unforgettable and, in some ways, incomprehensible experience. As I drove, exceedingly carefully I assure you, I tried to organize my reactions. That process resulted in confronting the second assumption mentioned earlier, the assumption that the chasm separating Trump’s “Base” from the domain of so-called “Elitists” is virtually unbridgeable. Rarely, at least in my memory, has our country been so passionately divided. Twenty years ago, if a prescient writer had tried to anticipate current divisiveness, ridicule would have been heaped on a so-called wild and reckless imagination. But what actually transpires sometimes exceeds the most visionary projections. Over the past three years, the conviction that integrity in national politics had been wallowing somewhere in Trump’s “swamp” has thoroughly depressed me. I began to separate our population into advocates for decency and honor (us, of course) and those for whom amorality advanced their self-interest (them, needless to say). I could have been wrong about the political leanings of those men I’ll always remember with gratitude, but I’d wager not. The overall environment, particularly the abundance of flags and the area’s relative isolation, had helped bolster my caricature. This time, however, that image seemed knee-jerkingly simplistic. Even if they were certified members of the “Base”, they cared, they helped, they were motivated, obviously, by an instinctive response to the occasional and unforeseeable precariousness of our shared humanity. In the days following, my second assumption, the one about the wide chasm separating the Base from the Elites, has also started to slink off into Trump’s Mar Al Swamp. However filled with political turmoil our days are at this moment, for most of us, genuine caring takes precedence over whatever separates us. Largely unexamined, most of us have a set of values prompting us to offer help when it’s needed. The functioning of that impulse should be recognized, particularly at this disturbing time, without having to be stimulated by something like an automobile accident.

Mort Maimon