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We need more Mr. and Mrs. Nice Guys

Published: November 2, 2012
Section: Opinions


I was sitting in my car at the corner of Dartmouth and South, waiting to turn left onto South, toward Main. The light at the next corner was red and traffic was backed up to where I was waiting. Perfect—I could pull forward into the intersection and then into my lane as soon as the light changed.

As cars inched forward enough for me to pull in, I glanced right to double check that the next car saw that I was ready to turn. Imagine my surprise when a woman in her 30s looked me in the eye and then rolled right into the intersection.

I’m used to getting cut off—90 percent of the driving I’ve done has been in the suburbs of Boston. I’m used to waiting at two-way stop intersections for what feels like forever. I’m used to being stopped on Main Street for approximately a year while I try to turn onto Wellington to get home.

What I’m not used to is someone being stopped, blatantly looking me in the eye and deciding it was easier to be stopped in an intersection rather than let me go.

The kicker? I had turned my signal off, deciding I was more likely to be let through if I just went down Dartmouth to Prospect. According to all outward signs, she made a conscious choice to pull into the intersection to block me, even though I just wanted to drive past her.

Anyone who has chauffeured me during my first three car-less years at Brandeis is surely sick of hearing me say, “That never would have happened in Ohio.”

Don’t get me wrong, there are terrible drivers and road rage in Ohio. During one of my driver’s education in-car lessons, I yelled—and I mean yelled—at a jerk who crossed two lanes going 75 in a 55, sans turn signal, almost hitting me.

Those people (and me, I guess?) are the exception, not the rule.

Back home, we pride ourselves on our Southern-style kindness without the drawl. I was raised to believe that you were never in too much of a hurry to cut someone off, and there was no harm in letting someone pull in front of you.

Is basic human kindness just not a thing?

I can’t stand when people say that little, insignificant things have killed or reaffirmed their faith in humanity, but the one little incident at the intersection seriously bummed me out.

When I got home, I immediately turned to Calming Manatee. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, do yourself a favor and Google it. Obviously, it made me feel much better.

A few days later, I moved past Calming Manatee and onto my newest obsession: EmergencyCompliment.com. It’s the cutest thing ever (that I’ve discovered in the past few days) and got me thinking: Why aren’t people nice just for the sake of being nice?

In their book “On Kindness,” psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor explain that “real kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can.”

In other words, we are inherently self-serving, and being kind for the sake of others is uncharted territory, and not always worth it. I hope this isn’t true but I am starting to wonder.

I’m not at all trying to claim that I am the nicest person in the world or that I don’t have a mean bone in my body. Trust me, neither of those things are true. I’m also not trying to say that other people are just mean and terrible all the time. I’m not nice all the time, and I understand that I can’t hold unrealistic expectations of others, but it shouldn’t be so remarkable when people go out of their way to do kind things for other people. Sometimes we do nice things, but too often it’s for our own eventual benefit, rather than just out of pure kindness.

Anne Frank is the one of few people I can think of who believed that people were inherently good. In her diary, she wrote, “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Isn’t that beautiful? I wish more people believed in this. My friend Matt is one of those special persons who is just inherently good. The first thing I noticed about him is his eagerness to help people out, and it rarely benefits him in any way. Often, it actually inconveniences him.

When I started writing this column I asked him about that and his answer was perfect: “A lot of people go about their lives wondering if there’s actually any good out there and every day I want to do something, even if it’s small, to show at least one person that there’s someone else who cares about them … Helping others is the best thing someone can do. People deserve to be treated nicely, it’s as simple as that. That way they can learn from it and treat others nicely as a result.”

I refuse to believe that there is any true reason to go out of your way to be mean to people. I do, however, believe that there are infinite reasons to be kind, and remind the people around you that you care.

So Brandeis, I think you’re as sweet as a can of artificially flavored soda, and we all know how much I love my Diet Coke.