It is more difficult to write interestingly of good people than bad; villains are generally more memorable than heroes. A newspaper that reported only acts of kindness and generosity would be insufferably boring and would go bankrupt faster than those that relay only disaster caused by defalcation. To adopt very slightly Tolstoy’s famous aphorism, good people are all good in the same way, but bad people are all bad in their own way.
To write of good people is often to sound either naïve or priggish; whereas to write of the bad is to appear worldly and sophisticated. One of the reasons, of course, for the difficulty of writing interestingly of the good is that there seems so much less to say of them than the bad. The good act according to principle, and are lamentably (from the literary point of view) predictable. Once you know how they behave in one situation, you know how they will behave in others. The bad, by contrast, have no principles beyond the pursuit of short-term self-interest, and sometimes not even that. They are therefore unpredictable and their conduct is infinitely various. As I discovered in my medical work, the variety of human self-destruction is, like the making of books, without end; and even the least imaginative and inventive may discover new ways of exercising malignity. Since variety is the spice of prose, the bad are lingered upon with affection by most, if not by all, writers.
— Theodore Dalrymple, “Beauty and the Beast,” Farewell Fear
The city where I was born and raised to adulthood has been the subject of worldwide interest recently, thanks to her christening as a major battleground in the Weimar America wars of political religion. Now I see and hear her name being casually advertised and barked all along the seediest streets in the red-light clickbait district of the web, inviting all sorts of scumbag pundits to come in and enjoy a cheap fondle of this small, virginal college-town for a moment’s political pleasure. Should I parlay my insider advantage into a topical piece of my own to cash in on the trend? Or should I be more noble, like the narrator of Iron Maiden’s “22 Acacia Avenue,” and brusquely demand that she pack her bags, she’s coming with me back to a life of virtue? Instead, I find myself sitting in my hospital room, reflecting on the quiet heroism of registered nurses.
Just a short way down the highway, over hill and dale, the chattering classes are busy crafting lurid narratives of violence and hatred. Here, nurses are being attentive and supportive, to their patients and each other, even over the smallest things in the wee hours. There, journalists and pundits are marching along in search of new angles, new interviews, and new perspectives, much like how I singlemindedly stride the mountain trails in pursuit of whichever arbitrary endpoint I’ve chosen that day. Here, nurses are skillfully and quietly mending the damage done to countless individuals, like the uncomplaining spiders who patiently rebuild the webs I carelessly brush aside on my hikes.
I’m not romanticizing the profession, of course, just granting it some poetic burnishing. I’m well aware that office politics apply here as to any other workplace, and even the best of us can only briefly pose as selfless angels. But like Dalrymple says, it’s far too easy to wallow in the salacious details of the latest atrocity, soon to be supplanted by the next one. It is indeed almost impossible to say anything truly compelling about the simple, obvious, and yet so necessary, acts of unacknowledged compassion and generosity that go on around us all the time. No, this feeble effort is merely my attempt, as I sit here recuperating in the pre-dawn hours, to reach out and take hold of just a few of those anonymous acts before they slip gently away with another good night, smile, and express my deepest gratitude for their existence.