Sunday, March 15, 2015

Simple Kindnesses: A Sunday Rumination

I didn’t originally have it in mind to write about what you’ll read in the following segments. My early focus was on poor moral reasoning and the unwarranted seizure of moral authority by persons who claim to have deduced the will of God from their own cogitations, even though there’s no substantiation for their views in the words of Christ. I was on fire with that topic; it would have produced a manifesto, a Jeremiad, a tract. It would have made a lot of people angry.

Thank You, God, for diverting me from the course of action that impulse would have had me follow. Thank You most sincerely.


It happened at Mass, just this morning.

I sit along the edges of the congregation. Though Mass is well attended, normally there’s no one very nearby. I have no idea why that should be. I don’t deliberately avoid other parishioners; I’ve merely grown accustomed to sitting alone. However, this morning a tiny young woman – no one I knew – sat in the next pew forward, immediately in front of me.

I wasn’t in the best of moods this morning. In fact, my state of mind was rather dark. Not horrific, mind you. I wasn’t about to haul out the Barrett .50 and the emergency package of Oreo® Double-Stufs and look for a suitable clock tower to climb. But dark. Glum and cheerless. It wasn’t an agreeable state of mind to bring to Mass.

If you haven’t been to a Catholic Mass, it’s a fairly participatory rite, in which the congregation prays aloud several times. I participate with the others, reciting the various bits of the liturgy at the prescribed moments. Never before had it occasioned anything.

As the Prayers of the Faithful ended and the ushers started down the aisles to collect the Offertory, that young woman turned to me, smiled, and said “You have a great voice.”

I was momentarily stunned, unsure I’d heard her correctly. I leaned forward and said “Excuse me?” She leaned toward me and said, once more, “You have a great voice.”

What could I say? “Thank you!” At least, that’s what I hope I said. I’m not sure my words were intelligible through the huge grin I was wearing. But she smiled and turned forward once more.

A tiny compliment, bestowed upon a stranger – me – made that stranger’s day. As the Mass ended and we began to file out, I touched her on the shoulder and told her so. She lit up like a Christmas tree. Her smile was bigger than she is. “Well, you made mine, too.”

I’m still floating.


Catholics tend to do a lot of condemning. The clergy itself is at the root of it. Clerics, including the very highest of them, frequently go on tirades about all manner of things that they disapprove, thundering about this or against that as if God had delivered a batch of new Commandments to them in their morning email. One hell of a lot of lay Catholics follow in their steps.

I have to assume that their intentions are benign. I don’t have to assume they speak with God’s voice. And there’s this, as well: they don’t give a lot of compliments.

Perhaps that should be we don’t give a lot of compliments. I’m probably just as much at fault.

Maybe all the condemning and catechizing uses up the room the compliments would have occupied. Whatever the reason, it’s most unfortunate. A compliment is a kindness. Kindness is infinitely more powerful than criticism.

But it’s awfully hard to be kind to someone you’ve decided “needs work.”


The following is a snippet from Polymath:

    “All divisions among men start in the mind. If you strain to be one of them but they see you as a man apart, you’ll be rebuffed. If they think you’re one of them but you believe otherwise, you’ll give offense. You can only bridge the gap with their cooperation, and you can’t have that unless you truly believe yourself to belong with them.”
    “But how?”
    “Go where they go in their leisure hours. Do what they do when in public. Eat and drink what they do. Talk of the same things, in the same tone and with the same emphases. When you find yourself compelled to disagree with one of them, you must couch it as ‘just another guy’s opinion,’ rather than a judgment handed down from on high. And above all, be sincere about all of it.”
    “How can you be sincere about that sort of conscious imitation?”
    “By not imitating them. By valuing them, emulating them, treating them as models worthy of study, potential sources of instruction.” Loughlin cocked an eyebrow. “What’s my next sentence?”
    It became clear with the suddenness of a lightning stroke. “Become one of them.
Be one of them.”
    Loughlin nodded. “Exactly. You will never convince a man that you’re suitable company, much less someone to listen to and take seriously, if he doesn’t see many more similarities than differences between you. Equally, you will never see him as someone to be reasoned with, persuaded rather than coerced, if you don’t see him as more admirable than not.”

Think about it, and about the kindness that young woman showed me this morning. What sort of state of mind – what sort of orientation toward others – does it imply?

I’ve said more than once that I write these pieces mainly to myself, for my own edification. It begins to seem that I write my fiction for the same reason, whether or not I’m aware of it at the time.


Do you want a more orderly and cheerful society? Do you want people to adopt your habits, or your views? Do you want to lead others away from bad practices and toward better ones? Do you want to be a force for good – for justice, prosperity, cleanliness, dignity, good citizenship, and general human happiness?

How do you go about it? Are you effective? How do you know?

I shouldn’t need to beat this any bloodier than I already have. Yet Americans resist the little kindnesses we call compliments – both as recipients and as givers. There’s this bizarre notion that it somehow corrupts you to accept one, and an even more perverse notion that it demotes you below the recipient to award one. Those insane ideas have done more harm to the proper understanding of charity and humility than any others I could express without descending into the gutter.

A compliment sincerely meant, delivered without sarcasm or ulterior motive, is one of the purest acts of charity possible to men. A compliment is a way of saying I value who and what you are. Yet there are people who go through whole decades never hearing a compliment from anyone, including the people who supposedly love them.

The moral of the story should be obvious.

May God bless and keep you all.

(P.S.: I don’t have all that great a voice, and I know it well. So what?)

5 comments:

  1. While I've never heard you speak I'd wager what she heard was sincerity backed by well reflected thinking. It comes through everything you write like a tuning fork. To me it is the most soothing thing I can find in this world.

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  2. You've done a couple of videos, promoting your prior novels. So we know what your voice sounds like.

    It is not, perhaps, a voice for the ages, to move mountains and hearts with the merest casual word. And I have no idea whether you can sing.

    But even used casually to talk about your books, it's a perfectly adequate one...while employed with full sincerity toward a good and just cause, I can certainly see how it would be truly excellent.

    That's just the basic facts. There is also, of course, the point about being spontaneously nice to the guy sitting near you who's clearly in a bad mood.

    Maybe it'll help, maybe it won't. Maybe it'll save his day, or maybe it'll save his life. You'll probably never know. Do it anyway. It certainly won't _hurt_.

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  3. Small kindnesses. Thank God.

    And thank you, Fran, for reminding me.

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  4. I give compliments fairly regularly. Based on your piece, maybe this is why I don't make a very good Catholic. Never was much of one for "building them up by tearing them down". Having said this, the Church has gotten a bit touchy-feely and squishy for me over the last few decades. The fire and brimstone that finally died out in the '70s was much more appealing, in an uncompromising way. When they started equating capital punishment with abortion, that's a bridge too far for me.

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  5. There was a restaurant I frequented in Houston years ago that had a dish I really liked. One day, it was gone. I asked about it, and the manager told me they only had complaints about it. No one ever said they liked it.

    I sort of worked that into a habit. When I like something, I try to speak up. Everyone complains, but not everyone compliments.

    As I think back about it, though, what I ended up doing is telling managers when service was good more than any particular offering. When an employee somewhere does a good job, I try to tell them and I ask to see the manager. It's amazing how often the manager looks tense as I approach them and then relieved and happy when they find out I'm telling them something good.

    Recently, my wife's prescriptions were transferred to a nearby pharmacy when hers had closed. The employees were helpful beyond just making sure we had what she needed. And they were very busy with all the new customers. I told the employee, the pharmacist, and the manager that, while the old pharmacy was good, theirs was better and I was glad we ended up there. I hope I made some days.

    It was an easy habit to develop because I get something out of it, too - the fun of making someone happy by telling them they did a good job AND a reinforcement of future good service.

    So, do this - look for people doing a good job and tell them about it. Then tell their boss. Enjoying good service is like winking in the dark. Telling the person makes them feel better. But telling their boss makes the boss feel better and does a service to the employee.

    I try to look for exemplary service among our contractors frequently, too. I get information from about 50-100/week, so I have a lot of opportunity.

    And, thanks Fran for the reminder!

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