Last month, I witnessed a simple exchange between two people that I can't stop thinking about. On the face of it, there was nothing really momentous about the exchange, nothing unusual, even. But there was something so simple and straightforward about it that I find myself moved anew every time it comes to mind.
On the next-to-last day of a week-long rowing camp in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, I sat on the dock between training sessions while a group of the junior rowers came down to the lake to use the paddleboards. From the shore, an adult camper called out to one of the boys, a redhead with pale and freckled skin. "Robert, do you have sunscreen on?"
"Yes," Robert replied. "A lot."
That was it. The adult on shore went back to the conversation he was having with another camper, and Robert went back to splashing around with his friends. But it struck me right then that I had seen something lovely, at the risk of using an overly-sentimental word. Here was a question asked without nagging and without posturing, and an answer offered with neither irritation nor pose from the adolescent in front of his friends. And what made it so sweet at the time and so moving still two weeks later was that on both sides of the exchange, I had seen kindness.
Cynical readers might wonder why a grown man was taking an interest in a young boy in a bathing suit. But they would be missing the point. What I saw wasn't creepy or self-interested. Neither adult nor teen was trying to impress anyone -- not the adult with his solicitude (or his possible wit in implying that the redhead must be scorched), not the teen with his bravado. Yes, it's easier for a parent-child relationship to exist when the people involved aren't actually each other's parent or child. But what happened here was fundamentally that two people were being nice to each other, and the fact that plenty of others were watching mattered not one bit.
I wonder if this isn't essential to a definition of kindness: a disregard for what others think about our generous actions. If we pick up someone's dropped scarf while being aware that we will look gallant, or if we hold the door open for an elderly person knowing that our companions will consider us polite: these are nice gestures, polite, chivalrous. But for our actions to be truly kind, I suggest that they have to be performed without any awareness of their audience. They have to take place as if no one were watching.
Does this mean that kindness only exists in gestures like anonymous donations or enormous tips left incognito for unsuspecting waiters? I don't think so. Those are wonderful acts, truly selfless. But I'm talking about an exchange, a situation in which the recipient of the kindness participates in the act by acknowledging it in some way. Redheaded Robert didn't say thank you for the concern about his skin; his acknowledgment of the concern was thanks enough.
The sunscreen moment at rowing camp owes some of its meaning to me to the fact that it took place at the end of a week in which roughly 25 of us -- some already friends, some strangers -- came together to learn more about a sport we love or, for the newbies, would come to love. In six busy days, we had become a community, and regardless of our ages -- which ranged from 11 to 79 -- we shared goals, discoveries, and experiences. Maybe that's what made it so sweet to see, as I dangled my feet in the cool water of the lake and anticipated a row in glorious afternoon light. Still, I think there was something inherently unique about that moment. It was simply a disinterested expression of interest and a grateful acceptance of concern.
True kindness, as I'm attempting to define it, is a rare thing. We are all so much on display; we traffic so easily in the performance of reply all. Who could blame us for wanting people to notice when we do something nice? But what if we keep our kindness private, shared only between us and the person we care about at that moment? That is something I would like to see.
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