Sentences in the New Year: some practice reading

by Jeff Oaks

When kindness to the old is condescending, it is aware of itself as benignity while it exerts its power.
–Donald Hall, from “Out the Window” in Essays After Eighty

One of the practices I want to encourage this year is a practice I used to have of writing out lines or sentences from books I was reading. So as a simple beginning to the year and to encourage myself to read more thoughtfully than I did last year, I thought I’d spend the month of January writing out sentences I liked from the work of other writers. Maybe I’ll comment on the sentences or lines. Maybe I’ll just let them stand.

I picked up Donald Hall’s book yesterday. I’ve always loved Hall’s prose, the plain, solid force of his sentences. And I’ve always had a deep interest in people writing about illness, aging, and the process of dying, times when an individual’s interior spaces are often flooded with questions.

What struck me in this sentence is how it describes a kind of power we see in so many places–the infernal benignity of certain religious folks toward gay and lesbian people; the voice of certain Patrolmen’s Benevolent Union toward the questions being raised by people of color in their precincts; the smiling marketing teams listening to faculty at a recent “environmental scan” I participated in. Each group comes to the microphone with a rehearsed answer. Each group listens in a show of politeness, in an effort to reach out, to be open, but it’s not a dialogue that happens; its a debate they’ve already decided they’re the winners of.

I love the word benignity in this sentence too. It implies the very opposite of its literal meaning in this case, its Latinity conveying the clinical, inhuman element in the kindness, the teeth behind the smile.