Grace Notes: Cooperation and Kindness

May 18, 2020 Updated: May 19, 2020

In high school, many of us read William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” the story of British schoolboys whose airplane crashes on a deserted island, at which point nearly all of them swiftly lose the veneer of civilization and become murderous savages. The novel suggests that most human beings, removed from laws and social constraints, would become depraved beasts.

Perhaps.

Or perhaps not.

Acts of Survival and Rescue

In his fascinating online article “The Real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for fifteen months,” Rutger Bregman tells the story of six teenage schoolmates from Tonga who in 1977 slipped away from campus, stole a boat, put to sea, encountered a storm, were shipwrecked, and spent months on an abandoned island. During their many days cut off from the outside world, these boys banded together, vowed never to quarrel, worked on their survival, and even built such structures as a crude badminton court and a gymnasium. They began and ended each day by praying and singing. When one of their comrades broke his leg, they set the bone, which a surgeon later declared perfectly done. Eventually, their rescuer, Captain Peter Warner, hired them as the crew of his fishing boat. 

Certainly some apocalyptic disaster might raise up the barbarian in us, but a crisis of less drastic proportion often brings out the best in people. Recently in Fort Worth, Texas,  for example, a small dog, both blind and deaf, and the beloved pet of a 91-year-old woman in a wheelchair, fell into a storm drain. Responding to the woman’s cries, Libby Gilmore, age 65, a cancer survivor with a bad back and at 5’1” the only person present small enough to enter the drain, spent nearly three hours crawling beneath the earth before finding the dog and returning it alive and well to her owner.

The Right Thing

During our present pandemic and shut-down, and even in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life, many of us have witnessed others doing the right thing, neighbor helping neighbor, or even Good Samaritans assisting strangers in distress. We read about some of these accounts in the media, such as the New Mexican teenager who found a bag at an ATM containing $135,000, accidentally left there by a Wells Fargo subcontractor sent to put money into the machine. José Nuñez Romaniz had gone to the ATM on a Sunday to withdraw money to buy his grandfather some socks, found the bag, and notified the police. When asked what he was thinking when he found so much cash, Romaniz said he was thinking of the reaction of his parents had he come home with the money, especially his mom, “and what she would do with her chancla [sandal] to hit me.”

There’s a young man with great parents and a great future. 

Then there are the smaller and less dramatic acts of kindness and care.

Brightening the Corner Where We Are

We hear much these days about the division among Americans, about tribalism, about hatred. That there is division is undoubtedly true, but I just don’t see it in the day-to-day life in the town where I live. The baristas with the tattoos and nose rings where I buy my coffee, now takeout only because of the pandemic; the elderly woman who manages the laundromat; the ladies who operate the country store near my house; the clerk in the self-checkout lane at the grocery store: I see no dislike in them for their customers, whoever they are and however they appear. They offer their services with a smile, which is sometimes hidden by a face mask. 

In music, a grace note is an embellishment and not essential to the melody or harmony of a piece. Everywhere around me I see these embellishments, human beings acting as grace notes, brightening the lives of those around them. 

Here’s one example of what I mean, closer to home and less dramatic than the stories above, but telling nonetheless. 

A Request

For 20 years, I have written book reviews for the Smoky Mountain News, a small paper in Western North Carolina. Most often, I choose my books for review from the public library. 

With the present pandemic having closed the library for the last six weeks, browsing the stacks was no longer a possibility. For the first time in my life, I ordered and read a book from Kindle for review. It worked, but I prefer print and paper.

Then I heard I could call the library and tell them the titles I wanted, and a librarian would deliver the books to me in the parking lot. 

After searching the library’s online catalog for two books that interested me—one was checked out, the other not in the collection—I devised a different plan. I called the library, and a woman identifying herself as Sarah answered the phone. After confirming someone would bring me the books requested, she asked, “What books do you want?”

I explained I needed current books for review, preferably three from the new fiction shelves and three from nonfiction, and asked her to select the books. We talked a few minutes about what I enjoyed reading, and there the conversation ended. By my calculations, if only one of the six books proved interesting, I would be a happy man. 

Giving of Themselves

Two hours later, Sarah greeted me in the parking lot by a side door. She followed the protocol she had described on the phone. She wore a mask and gloves, pushed the books to me on a library cart, stepped away from the cart, and when I had picked up the bag of books, took the cart and started toward the door. 

When I called out my thanks for her efforts, she stopped and informed me two other librarians, one male and one female, had helped her make the selections, which brought a smile. I imagined them with their heads together, asking one another, “So what does this Mr. Minick like to read?” Perhaps they had investigated my checkout record on their computers. 

Whatever they did, I discovered to my amazement on arriving home that four of their six selections were right up my alley. 

Sarah could have thrown six books in that bag and called it a day. Instead, she and two other staff members had clearly spent a good deal of time and effort deciding what might appeal to me. That might seem a small thing, but not to me. No—it was an act of generosity I will long remember.

Next time I visit the library I intend to be bearing gifts, bringing them flowers, candies, and pastries to express my appreciation.

Kindness is contagious. 

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.