The milk of human kindness

So I’m walking over to a friend’s house and it’s about 50 degrees and threatening rain, and this woman up the block has her lawnmower out, clipping the (mostly invisible) green growth in front of her house.

Yippee! I think. Spring is here!

Happily I watch as she pushes the mower along the tiny strip of grass between sidewalk and street. Then, with maybe another 10 feet of grass to go, she turns around and heads back the other way.

What the … ?

And then it hits me: she just reached the boundary of her neighbor’s yard.

Sure enough, as I get closer I see that her turn-around point on the verge precisely parallels the invisible line of demarcation where her lawn abuts her neighbor’s grass.

And my joy at seeing this most mundane and noisy sign of spring’s return evaporates. I think, there’s something just not right about this.

When did we humans start drawing these invisible lines between each other? Between nations and states, between neighborhoods and boroughs, between school districts and counties, yards and lawns …  drawing invisible barriers between ourselves?

How has it come to pass that a neighbor won’t take five steps out of their way to finish mowing a tiny strip of lawn? It would take minuscule time and effort. Probably less time and effort than it took to calculate the precise turnaround point and then execute it.

I walk on, hastily drumming up excuses. Maybe she doesn’t know her neighbor? But then, I wonder, why should that matter? Has the milk of human kindness become so diluted and impoverished it doesn’t even qualify as skim milk anymore? Can we take no small effort for another?

And if we cannot be kind to our nearly faceless neighbors, what hope is their for real strangers?

The number of homeless on the streets has increased. Have you noticed? The number of panhandlers standing on the corners of our blocks and boulevards has proliferated. I cannot reach or help them all, even if I cut my $1 gift to a penny each. And so I have stopped giving even the occasional dollar to any of them. My own pocketbook is stretched, don’t you see?

Feeling I have nothing to give, I quickly learn to pay no attention to these people. In my guilt I turn a blind eye, erasing them from view as if they weren’t human—worse, I ignore them as if they aren’t even there.

But they are.

Have you ever milked a goat or a cow? Basically, the more you milk them the more milk they have to give. The less you milk, the less milk they produce until there is nothing left at all and all the teats (spigots!) run dry.

There are a lot of economic and political policy lessons to be learned from this simple fact of life. But for now I’ll just adopt it as an object lesson about milk and human kindness.

When I fire up the lawnmower this weekend, my neighbor is in for a small grassy teat, oops! I mean treat. It may not be much, but it’s a gesture in the right direction.




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