The kindness of strangers and similar stories | Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | May 28, 2014

I gave up policing the Internet this year. It was sort of a New Year’s resolution, although not thought through nearly that well. I just sort of gave up, if you want to know the truth.

And when I say “the Internet,” I’m mostly referring to social media now, although in the old days it was slightly different.

Back in those dusky ages, rumors and stories were spread via email, and as today, a lot of them were hoaxes. That’s when I cut a badge out of cardboard, pinned it to my shirt, and made myself sheriff of all things online.

It was offensive to me, back then, that such a remarkable new way of communicating was cluttered up with such obvious lies, which were believed by otherwise intelligent people who seemed hypnotized by their in-boxes.

Walt Disney, Jr. and Bill Gates hadn’t teamed up to give away money for forwarding emails (Walt Disney only had daughters, I liked to point out), and there was no epidemic of HIV-tainted needles being placed on the handles of pumps at gas stations (HIV is a pretty puny virus when exposed to the elements, and c’mon, really? Who would be behind this? The Joker?).

The problem is that explaining to people that they’ve been fooled isn’t fun, and the fooled ones don’t really care for it. Relationships can suddenly become tenuous, and so on.

Still, I kept this up through most of the Facebook age, occasionally pointing out that links and quotes and other “facts” were untruths, easily disproved by a quick check at Snopes.com or Factcheck.org, or just by a quick search engine query.

This felt obnoxious, though, and vaguely quixotic. Entire media empires have been built around confirmation bias, the desire for people to be told stories that preserve their view of the world, or their opinion about Hillary Clinton.

One person, even with the best intentions, a desire for just some simple hygiene and stewardship of our mutual online society, can’t make a dent. This one person also starts to come off as arrogant.

So I stopped, although the stories didn’t. I read one the other day, unfortunately, linked to by someone I know, a story designed to creep into your tear ducts and jerk real hard. It was an exercise in pathos, created for reasons that I can only speculate about.

It incorporated sadness and kindness and frailty and mortality, and it was designed so that the reader would feel that life was short and people were really good – and it was such a lie.

Not the things about short lives and good people. The story. It’s an old one, in fact, details slipping and sliding over decades as someone updates it, but it’s still a lie. A fake story, an urban legend. Folklore.

I didn’t even bother to look it up, although I’d heard it years before. And I refrained from making a comment. As I said, I’m retired. You’re on your own. Be careful out there.

I passed around a similar story myself recently, as a matter of fact, although it was a true one. How do I know? Because I’m the smartest person in the world.

No. I trusted the source, a professional comedy writer whose blog I’ve been reading since before I knew what a blog was (Mark Evanier, at newsfromme.com).

But I would have believed it anyway. There was no pathos, nothing theatrical or even dramatic, just painful and human.

Evanier tends to work late into the night and early morning, and he made a 3 a.m. run to his local grocery store. As he stood in line (I’ve shopped myself at that time, occasionally; there’s always a line), the lady in front of him ran into trouble.

Her credit card was rejected. She was buying perfectly ordinary things, Evanier said, food staples, meat and cheese. And she didn’t seem surprised that her card was maxed out, just overwhelmed.

She thought there were a few more dollars to be eked out, probably at a stratospheric interest rate, but people get hungry.

She broke into tears. The cashier was unsure of what to do. Another man in line started searching his wallet for cash, he and Evanier formed a temporary charitable partnership, and then others in line chipped in.

They bought this poor woman’s groceries and sent her out of the store, still in tears and with an extra $30 or so to carry her a little further.

The cashier had other stories, after the woman had left. He’d seen similar situations. Sometimes he paid for the groceries himself, if it wasn’t that much. And when Evanier asked if these people ever return, the cashier shook his head. Never. Too humiliating, too painful. Too true.

Too human. That’s why it’s true. Because people run out of money, and they get hungry, and you and I would have scraped up the cash and paid for her groceries. It’s not a story of remarkable human kindness in a cruel world. It’s a story of human nature.

Human nature also wants to believe amazing stories, I understand that. And I would begrudge no one a little pleasure in a video of cats doing funny things. But if you’re looking for true stories of human kindness, unless you run across Mark Evanier or someone like him, you won’t find them online.

People are too busy feeding people to talk about it, and that’s really the best story, anyway.

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