The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the greatest intention.–Kahlil Gibran
Kindness. I have been focusing on this word each morning, remembering that life is truly measured in the everyday, momentary interactions we have with others. It’s about the offer to help carry a package, to give our place in line to another, send a card to someone who’s ill, and to treat one another with compassion and respect. It helps me to think about kindness each day because, in the context of the contentious political environment in this country, where continual opposition, ridicule and volleys of verbal attacks have replaced any hope of rational debate, the American democratic values I was taught in grade school —ones I believed included fundamental human kindness– seem like distant memories. Those values I once took for granted seem irrevocably lost in the current political circus, the violence and racism dominating the news each night.
“Before you know what kindness really is,” poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells us, “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.
(From “Kindness”, by Naomi Shihab-Nye in The Words Under The Words ©1994)
Kindness, the simple act of friendship, compassion and generosity to others, has a long history in humankind. It was one of the “Knightly Virtues,”a set of ‘standards the Knights of the Middle Ages adhered to in daily living and their interactions with others. Confucius urged his followers to “recompense kindness with kindness.” Despite the barrage of images from war, violence and suffering, acts of kindness have always been valued across cultures and religions. The Talmud claims that “deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments.” Iman Musa Al-Kadhim, seventh after the prophet Mohammed, wrote that “Kindness is half of life”. Paul of Tarsus defined love as being “patient and kind”(I Corinthians), while in Buddhism, Mettä, one of the Ten Perfections, is most often translated as “loving-kindness.”
Kindness is something we offer to others without expectation of reward or recompense. In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, kindness is defined as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself… Even the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche described kindness and love as “the most curative herbs and agents in human intercourse.” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kindness)
Many of us have discovered the healing power of kindness during times of serious illness, life hardship, or just a day when things don’t seem to go right. We often discover kindness when we least expect it, from people we may not even know. Yet it’s these small acts, the little gestures that are easily overlooked or barely noticed, that we discover hope and gratitude.
Kindness goes hand in hand with gratitude. If I begin my day by remembering the little kindnesses I experienced in the previous 24 hours, I feel gratitude. All I have to do is pay attention—get out of my head, my little worries or complaints, and start my day with an attitude of kindness, a practice helped by a meditation of Thich Nhat Hanh:
Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.
Compassion and kindness are illustrated in the poem, “Finding God At Montefiore Hospital,” by cancer survivor Lorraine Ryan. She describes the nightly visits from a hospital worker, Juan, who mops her room at night:
I remember the rhythm of the dunking;
The mop going into the pail
Juan squeezing the mop
The mop hitting the floor with a whoosh…
With every move, he looked up:
“How’s it really going?”
“Did your boy come up today?”
“How is he doing without you at home?”
Sometimes I couldn’t lift my head
off the pillow—
when vomiting and mouth sores
wouldn’t let me speak—
the swish of his mop
bestowed the final blessing
of the night…
(In: The Cancer Poetry Project, Karin B. Miller, Ed., 2001)
As Ryan’s poem illustrates, kindness helps us find our way out of darkness to heal. Juan manifests kindness in his concern: How’s it really going? This is what kindness is—sincere, real, and deeply human, small everyday acts of compassion. Kindness also provides solace. Hope finds a way back into our daily lives. We become better and kinder human beings for experiencing it.
First, take a blank sheet of paper and list all the acts of kindness you remember, ones that brightened your day, eased your pain, and made a difference in your day. Perhaps you played it forward—because of the kindness you received, you were motivated to reach out to other friends, acquaintances or even strangers in need. Write about how an act of kindness eased your dampened spirit, sadness or loneliness.
Once we rediscover kindness in our lives, as Naomi Shihab-Nye tells us:
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
The world could use a little more kindness between people, don’t you think?