I have this friend named Shea. He is without rival the most genuinely decent person I’ve ever known. To date he’s literally saved my life at least twice, and figuratively/hyperbolically more times than I can count. His one primary motivation in life is to ensure that everyone he cares about (and, generally, everyone around him) is safe, comfortable, and happy. He doesn’t swear – ever – because, in his own words, “There could be someone around that is offended by those words and doesn’t want to admit it, and I wouldn’t want to unknowingly make them uncomfortable.” He’s basically the exact opposite of me.
The most aggravating thing about Shea is that, on occasion, when our group of friends would go out, he would go to the bar when we were most of the way done drinking and just pay for everyone’s tab without telling anyone. When asked why he did that, his simple reply was, “I wanted to do something nice for my friends.”
That’s just the kind of friend Shea is. That’s just the kind of person he is. He never expects reimbursement, or favors in return. He never talks about the wonderful things he does for the people around him every day. He just does these things, and lives his life knowing that because of his actions, the lives of his friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances are just a little bit better. That knowledge makes him feel good.
But nobody trusts it. Girls especially are more often than not creeped out by him. Several times he has had women on whom he made no romantic advances whatsoever tell him to never contact them again. “Some people obviously think that you want something from them [when you behave that way],” he explains, “Others think that you must think you’re better than them, or that you’re keeping score somehow. I just like doing things for people.”
On one occasion, I had a mutual female friend confide in me that she was annoyed by his simple offer to walk her 2 blocks to her house to get a coat one evening, as we all walked to a bar together. Her argument was that his attempt at chivalry implied a certain overbearingly protective anti-feminism; she thought he didn’t think she could do it on her own. Having asked him why he offered, I knew it was because he had nearly been mugged down the street from her house just a few weeks earlier, and would have made the same offer to anyone, regardless of gender.
I’d argue that the problems people have with folks like Shea are based entirely on assumptions. The assumed correlation between chivalry and chauvinism. The assumption that anyone who is being nice is hiding something. The belief that people who are polite are aloof or creepy. All these things reflect a cynicism that I’ve definitely felt myself, but am horrified by when I see it blatantly displayed like I did so many times when people told me they were suspicious of Shea.
He even tries to explain this assumption-based mistreatment he receives in empathetically lucid terms, “A big part of it is the environment you’re in. The big city mentality is about figuring out someone’s motivation and trying to figure out what they’re doing wrong. In smaller towns, people just accept that you’re being nice.”
I disagree with him. I think most people in most places these days are looking for the long con. Is Shea a creep? At worst he’s awkward and enigmatic. But that’s only an issue until you get to know him, and many people turn themselves off to him before they give him that chance. I know I probably would have if we hadn’t been housemates. And then I would’ve missed out on knowing one of the most unique, honorable, and altruistic people I’ve ever encountered. If that’s not evidence that something is wrong with our society, I’ll never find any.