“Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Plato
I have started tracking kindness – noticing her as she gently touches the ordinary of my day. I see her at the bus stop as the first grade big sister greets the eager-to-have-her-home little brother. I see kindness in the neighbor who mows two lawns beyond her own. I see her in the gentle touch of the care-givers at the senior housing when residents gather for weekly prayer.
Kindness can be simple and fleeting – a quick recognition, a knowing smile, a gentle touch. Kindness can also be robust – a day accompanying a family member to their chemotherapy appointment, hours soothing a sick child, time together with a grieving friend.
Kindness isn’t simply a nicety, kindness makes a difference. In marriage, kindness bonds couples together. It is one of the best predictors of satisfaction and longevity in marriage. The habit of kindness forges an environment where people thrive. Imagine coming home to your spouse and being greeted with a warm smile, extended eye contact and a genuine “How was your day?” How might that feel? On the other hand, picture being met with barely a glance from your screen engaged spouse, little recognition that you have entered the room and a question like “Where have you been?” or “What took you so long?” How might that feel? Our initial greeting sets the tone for the next several hours.
I recall meeting with a colleague at his home one evening. During our time together his wife came home from the grocery store. He excused himself to help her carry in the groceries. At the time I was living under the false premise that independence was a higher value than interdependence. I would have felt that somehow I was inadequate if I couldn’t manage to bring in my own groceries. I’ve grown wiser through the years and now prize the simple kindness that led to that interaction.
Too often competition instead of kindness infiltrates families. Who is smarter, stronger, funnier? There is a sense of one-upmanship paired with a pleasure in putting down the other. John Gottmam, doing research on successful marriages, has found that contempt is the number one factor that tears relationships apart. While kindness enhances relationships, being mean drives a wedge.
Are we born with kindness or is it more like a muscle we build? Some people have a kindness head start. It was part of the fabric of their family; they learned it early. Others of us make a choice to be kind. The Dalai Lama says, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” I can convert to that religion!
We don’t have to know or even like someone to be kind. Samuel Johnson said, “Kindness is in our power, even when fondness is not.” We saw kindness in action as we witnessed fellow citizens respond to the spate of tragedies that have touched us over the last several months. Nevadans running into gunfire to lead others to safety. Texans boating into Houston flood waters to bring strangers to dry land. Floridians carrying elders out of flooded residences. Puerto Ricans sharing scarce food, water and energy. Californians opening their homes to newly homeless burned out of their communities. Kindness springs from calamities.
Kindness doesn’t just feel good to the recipient, kindness feels good to the giver as well. I try to give blood regularly. It is part of my kindness practice. I get nothing in return, nor do I know who will be receiving my blood. I can, however, imagine someone getting my blood and I feel good, not because I am some hero, but because it is a simple act and makes a big difference to someone else. I envision being the recipient or the mother or sister of the recipient. It warms my heart. This is what acts of kindness do, they warm our hearts.
We don’t have to be giver or receiver to have kindness warm our hearts. When I hear stories of kindness, I am touched. A friend shares a story of how her grown stepdaughter brought her a care-package the day she took her to her chemotherapy appointment. I tear up, get goosebumps, feel a gentle tenderness toward both my friend and her stepdaughter. I respond to the kindness even though I am hearing it second hand.
Can kindness morph into co-dependence? Probably not. Co-dependence isn’t in the act of kindness, but rather in the relationship. Sherry Collier says, “When we find ourselves trying to fix the other person’s problem or needing to help the other person for our own sense of identity – then we are dealing with co-dependency.” If I mostly come away from a relationship feeling drained or taken advantage of, I am probably in a co-dependent relationship. If I often come away feeling upbeat, energized and positive I am probably engaged in a healthy, interdependent relationship.
One way I try to improve my kindness quotient is to do a Loving Kindness Meditation. I sit quietly, take a few breaths and say to myself, May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease. Then I bring to mind someone I love and care for and substitute you for I. May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease. I may do this for several people. Then I bring to mind someone with whom I am having a difficult time, someone I struggle with personally or a group on the world stage with whom I strongly disagree. I repeat the phrases again for them. May they be happy. May they be well. May they be safe. May they be peaceful and at ease. Over time my heart softens. Over time I grow in kindness.
Kindness is a great antidote to much of the hurt, anger and sorrow of life. It gets my eyes out of looking at me and instead seeing others. As I gather with friends and family over the holiday season I will listen to Henry James’ advice: Three things in life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind. May your holidays be filled with kindness.
Mary Lou Logsdon provides one-on-one spiritual direction in the Twin Cities, leads retreats and teaches in the Sacred Ground Spiritual Direction Formation Program. She has an MA in Theology and a Certificate in Spiritual Direction from St. Catherine University. She can be reached at logsdon. firstname.lastname@example.org.