During my time as a student at Princeton, I spent a great deal of my time engaged in the Creative Writing program. I did not initially get accepted into the program as a freshman, but with some persistence in my writing, I finally made it in my sophomore year, applying every semester thereafter to retain my status as part of the program. It was highly competitive, but I loved being part of the program and I tried to do everything within my power to make sure they would keep me.
I think it was in a class with Joyce Carol Oates that we read one of my favorite all-time short stories, “A Small, Good Thing,” by Raymond Carver. On its surface, the story is pretty fairly mundane: it’s about a baker who bakes a cake for a boy whose mother never comes to pick up the cake. But for some reason, the story stuck with me all of these years, teaching me a valuable lesson about extending the benefit of the doubt to others.
“A Small, Good Thing,” is about a family who orders a cake for their son’s upcoming birthday. The baker, who takes great pride in his craft and who works endless hours to support himself, becomes frustrated when no one comes to pick up the cake. After all, he has devoted the resources and time to putting it all together, and now that will all be wasted because someone else was selfish and reckless with his time. Unbeknownst to him, the boy has been hit by a car and admitted to the hospital, and his birthday party has been canceled.
The baker calls and leave messages for the family. No response. As time goes on, the boy’s condition worsens, and he eventually dies. His parents are devastated, but the baker only believes that they are negligent, stuck-up, and rude. He increases the velocity of his messages and begins threatening the family. Soon, the parents cannot take it any longer. They drive down to the bakery. It is midnight.
Though it is late, the baker is still there, and he is confused to see the parents banging on his door. When they explain who they are, he becomes excited that he can lecture them in person about all of his hard labor going for naught, but when they explain to him what has occurred, he is filled with remorse. He apologizes profusely, tells them to sit down, bakes them some rolls, and feeds them all night, keeping them company and helping them to take their mind away from their personal tragedy.
“You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,” says the baker. He tells them about what it was like being alone all these years, working fastidiously in a bakery and never having children. He feeds them and tells them stories all night, and as the story ends, “They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.”
What a reversal: two parents who feel harassed and abused in the wake of the death of their son who soon become empathetic to someone who in turn becomes empathetic to them. Both sides had been quick to make assumptions about the other and had gone to great lengths to exhibit their anger and frustration. But once they sat down and explained their intentions to one another, they became friends, ate together, and told stories late into the night.
I used to work with a leadership coach who gave me some pretty simple but helpful advice. It is, “People do not try to suck on purpose.” I had told her that sometimes I have conflict with people in my life and I get frustrated with them. I wanted to be better about how I handled those situations. But the reality is that most people are trying their best: people do not try to suck on purpose. They do not get out of bed wondering how they can upset other people. We are all human, but generally, we are trying our best.
In today’s political climate, it is easy to lose sight of this reality. I see it all too often that people are quick to cast judgment on others. They believe you must hold a specific opinion because you are evil or naïve. They lose sight of the reality that we hold our opinions largely based on our upbringing and a variety of other factors. In other words, few people hold opinions with the intention of being harmful to others. And yet you would never know that by the way people treat each other these days. I see my friends making memes all the time that are meant to “burn” people who disagree with them. After all, you must be stupid or naïve to have a differing opinion.
But the other great aspect to “A Small, Good Thing” is that it reflects on the human condition and our ability to be compassionate to others. Upon realizing the mistake he has made, the baker apologizes to the family, welcomes them into his shop, feeds them all night, and opens up about his life. Likewise, the family is able to give the baker the benefit of the doubt for his transgressions and accept his warmth. This hearkens back to innate human nature to try to be kind and altruistic to others. At our core, most of us want to see other people be happy.