Saturday, June 10, 2006

Thank You

Sage Cohen wrote beautifully, a while back, of the decline of thanks:

Are we really living in an age where the only feedback loops of closure are complaints? How did we get to a place where we have mutually agreed that what's worth mentioning is what's wrong?

Mindful of that, as I left my inexpensive hotel in Montreal, I scrawled a note to leave with my tip, thanking whoever it was who had made up my room. And I meant it. I'd run short of clothes -- not having expected to be drenched with sweat periodically, as I was -- so I'd washed a change of clothes in the sink, twisted them in towels, and then draped them over the shower-curtain rod to finish drying. When I came back to the made-up room they were on hangers, and the shirt that would take longest to dry was cleverly hung on the bed-post in front of the air-conditioner. I was touched. The fact that I was washing my own clothes meant, obviously, that I was a poor prospect for tips. Putting the clothes on hangers, I felt, was one thing, possibly just automatic, but thinking about how to make sure the clothes were dry by dinner-time was quite another thing. Gratuitous kindness.

A little thing, of course. But people do that sort of thing all the time -- gratuitously think their way into what other people will need, do their jobs just a little better than they have to. So often we let the fact that these things occur under the auspices of a financial transaction erase the fact of the human kindness, the real connections, they represent. I remember one morning, chatting with a waitress at breakfast in the early morning, she ruefully recounting rushing to get to work. I said earnestly, "we really appreciate it, you know. You hurrying to wake up fast so the rest of us can wake up slow." She colored up and looked away and said "thank you."* I had a feeling neither she nor anyone else had ever put it in that light. But this was a big part of her life, waking up in a frantic scramble, and this was a big part of my life, reading and writing for an hour before work. I meant it.

The thing I most dislike about Capitalism is its tendency to make these human connections invisible, and hence to progressively weaken them, until "cash," as Thomas Carlyle put it, "is the universal sole nexus between man and man." I'm not particularly interested in getting rid of Capitalism.** All economic systems have their own propensities for exploitation, cruelty, and inhumanity. It seems to me that the 20th Century has demonstrated that in agonizing detail. More important than swapping one system for another is recognizing the faults of the one you've got and trying to mitigate them.

On a large scale, in our case, that means recognizing how much of our prosperity derives from poverty and cruelty elsewhere (or here, for that matter.) On a small scale, it means preferring whatever is small and human-scale and face-to-face to whatever is huge and mass-produced and anonymous. And recognizing the small kindnesses without which our lives, all of them, even here in the wealthy first world, would be hell.

* No, I don't think she was pissed off (a legit response, to be sure.) I think she was pleased.

** Anymore. I was passionately interested in it, thirty years ago.

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