Black Ice, Flour, and the Paradox

A couple of amusing stories, and the paradox of small acts.


Two amusing stories that are interestingly very related. It deals with the paradox of small acts (of kindness). And while I didn't have it immediately in mind, there is a subtext here related to faith (in whatever), achievement, and belief. And some might point to perhaps undue Kierkegaardian influence here :). The first story I wrote up a week ago, the day after it happened on the train. I wrote the second story the morning of, on the train as well. (I updated the tense so it wouldn't be too confusing.)

A Sea of Black Ice

Last week I was jogging back from the gym, and slipped as I was on the sidewalk. Got a little bloodied on the knee, but really not a big deal. (A little aside, I used a napkin and some tape as a bandage. Removing the tape before showering after was about 5x more painful than hitting the pavement. Lesson learned, to an extent :)). Then that night coming back from Manhattan, I noticed patches of black ice all in that area where I had slipped in the morning. I made a mental note, and the following morning when I came back from the gym again, I thought I would try to get rid of it so others wouldn't slip.

I started to kick at the ice with my heels to try to break it, to no avail. I then saw half of a used lime on the ground, and I picked it up and started using it to break the ice. I used the pointed end of the lime that juts out to both apply more direct pressure. It worked better than my heels, but still I wasn't cracking much ice.

I then then broke off some branches (I felt a bit guilty, but figured by the spring it would grow back) and started chipping away with the branches. (Another random aside: interestingly enough, the more flexible/supple branches were better. I would fold the two ends of a branch, but to the point before it would break. Then at the bend of the curve where the bark was fraying from the curved tension, I used it to smash against the ice.)

After using a few different branches, I decided to grab something from home and come back (I was right down the block). I quickly ran inside my house, and immediately snagged some pliers nearby. I ran back out and then spent time chipping and cutting away at the back ice with the pliers. Still more difficult than I expected, but way better than the branches.

The whole ordeal took probably no more than 15 min. Really not a big deal. I couldn't help but be amused, though, at the absurd picture. Here's a guy in shorts and a t-shirt with no gloves/hat, dripping wet with sweat while its pretty cold outside, and jamming something against the pavement at 715am. It's ridiculous enough even if you did know I'm sweating from having just exercised, or that I was cracking black ice.

But I think it is crazier, for a less apparent reason. But I’m going to hold off until this second story.

Bags of Flour

I was running home from the gym a few days ago, and about a quarter mile from home I started to finish with a sprint. As I begin to kick it into high gear, I passed by a couple of guys unloading large loads of something into a food store. As I started going by, I thought I might as well help out. After all, if I’m wiling to take an hour out of my day to do manual labor for fitness/health, why not do the same but to help people?

A couple things, though, caused some hesitation as I continued running by. First, as I looked back I saw the truck was full of a ton of different things, and I couldn’t imagine coming close to unloading all that with them without getting too late into Manhattan. Also, a part of me felt that it removes their dignity in me taking their work (or a boss might get annoyed). A bunch of counterfactuals basically were storming my mind.

But then, as I rounded the corner, it occurred to me that the choice to help out wasn’t binary. I don’t need to spend 1-2 hours helping guys unload food to a store. I wasn't making a decision for what to do the rest of the day, just to help out.

As I saw my house in sight, I decided circled back. I ran up to the two guys and asked if they needed help. They were quite surprised and amused. They said they were onloading 50-pound bags of flour, and warned me that I would likely get flour on me. (Funny comment to hear from those couple of guys. If they only knew I'm on the other end of the spectrum, having 50 lbs. of flour dumped on me sounds like fun.)

I then spent the next few minutes unloading flour off the truck, forming a kind of assembly line between the two guys. We chatted intermittently, and then as they sent some of the flour down to the basement of the store for a round, I said goodbye and parted ways.

The Immensity of the Paradox

Both stories are pretty odd, or at least uncommon. But what unites them more deeply is a paradox at the heart of it.

For both cracking black ice on the pavement and helping unload bags of flour, I doubted if I would realistically make a difference.

For the black ice, I knew I would only encounter more black ice as I headed home, how much ice could/should I crack? I also knew that at some point the warmer weather projected would likely melt the ice anyway. I also new that in the same exact place I was diligently chipping away, new black ice could easily form in the same place if it dropped below freezing at night.

For the bags of flour, I knew I likely wouldn’t make a dent in their load for the day. There would be no appreciable difference. Maybe I would save them a few minutes or whatever it is, at most. There was also no clear end to where to stop helping (if at all).

It’s the same question I wonder when picking up litter in NYC. I’ll pick up a piece of litter, only to see three more pieces of litter. When to stop? When I do I stop unloading the truck of flour? When do I stop cracking the black ice?

There is no clear ending point. And if you do end in a reasonable time, any action is pretty much futile in contrast to the immensity of it all.

So yes, chipping at black ice with a lime is absurd, but not because that it looks weird, but because there is no end, and anything less is futile in comparison. It's like someone using spoonfuls of water to help water a forest in a drought. And yet that's precisely what I feel compelled to do, and therein is the paradox.

Small Acts

So why do anything?

With the black ice, I kept on thinking about the grandpa/grandma that could very well trip on the ice. And one less person tripping on ice would be well worth it. Heck, even reducing the risk, even if no one were to fall, was a reason in it and of itself.

And in helping the two guys unload bags of flour off the truck, even one bag of flour is a smile on their face. A happy moment to start their day when they realize that strangers do care about them.

The same goes for the forest. One spoonful of water is one more needed spoonful of hydration for a plant during a drought.

We often here people saying "make a difference in the world". But if that's the measure by which we act, the things that won't seem to make a difference in any global sense may not seem important. A lot of small acts of kindness seem futile at scale.

There is also a question if that’s the best way to spend time most effectively (a la Peter Singer, 80,000 hours). I think leveraging your time most effectively is a good question, but it could be misleading, reducing life to #'s and metrics.

I once relayed this paradox to a really awesome dude, and he mentioned how he thinks it is about “phronesis”, or practical wisdom. And perhaps in line with that, practical wisdom is living life doing what is right, in spite of the fact that the action perpetuates the paradox.

Ultimately, I think what was so empowering of these two mornings—whether cracking black ice in a sea of black ice, or unloading seemingly limitless bags of flour—is that I didn’t let the paradox get in the way of me doing what seemed like the right thing to do. I know I tend to overthink/overanalyze, but it didn't derail acting (though it nearly did!). I knew I wouldn’t make a dent, and I knew operating in this ambiguous space there was no logical place I could pinpoint to stop. Yet I gave a hand, went with the flow of things, and I had to trust myself that when I started helping I would get a sense for how to deal with it in the moment.

These might seem like trivial stories. But personally for me it signifies something way deeper. I wonder if the personal subjective life is just one big paradox in face of the infinitely expansive cosmos and this brief moment between two eternities. And at least for me, it is a nice reminder to trust we can live with the ambiguity and paradox.

Rock on,

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