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What a stranger’s shattered Late Night souvenir taught me about kindness

Seth Meyers poked his head out of hiatus momentarily last week to use the internet to spread a bit of good will, as he seems to truly enjoy doing.

 

A Virgin Atlantic customer tweeted at the airline on Thursday frustrated that the only souvenir he’d taken home from New York — this Late Night mug from the NBC Store — hadn’t survived the trip through JFK.

“We’re on hiatus but gonna take care of this when back!” Seth responded on Friday.

The Late Night host might hesitate at the thought of that simple act of kindness getting attention — he’s notoriously credit-averse — and I know that some people dislike the “celebrity doing something nice for someone” genre of entertainment news. I used to, despite having spent much of my career so far trying to get people to do good things on the internet.

I think I was wrong.

I’m not sure why a shattered Late Night mug — one of which I recently shattered myself from that same NBC Store — stood out to me, but it may have been its simplicity. A short exchange, no awarding of medals, no floods of people finding things to complain about in the replies. Just two humans doing human things.

As I read the replies from people who were excited to see Seth’s tweet, I realized that my problem wasn’t with the act of covering these moments, but in how they’re typically covered: either fawningly or dismissively. It’s kindness as entertainment, not social responsibility or for its own sake. We expect kindness to be performed to our liking when we crave it or when we notice an opportunity for someone else to be kind, with ourselves in the role of a neutral observer.

We may believe we should treat people with kindness generally, but we also gatekeep it: It’s not good enough if you aren’t smiling or if it doesn’t solve a systemic problem or if you don’t get it exactly right even though you’re trying.

It’s not good enough if it isn’t exactly what had been hoped for or if you can’t prove your motivation or if there are too many people around, too many cameras on you.

The implication is that kindness is always performative, a mask we remove and replace in certain circumstances, when it’s convenient or exploitable or social pressure makes it unavoidable. But I really do think most of us would instinctively disagree with that notion. There’s a disconnect between the kindness we experience and practice and the kindness we observe, at least in our interpretation of it, where we predicate the value of a kind act on its proximity to our own lives. We end up looking down on the act or just ignoring it instead of passing it forward because we treat kindness as transactional but know it shouldn’t be.

We’re so used to being trapped in a maelstrom of negativity at this point that it can feel like moments of genuine kindness are few and far between, when in reality they happen all around us every day. Maybe we should spend more time sharing those moments. Everyone deserves to know that there are people out there who will care for a stranger, no matter how harrowing things may feel at times.

I think that’s the value in noticing small, hopeful things: not to put anyone on a pedestal, but to remind ourselves that we don’t have to do this alone.

We can help each other through it.

We can watch for those tiny moments when a friendly gesture on our part could make a difference for someone else.

We can look at a world that takes every opportunity to turn us away from one another and make a conscious decision to move forward together.

We can try.