Tis the season for acts of kindness. Therein lies the problem—that there should be such a thing as a season for remembering to be kind. Would that the good cheer of December could be spread out across the calendar, what more could humankind ask for? Alas, January arrives, and we return to our regularly scheduled programming. There we all are, with bills to pay and pounds to lose. We drift into the Seasonally Affected Disordered realm of Narnia, where it’s always winter and never Christmas. Plus it’s dark and we’re cold and the snowbanks are gray and the traffic is snarled and the impetus to give over to the kind act is lost, or forgotten. Somehow…poof, gone.
Then you have a life experience. Something happens to make you see the world a new way. A brush with destiny, a medical alert that makes you long for normal, a loved one lost, stolen or strayed. There’s a million things that can happen to a human being to make the everyday world seem more precious, more worthy of our heartfelt appreciation. You go through a rough patch, you come out the other side, and you find yourself wanting to be a force for good. Or at least for noticing the things that deserve to be extolled and replicated.
Well, okay, maybe not everyone. Me more than many, I guess. But I think there are crossroads in every life, when what was known has changed, where you find yourself dealing with a new reality. Meanwhile, you go out the door, and there’s the world, continuing apace, acting like nothing out of the ordinary has happened. I remember that feeling most profoundly when my sister died; how could the sun keep coming up, how could the sky possibly be so blue? How could people be bustling around, oblivious to the pain, to my pain?
Here’s the thing we all need to realize: everyone’s dealing with something. I read a quote not long ago, from Plato: “Be Kind, for Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Great Battle.” Were truer words ever spoken? “We are not alone, but surrounded by a world of people with challenges, small and large, each deserving of compassion.” I have a friend who has the loveliest blog, all glorious art and thoughtful words, like those. And, though you would never know from what she posts, she also has a ton on her plate, healthcare wise. And yet, despite all she’s facing, she is my gold standard for appreciating the good, and remembering that we are all wounded out there. Now that I think of it, it was she who directed me to the Plato quote.
Those are her amazing clementines, on my favorite kitchen shelf.
So, back to kindness. Why are we so oblivious to the good cheer that comes back around to us when we extend a kindness? Why do we forget the clichéd truth, that giving is its own reward? Why are people not stopping and letting the car coming the other way make that left turn? What’s the point of blocking the intersection, except to ramp up the angst, the frustration, and while we’re at it, our collective blood pressure?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. I can only hold on to the truth I know, which is that I know I feel better when I offer up kindnesses. Big or small, on the fly or with intention, aforethought. And the sooner I can get to that giving place, the better.
Which gets me to this morning. My beloved’s alarm went off, which set off the organic alarm (meow!) outside our door. Bless his heart, John headed out of our warm bed and down the stairs, leaving me to a few minutes of cozy peace beneath the covers. I turned up the radio on my side of the bed (also permanently set for 6AM, but with the volume set to zero unless required) and figured I’d get a few minutes of NPR before the year-end appeals kicked in. What I got, was this:
http://www.wbur.org/kindworld/2013/12/11/remembering-karim-a-lifetime-of-kindness (If you click here (and I hope you do), know that you can skim through the transcript or listen to the story, as I heard it. I recommend listening. It’s about 6 minutes long.)
It’s a story about a gas station attendant, in my fair city. As the story unfolded, I realized I knew this man. Not from having him pump my gas, but as the guy who always cheerfully waved to me, whenever I walked my little diagonal zig-zag from Mt. Auburn Cemetery entrance, across the street and past his pumps, on my way up the street to my beloved reservoir loop. I remember thinking, after just a few of these encounters, that he saw me as some sort of regular, even though the early Sunday perambulations that linked my two sanctuaries together were few and far between. It turns out that the little hello waves I got were just the tip of the iceberg, or more accurately, just one sprinkle on a very big sundae, in terms of how much kindness this amazing man bestowed at every turn, and how much his neighbors felt beloved.
What I didn’t know, what many of the beneficiaries of his kindnesses didn’t know, is that he, too, faced his great battles. His family, whom he supported, was far away, in Lebanon. He was sick. He needed help, far more than we needed his freely given kindnesses. And in the end, a community rallied, and did what it could. It’s an amazing story.
Which leaves me wondering. What do I do in my life that comes close to what this man did for his neighbors, his clients, his random passers-by? I do some good, for family, for friends, for the causes I care about. I point out owls and hawks to folks who would never have noticed them. I hand my binoculars to strangers who I’m betting will be enchanted, to see those amazing feathers that cascade down the breast of a great blue heron. I make cookies, and applesauce, and spiced pecans, I send friends home with care packages. I let that car make that turn, whenever I can do so without fear of being rear-ended. And when someone stops for me in the crosswalk, I smile, I wave, I mouth the words “thank you,” and I pick up the pace. On those occasions when I find myself seated beside someone I don’t know, and the inevitable “So, what do you do?” query comes around, I allow that I am a sometimes writer, an occasional fundraiser, and a full-time good-deed-doer.
Then I listen to the Karim story, and I know what I need to do: I need to do more. And I need start sooner, and let myself start without circling around the inconvenience, like a dog getting ready to take a nap. I’m not perfect, not by a long shot. There’s work to be done. But as Professor Bhaer told Jo March in Little Women , upon hearing of her strife amidst her family’s transcendentalist goals of perfection, “We are all hopelessly flawed.” Flawed, and aiming for a higher good.
That’s my goal for today.
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