Brief Encounters of Kindness

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T. L. Peterson is an editor who lives in Utah. He is also known as Loursat.  This post is about random acts of kindness: their blessings, their perils, and their relationship to love.

My closest brush with an apostle was a random encounter a couple of decades ago in the Salt Lake Temple, where I was attending a cousin’s wedding. In the Salt Lake Temple, most of the sealing rooms are located along a rather narrow hallway that runs next to the celestial room. It was a busy day for weddings. After our ceremony was over, the hallway was full of people from at least two other wedding groups. I made my way slowly along the corridor, skirting past people who were happily, quietly buzzing about their momentous day.

As I turned sideways to sneak through an opening in the crowd, I bumped into a man who was emerging from one of the sealing rooms. He was wearing a white suit, and I noticed that the room behind him was empty. I thought he must be a sealer, just finishing a ceremony. When I glanced up, I found that I was standing very close to Neal Maxwell. I was a stranger to him, of course. He raised his arm to offer a handshake and said, “Hello.”

When I took his hand and looked at his face, a remarkable sensation of peace coursed through me. I felt very specifically that Elder Maxwell loved me. Never in my life have I felt the Spirit convey the love of another person so forcefully.

I don’t remember exactly what I said to Elder Maxwell, except that it was something polite and innocuous. We ended our handshake, and I moved on down the hall. I never saw Elder Maxwell again.

This was a good experience! But it has also always puzzled me. I have never understood why it happened or whether it ought to have some larger purpose in my life. During twenty years of mulling this over, I’ve considered a lot of possibilities. Many of those possibilities are encouraging, and I’m content with that. But I’m still trying to understand.

* * * * *

The skeptical view of random kindness comes to us courtesy of Friedrich Nietzsche. One of Nietzsche’s aphorisms in Beyond Good and Evil goes like this [1]:

From love of man one occasionally embraces someone at random (because one cannot embrace all): but one must not tell him this—

Beyond Good and Evil, § 172, translated by Walter Kaufmann

Or like this:

Every once in a while, a love of humanity will inspire us to embrace some arbitrary person (because we cannot embrace everyone): but that is precisely what we cannot let the arbitrary person know…

Beyond Good and Evil, § 172, translated by Judith Norman

Nietzsche seems to doubt whether a “love of humanity” is viable at all. There is a big difference between generally benevolent feelings and focusing on the needs of a real person. The whole “love of mankind” thing, left to itself, never gets its feet on the ground. That makes a love of mankind pretty handy for people who want to congratulate themselves without actually doing anything. But occasionally you might do something kind just to show the world—or to reassure yourself—that you are kind. And when that happens, you must be careful not to acknowledge your true motives, not even to yourself. You must pretend that your love is genuine and not random.

* * * * *

I doubt that Nietzsche would condemn every random act of kindness. It is perfectly possible to act kindly toward strangers out of the best motives. I think that’s what happened in my experience with Elder Maxwell. I have kept good things from that encounter, most especially the memory of feeling loved. There is lasting value in that.

But even the saintliest random deeds have a weakness that Nietzsche saw. They lack a personal connection. My encounter with Elder Maxwell was short, and the feeling I had in those moments was fleeting, as all feelings are. In times of great need, the memory of a good feeling is exposed as a slender reed. Though I cherish my experience with him, Elder Maxwell did not become my friend.

Love is not a random act of kindness. You can spread good cheer by random acts, and you should! But if random acts are all you do, then your love is incomplete.

Your feelings of love might be directed (misguidedly) at the whole human race or (more effectively) at the person standing in front of you, but if the feeling is all you have, then your love cannot be full.

In the decades since I met Elder Maxwell, it is not the memory of that encounter that has sustained me. What has kept me going is more persistent and more essential: the patience, forgiveness, and sacrifice of my family and my friends. These are the people who know me and suffer me anyway, the people who do not disappear, the people who love me even when they do not feel like loving me.

*Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Comments

  1. “People who love me even when they do not feel like loving me.”

    Love is sometimes a thing we can’t help doing, and sometimes it’s the more difficult path that we choose. Thank you for this.

  2. Kristin V Brown says:

    …the people who do not disappear. This was my favorite thought. The highest form of love comes from people who stay by our side “when they don’t feel like loving us” in the moment.

  3. Apologies for the threadjack…I thank you for reminding me of when I met brother Maxwell. I happened to move into his home ward. He was traveling for several weeks so I got to know his wife first, not knowing of her connection. Her demeanor was very similar to your wonderful description of her husband’s. When he returned home, he was welcomed back by acknowledging his ‘presiding’ in the meeting while sitting on the stand. I was surprised and irritated! He had been gone a long time. Why was he not allowed to sit with his family to worship? He didn’t have a presiding calling in the ward. Why couldn’t he and his family be allowed to have him be a regular guy?…end threadjack

    Thank you also for the reminder of random acts of kindness. I love their quantum addition to joy in the world and refuse to analyze whether they are enough or truly random. Kindness is good, smiling is good, love is always best.

  4. Jon Miranda says:

    I was recently baptized member of the church in 1983 and was attending BYU. Me and my roommate went up to Salt Lake City to go to conference after everybody was filing out I was just in a group talking to somebody and suddenly I have this intense Heavenly feeling and I looked around I thought wow I wonder what that is. And then my attention focused on one man and I said who’s that and they said that is Marvin Jay is Ashton an apostle

  5. I appreciate this post for articulating a feeling I’ve often had. Our stake president (and past stake presidents) will often express his “love” for us (the members of his stake.) Members of the high council visiting our ward will inevitably say something like “the stake presidency wanted us to express their ‘love’ for you.” This has always bothered me. How could such a person so distant from me (I know the stake president slightly but his counselors not at all) possibly “love” me? Why use the word “love” when “concerned” or “caring” would be more apt?. And you hit the nail on the head, the “love” they express (as real as I’m sure it is) is “love without connection.” I remember teaching primary one time and feeling that kind of “love” for my students. It quickly faded once I was released. I don’t think my feeling was insincere…just different from the kind of emotion that leads to the wonder, difficulties, and pain that can result when we reach out to and truly connect with someone else…when we love them.

  6. I appreciate that insight. I’ve wondered about that general expression of love from Church leaders too, and this explains it. I don’t doubt that Church leaders sincerely feel that goodwill towards us. Long ago, I realized I would rather someone make the effort to understand me and know me than just say he loves me and then move on, but there simply isn’t time or energy to personally connect with everyone you meet.

    I’ve felt that general goodwill towards groups of people I don’t know as individuals as well. Sometimes in the context of a Church calling; sometimes with other groups of people. It’s a good feeling, but it hasn’t led to deep personal relationships.