Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Incalcuably Diffusive

I'm nearing the end of this vacation and am writing this in a state of profound exhaustion. Honestly, this has been the most tiring vacation! We walk and walk and walk. And there's just SO much to see. But, despite the fatigue and sore feet and kidly whines, I think every American should come to DC. The things you see here are inspiriting and powerful. They point out how everything good in America (and I think these things are manifold) have all come through hard fought fights. Through wearisome, soul-crushing forays in bureaucracy and politics. People have sacrificed their lives and seen their fondest dreams go unrealized. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabth Cady Stanton were both dead before women got the right to vote. But, they had abiding faith in America and Americans, and it paid off, even if they didn't live to see it. I get all teary and moved when I see memorials to their activism. I get teary and moved when I see a lot of the memorials here. Basically, all of them.

But amidst all these glorious stories, I may remember this most from this vacation: I was walking down Constitution Avenue with Laney and (let's call her*) my niece, Lexi, in desperate pursuit of a McDonald's. I had two hungry girls who were both picky about what they'd eat and would happily go hungry and be cranky if not presented with food that fit their narrow dietary preferences. Courtesy GoogleMaps on my iPhone, I'd found a McDonalds and we were on our way. But navigating DC was proving taxing, so I stopped and asked three on-break sanitation workers if I was on the right way to 7th Street. Here's the conversation:

Them: Yeah, it's that way. What are you looking for? [See 7th Street was farther than I thought]
Me [wry smile]; McDonalds
Them: Is there one there? Yeah. But, wait...

And then they had this confab and, after some discussion, directed me to a much closer McDonalds. It would have been nice enough to let me know I was on the right path. But, instead, they took some time and really helped me out.

Today, Laney and I were walking through the Museum of Natural History and I was marveling at the delicate balance animals and earth manage and how much we human folks have fucked it up and I got to wondering what is it about us that's superior to animals. Would the world just be better without people? But then I realized that there is one thing we're capable of that animals aren't and that is kindness. Decency. Concern for other people. McDonalds might be one of the great evils of the world, but the willingness of those three garbage men to spend two minutes helping me out is, not to get too grandiloquent, everything great about people and is what makes us worthwhile.

There are very few people who've walked the earth who are capable of the grand acts that have thrust us forward in huge steps (even while they're also painfully incremental). We can't all be Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Abraham Lincoln. But we can all be decent people. We can all take a second to just be nice to someone for no other reason than because we can. I think this is manageable. And I also think it's beautiful.

A couple of quotes:

We're born, we live a little, we die... By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift my own life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that
- E.B. White from Charlotte's Web

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
- George Eliot from Middlemarch

Here in the middle of my life I figure I pretty much have two choices: give up because we can't fix it and no one seems to be able to or just try to be a decent person and have a little faith that kindness not only matters but is the thing that matter most. I'm pretty sure the latter is true.

* Lexi is my cousin's daughter, But, you know, small families. She's a niece.