Erring toward kindness.

What do we regret most as we contemplate the end of our time here? Maybe the lesson from that regret can inform our present. In an outstanding commencement speech, George Saunders reflects on his own failures and encourages the graduating students to look for opportunities to be kind. He reflects on a memory haunting him from his childhood:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still. It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. 

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

We all have so many opportunities to make a difference, just by simply being kind, offering a smile, reaching out in friendship. And, when we reflect on the kindnesses that have made the difference to each of us in our own lives, we realize those little shows of kindness are what matter.

Saunders continues to remind each of us that our inner selves, our souls, shine as brightly as ever, and, even as we strive for success, to keep checking in with that inner place, and to believe it exists and greet the world from there:

Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

When you are confronted with a choice, err in the direction of kindness.

From Shari:

Has there been a ‘failure of kindness’ in your life you regret? What have you learned from the experience? I would love your thoughts on this.

How about a little kindness?

Have you ever been at a restaurant or grocery store with a crying or tantrumming child? It’s awful, that feeling of everyone staring at you and blaming you for somehow disrupting their lives. Not to mention, the criticism and judgment! Some people are only too eager to point out just what you are doing wrong and how you shouldn’t be out in public if you can’t control your children. But, sometimes, a stranger reaches out and helps– offers to amuse the baby, gives you a wink of encouragement, tells you they’ve been there, too, and that things will get better. That little act of kindness makes all the difference.

We can’t control whether we will run into the kind sort of stranger when we are most overwhelmed. But, we can remember what it was like when someone was kind when we were overwrought and BE that kind stranger to someone struggling. When we remember what a difference that type of kindness made in our lives, we realize that simple things–holding a door for someone carrying packages, smiling when someone is overwhelmed with their kids, offering to help pick up fallen papers– matter tremendously.

From Shari:

Have you ever been the beneficiary of a stranger’s kindness? Can you think of a time when you reached out in kindness to someone else? Please share your stories in the comments. I would love to hear them!

Kindness always wins.

Kindness always delights. Kindness is unexpected and changes the temperature of any room or discussion. In this delightful story, hotel workers find a little girl’s lost dog and return it, but not without giving the stuffed animal some adventures and delighting its owners.

Just look at her little face when she sees what her toy has been up to!

What is some little act of kindness you can do today to bring someone delight? It sure would be a breath of fresh air right now!

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2020/03/30/hotel-workers-send-family-hilarious-pics-lost-dog-toy-delighting-thousands-across-country/

Little band of heroes

Photo by Catalin Pateo on Unsplash

All we face now can feel overwhelming. It’s as if everywhere you turn, there is another challenge and another threat. And yet, even if the midst of all that is wrong, there are opportunities to shine the light, to be a voice for good, and to support others. Yes, it looks bleak now, but we are still here to do some good:

“Yes, it looks bleak. But you are still alive now. You are alive with all the others, in this present moment. And because the truth is speaking in the work, it unlocks the heart. And there’s such a feeling and experience of adventure. It’s like a trumpet call to a great adventure. In all great adventures there comes a time when the little band of heroes feels totally outnumbered and bleak, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings or Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. You learn to say ‘It looks bleak. Big deal, it looks bleak.’”
— Joanna Macy

Attitude is Everything

Sometimes everything comes down to how we see a situation. Will we get irritated by something or consider it an opportunity to build community? Often children with their winsome ways and guilelessness cause us to adapt. Take a moment to watch this life-affirming story about a man who took an unusual approach to a child riding a bike in his driveway. What a beautiful neighborhood they are creating together!

Shelter in the storm.

Of all the compliments you could receive, perhaps the best is that you feel like shelter. That, in all the storms and chaos that swirl around us, talking to you feels like safety. Not in the sense of being a yes man or echo chamber, or even in the sense of being able to do anything to stop the storm, but in the sense of home.

“I find it shelter when I speak to you,” says Emily Dickinson. What might we do and say to make someone feel that way? Shelter implies that the storm is still swirling, the elements are still fierce, but talking to you is a respite from that and an entry into something welcoming and safe. A place where you are known, and heard, and cared for. A place of comfort.

Certainly there are plenty of people making themselves someone’s storm. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be someone’s shelter instead?

What can you do in this increasingly chaotic and exhausting world for someone to find it shelter when they talk with you?

In the end, only kindness matters.

Most of us will not be inventing a vaccine to end this pandemic or donating millions to the research. Most of us will not be heroes in the saving the day sense.

And yet each of us has incredible power to choose how we want to meet each day when life is so stressful. Whether we want to retreat into a cocoon focused only on our own wants and needs or use this as an opportunity to reach out to others. Whether we want to add to someone’s anxiety or be their shelter in the storm. Whether we want to be comforted or to comfort.

And the impetus for any acts of kindness comes from the deep recognition of how important those acts of kindness have been to you when you have despaired. The kind gesture, the comfort of a friend simply abiding with you as you travel a dark path, the reminder that you are precious when you’ve forgotten and can see only your mistakes. These have been your lifeblood. And you can offer that gift to others, particularly now. Take a moment to enjoy this profound poem by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Kindness matters.

Kindness

Naomi Shihab Nye – 1952-

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Hold on.

Is your life all ups, no downs? Do you ever feel a need to make it look like it is? Maybe to pretend the rough stuff doesn’t exist or put on a big smile to cover a broken heart? Do you ever feel like there must be something wrong with your faith if your life is going badly?

Truth is, shit happens. To the best, most faithful of people. Life’s struggles can feel overwhelming. You can get to the point where you simply cannot see how someone could think and feel the way they do. You can lose hope.

At times like these you need to breathe deep and get yourself to a quiet place. And it sure would do no harm, and maybe a whole lot of good, to read a poem like this:

The Peace of Wild Things

by Wendell Barry

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.

I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.

For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

And the good news is, you can read this poem, and your soul will calm without even being in that place where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water. The words of a good poem are like magic. They can heal you and still the churning waters of your soul. And they can help you remember the ‘day-blind stars waiting with their light’, because, yes, we cannot see the stars in the daytime, but they are there. Shining.

May you rest in the grace of the world and find peace.

Even this.

It’s easy to be grateful for the good things. But … everything? What about the fear, anxiety, separation, loneliness? What about the loss and persecution? What about the things that challenge our life and morality and soul? What of these?

Yes. All. Even these things that most pain us or make us worry. It is in these times we draw on something deeper than ourselves and grow. These are the times that cause us to reach out to others and embrace community. These are the depths we can survive and use that survival to offer hope to others.

Gratitude forces a perspective shift. From despair to hope. From loss to possibility. From chaos to peace.

Even now, even this, even here. Be grateful.

Reaching out

So much of our suffering is invisible. Loneliness, sorrow, depression, not fitting in. We can bind up our own cuts and scrapes, but how do we bind up those kind of wounds?

There is an old parable about heaven and hell. In both, people are forced to eat with spoons that are too long to feed themselves. In hell, they are starving. In heaven, they feed each other.

When it comes to these invisible hurts, we are healed by kindness, one to another. We don’t know when we are being kind that it may help someone, but it certainly can’t hurt. And it may be just the long-spooned nourishment that someone else needs.

To inspire acts of kindness today, watch this video of a poor baby elephant stuck in a muddy hole. The gratitude its mother shows its rescuers will melt your heart.