A MISCALCULATED ACT OF KINDNESS
K. Patrick Ober, MD
He saw that the girl was distraught. He had a plan for cheering her up. As soon as his words came out, though, the girl broke down in tears. He knew he had miscalculated.
He wanted to take his words back, but it was too late.
John Jackman was a dear friend of mine. No one could be gentler. He had a kind sense of humor and an easy way of making people laugh. He would never intentionally do anything to make another person cry, but it happened anyway, at least that one time.
I met John at Michigan State University. We became roommates. I was the out-of-state kid from Florida. He was a native of Michigan. One spring break, he took me to stay with his family in his small hometown outside Detroit so I would be fed and watered for a week.
After college, we went our separate ways. I went off in pursuit of a medical degree. John stayed at Michigan State to earn his Ph.D. in entomology. He joined the faculty at Texas A&M, where he was brilliant. He wrote books. He wrote A Field Guide to Common Texas Insects. He wrote A Field Guide to Spiders and Scorpions of Texas. I was proud to have a friend who could identify every insect, spider, or scorpion in the great state of Texas.
We never saw each other again after our college careers ended (excerpt for when John was a groomsman in my wedding), but we kept up with each other regularly through the years.
John died in 2008, and the world immediately became a lesser place. “John was known and loved by everyone who crossed his path,” his department chairman said. “His smile was contagious, and his laugh infectious.”
Yep. That was the same John I knew.
Even so, the fact remains – he had made the girl cry.
He committed his faux pas when he was a 17-year-old boy. He climbed aboard the school bus, and he noticed the 16-year-old girl sitting by herself. The bus was raucous, except for her silence. She looked despondent. She had always seemed a loner, and the others rarely paid attention to her. That day, though, she seemed unnaturally sad. Everyone else on the bus ignored her, but John noticed her.
John, as I mentioned, had a way of cheering people up. He used humor to put things in perspective. He came from a large family, and he knew about the dramas that can play out in the lives of 16-year-old girls. He knew how easy it is for any of us to magnify trivial things. He knew that, whatever was weighing on her mind, it was not a big thing in the grand scheme of the universe. She would get over it, and she would realize her silliness in letting it ruin her day.
John decided to jumpstart the recovery process for her. He remembered a clever line he had used before with great success. It was perfect. It would let her see that her worry of the moment was miniscule compared to the truly terrible things that happen in the world. He would make her smile, and his humor would salvage her day. It would be an act of kindness.
He caught her attention.
“Hey!” he began, in a soft tone, interrupting her reverie.
She looked up, startled, and waited for him to continue. Then he said the words that would help her see that there were far greater tragedies in the world than whatever was on her mind right now.
“What’s the matter with you?” he asked, with a kind smile. “Did your dog die?”
It was the perfect tongue-in-cheek gambit. It had worked before. She would realize that her imagined tragedy was a small thing, a tiny thing, an unimportant thing, not at all not the kind of major calamity that – for example – the death of a beloved pet would be.
The anticipated grin didn’t come. The insight did not occur.
The sad girl broke out into profuse, uninterruptible, and agitated bawling.
After a few minutes, she composed herself enough to tell him the reason for her grief.
Her dog HAD died.
I wish I had asked what had happened next. I didn’t. John, ever self-effacing, told the story to me during a late-night study break during final exam week. We conjectured [“what were the odds of that!?”] and we mused [“why do our best-intentioned actions sometimes blow up in our face so badly?”], and then we went back to the books.
I think I know how it played out, though.
John would have apologized profusely for his error, so cruel in its innocence.
The sad and lonely girl would have discovered that at least one person on the bus noticed her pain and cared about her enough to talk to her. Her soul would have started to heal because of John’s awkwardly delivered act of intended kindness.
In the final analysis, John’s words didn’t really matter.
His act of caring did.
October 21, 2015