It occured to me, head bumping against a glass window in the back of a bus, that there is much we can do to understand both our propensity and responsibility of good.
It was rush hour; the bus was already 10 minutes late. Plodding behind a stream of cars, it slowly pulled up to my stop. I jumped on, shivering from the cold, and slid in my ticket. Rushing to an empty seat at the back of the bus, I mumbled incessantly about the chronic tardiness of almost every bus I had ever taken in Denver. Was it so hard for them to arrive on time?
The flood of traffic broke in front of us and the bus bumbled forward, dipping with every imperfection on the road. I rattled in my seat, plugging my ears and listening to boisterous music that distracted from the reality of being late. For what? Late for my run, for dinner, for music, for sleep. To everything important–well, nothing important, really. But it was the principle of the thing! Someone’s responsibility was shirked and I was paying the price. Enough. So I listened to my German ’90s pop and tried to forget about it.
But I couldn’t. We drove two blocks up the street, when an old lady staggered up from her seat with her forty-year-old wrinkled shopping bag and 1920s shoes to ask the bus driver if he would let her off at the next block–only two away from the actual bus stop. This all happened, of course, in between German dance hits that would otherwise have kept me from paying attention to reality.
I started in my seat, then backed down. How dare that old wench! Weren’t we late already?? And she wanted the bus driver to make a special stop so that she could be two blocks closer to her house? She couldn’t walk two frickin’ blocks!?!? I was becoming far angrier than I should have been. Of course, the bus driver heeded her request, stopping the bus two blocks shy of the bus stop, letting her slowly climb her way down from the bus onto the sidewalk. Her unnecessary stop caused us to miss a green light which made us even later than we were before. I was infuriated.
But I didn’t know who to blame. The bus driver? Should I have yelled at him? Or chased down the old woman and explained to her that she held up an entire bus full of people just so she had the convenience of saving a few extra steps on the way to her house?
But, contrary to my emotional upheaval, I sat still and tried to listen to my music. What could I do anyway? I guess I would just have to push back my run, dinner, music…
* * *
This incident makes me out to be an unfeeling, disconnected, harried, shallow bastard of a human being. And yet, I think everyone can relate. Faster and more reliable are our mantras–weights we put on the shoulders of others. Why isn’t this done? Why didn’t this end up on my desk? Why didn’t you call? Etc. We know the routine. It differs slightly for each of us, but the basics are the same–near incredulous impatience in situations that do us little harm, and are of almost no disadvantage.
While many would say that the right thing to do in my bus story would have been to appreciate the bus driver’s decision to let the old woman out early, there are some who would chide him for ignoring his responsibility–his job–that required him to deliver the passengers of his bus on time to designated bus stops. If he makes an exception for an old woman, just two blocks from a recognized stop, where does it end? He could being taking detours, letting people off all over the place, and upsetting the time schedule that hundreds, if not thousands, of Denverites rely on everyday.
Naturally, if there is more at stake than a run, dinner, and some bad ’80s music, we might be more inclined to hold the driver responsible for his decision. But I think this scenario is still worth considering on a moral/ethical level. Should I have been upset that responsibility was seemingly shirked? Or should I support the decision to help the barely ambulatory old woman?
The isolated act of helping this kindly grandmother is to be given praise. I doubt that anyone would charge it with due reprimand if there were no negative consequences for anyone outside of the bus driver and the old woman. Yet, there is still a principle at play. If no one else had been on the bus, the driver still had the responsibility to adhere to a bus schedule. Which comes first, responsibility, or the kind act?
In my angered moment on the bus, I would have advocated for responsibility. And yet, later thinking prompted a switch in my viewpoint. The fulfillment of responsibility reaffirms the need for responsibility, which is directly tied to a schedule, and indirectly to the schedules and lives of others. Catching the bus on time is a means to an end. It is the means to getting to work on time, or to appointments on time. This, in turn, is a means to another end. If we invest too much of ourselves in the means, we lose focus on the ends–which should be the recipients of our energies. If the bus arrives late, and we arrive late to work, can we still good work? I would say yes. Even if, in the specific instance of a day late to work, the work itself is upset by a change in schedule, this is offset by the intention to do good quality work, be a loyal employee, maintain honesty, etc. In the grand scheme of things, there is no employer who would value barely adequate work done by a punctual employee over the sometimes tardy employee who works late to get his work done, done well, and goes the extra mile to ensure everything is done to the benefit of others. If chronic tardiness is a result of the constantly shirked responsibility of the bus driver, then work suffers. Still, an employer should see the reason for tardiness, and the concomitant good work of the employee.
And what of an act of kindness? Is that shirked responsibility? If timeliness is affected as a job responsibility for the sole reason of ensuring that good work/relationships are able to be performed on a consistent and reliable basis, then it points to an end that, indirectly, is blood kin to kindness. Necessitated kindness, however, is not worth anything. It is not kindness, because kindness is self-originated, self-motivated, and self-decided. The bus driver, of his own accord and by authority of no law or regulation, stopped to make that day’s walk home a little bit easier for the old woman. It was kindness that motivated it, and kindness that overruled responsibility.
The question still remains, however: Which do we value more, kindness or responsibility? We have responsibility because we know that kindness will not always motivate us. If genuine kindness were always in effect, the greater good of human kind and the other would always be our motivation. Lives would be made better through the work of others. Responsibility is a poor second choice for ensuring that this betterment is consistent. Kindness and its authentic self-giving motivations are not always in our character. We establish duty to help protect service and quality. These are artificial words for what kindness produces of its own accord. Unlike responsibility, when someone acts with kindness toward us, we very rarely claim it is our due. It is smiled upon with gratitude, and we are compelled to return kindness for kindness. It is not our responsibility to do so; we are innately driven to do so. And, unlike the unsavory nature of duty, which creates animosity and anger when tasks are not fulfilled, kindness knows what needs exist and fills them according to genuine concern and care. An unfeeling, if fulfilled, responsibility is worth little praise. Kindness is smiled upon precisely because it is not asked for, but given nonetheless.
Should the bus driver have stopped for the old woman? Indeed. It is a heart-warming affirmation that kindness, the natural and genuine part of our humanity that recognizes common need and shares opportunity and gifts, is valued more highly than responsibility. For those efficient engineers of time and society who need more reason to value kindness above responsibility, consider the inefficient mode of performing acts of “kindness” through the mandate of task and duty. It is achieved indirectly, impersonally, and does not satisfy the need to be seen as a loved part of aggregate humanity. Kindness, in its mystery and noble genesis, is far greater than any responsibility met in this world.
Therefore, shouldn’t we tend to what produces in us random acts of kindness? It returns us again to community, and reminds us that all of our drone-like motions in day-to-day life are designed, at such an imperceptible distance, to help us reach comfort, happiness, and love. And how inefficiently they all function!
All of this came in a momentary vision on a bus. Think of what else in this world can inspire understanding. I assure you, there is no shortage of vision, no dearth of revelation. And there is no one incapable of pure, genuine kindness.