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I know a woman named Holly Champagne. It would be hard not to be ebullient with a name like that. Of course, my mother thought “Lori” was an ebullient name, and I am anything but. On the other hand, I once watched one of those “true-life” court shows that featured a boy named Nefarious — nefarious! — who was doing his level best to live up — or is that down? — to his name. Maybe labels are slipperier than we think.

Back in high school, one of my classmates gave quick, one-word descriptors of a group of us girls to a group of boys. My descriptor was “smart,” and even in that moment, I saw my chances with any of those boys fade into nothingness. Words do hurt, do bind and do restrain. But no word can possibly encapsulate the totality of who we are.

Labeling yourself, whether in a positive, negative or even neutral way, sets up certain expectations, certain limits. I am not just a woman, a Catholic, a brunette (a fact that grows more apparent even as my hair grows), a feminist, a liberal. Because what you expect and conjure up on the basis of those words may be as far from true as slapping the word “petite” on me. (Or, as I said to my husband after a recent outing to the movies, “I’m six feet tall and I just saw ‘Wonder Woman.’ I’d get out of my way.”)

God, the author of words (for which I am eternally grateful) does not care much for labels, I think. Labels can be traps. But we humans sure seem to love them, if only for quickly and summarily lumping together and dismissing others as unlike ourselves. We have a deep need to belong to a tribe. And part of finding your tribe seems to include excluding those who do not fit the parameters.

You see a lot of this is the comments section of any social media posting. “Those people” are idiots, losers, corrupt or foolish. “My people” are not. What if, for just one day, we stopped believing in “mine” and “yours,” “them” and “us”? What if we ignored all the labels — rich, poor, dumb, smart, fat, thin — and just got to know one another without expectation or judgment, without filing each person we meet into neat little folders — “like me” or “not like me”?

I suspect something radical would happen. I also suspect that it cannot be done. We like our labels too much. So, instead, let me suggest a new label — “human.” Think about that word. Let the connotations that swirl around it emerge. Hopefully, these thoughts contain such sentiments as “fragile,” “prone to error” and even “lovable.”

Now try applying that label to everyone you meet. It is, after all, how God sees us.

So often we seem to believe that if we can’t do something big, we just won’t do anything at all. But small actions add up.  I’ve discovered this with one of my son’s friends.  Originally he was ” the tag along little brother” but at this point he and Jared are friends.

His brother is super outgoing and way charismatic.  He has a great sense of humor and is always willing to lend someone a hand.

The younger brother is much less outgoing.  He too has a great sense of humor although, as my grandmother would say, it isn’t always a great fit for polite society.  But he’s quiet.  For two years he’s been coming to my house and I don’t think he’d spoken to me 10 times.

The past year has been tough. Some of the changes have been good (a move), some have been bad (a divorce) but change is stressful. It can make you feel overwhelmed and overlooked.

And it isn’t like they live here.  But I’ve picked the younger brother up when the older brother, and the rest of their carpool, had a sporting event.  My husband and I have been their adult chaperones when they have to deal with a curfew.  And we’ve fed them dinner, grilling burgers, ladling stew into bowls, and making pan after pan of mac-n-cheese.

I recently got the shock of a lifetime.  I had made yet more mac-n-cheese, aren’t they sick of it yet, and someone picked me up off the floor.  “I love mac-n-cheese so much.”  When did he get so much taller than me?  A few days later, I was sitting on the sofa crocheting.  The younger brother plopped down beside and proceeded to chat me up about their new cat.

I hadn’t done anything huge but I’ve made a connection, one box of pasta at a time.

Small things are a great way to share God’s love in a world that really needs it.

–SueBE

Do your actions speak louder than your words?  It is so easy, especially when someone is rude or insulting to be rude or insulting back.  That’s when I have to remind myself to take a deep breath and, like my great aunt, sweep them away with Jesus’ love.  So glad I had that powerful woman to show me the way!

What do you practice? 

For the book lovers among us…Always makes me think of Mother Teresa and Gandhi.

Have you ever wanted to take a permanent vow of silence? You know, the kind preceded by a pursing of the lips, a twist of the wrist and the throwing away of an invisible key? I feel that way a lot. For all of my so-called proficiency with words on paper, I’m not a good speaker. Or even a good writer, a lot of the time. Sometimes my brain and my mouth aren’t exactly in sync. And other times I feel as if there is some secret code that everyone else knows but that has been withheld from me. In other words, for social, verbal creatures, we humans sure are good at offending one another. Often, we do not even mean to. There is simply no way to gauge how our words will affect another human being.

We can guess, of course. We know that certain words are hurtful or offensive. But what about the ones that seem to operate in secret — poisonous words that we thought were as bland as unbuttered popcorn, and just as lethal? And sometimes words aren’t even necessary. People have hated other people on sight since the beginning of time. There was a girl I knew in high school who confessed that she loathed me because the first time I opened my mouth in class, I used a polysyllabic word that raised her hackles. I was “a know-it-all.” A prig. Later, we became friends, but I never lost the sense that somehow this was against her better judgment — that I’d failed in some primal way, but had been forgiven for it. Only I still don’t know how I failed.

Haters gonna hate. Isn’t that what the kids are saying these days? Or maybe they used to say it and now it’s as dated as “groovy” and “right on, man.” How would I know? Clearly, words I see as peaceful doves can land like bombs without my consent or knowledge. No one can control how they are perceived by others. Even if they try really, really hard.

So I guess what I’m saying is: be kind. Remember that the person in front of you is as fragile and hurting as you are. We’re all just shivering piles of dust, flimsy and susceptible to blowing away in the lightest of gales. No one wants to be alone. No one wants to be hated. For better or worse, we’re stuck with one another. That’s going to necessitate a heap of compassion, a mound of forgiveness, a great mountain of understanding. It is the job of every one of us to add to the pile. If we claim to be good people, moral people, it is the job of a lifetime.

In the meantime, if I offend you, I’m sorry. I wish I could take that vow of silence and mean it, but I’m afraid I’m just not capable of it. It would mean hiding my light under a bushel basket for one thing, and I’m pretty sure God doesn’t support that kind of thing.

“The rest is silence,” says Hamlet as he breathes his last. Now there’s a guy I can relate to.

When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

earyikg21d4-maja-petricIn the news lately, we’ve been hearing about people committing awful acts of terror, and this term seems to come up more often than not: “self-radicalized.”

It might be more accurate to call it “metastasized.” Something incompatible to life taking root at the cellular level.

I’ve noticed that this word isn’t applied to everyone equally.

We don’t call these two grandmas in a shoot-out at Wal-Mart “radicalized.”

In most cases, the term is used when speaking of Muslims involved in violent acts, but I think it could be applied to people of any race, gender or religion who feel disenfranchised.

That being said, I still believe that most of the world’s population is comprised of peaceful, law-abiding people. Of course, there are some exceptions, but there are still many reasons to be hopeful about life.

God’s grace is still the oxygen of the universe.

Here’s what buoys my spirits.

To know that there are people like this four-year-old who read a thousand books and was made Librarian for a Day at the Library of Congress is like a vitamin for the soul.

To know that this elderly lady in distress dialed a wrong number and it turned out to be a police detective who stayed on the line to help her is evidence of Providence at work.

To know that these stray dogs in Turkey were given shelter at a mall by kind-hearted locals during a snowstorm warmed my heart.

To know that young and old can connect, as this 82 year old man found out when a 4 year old said, “hi, old person, can I have a hug?” brought a tear to my eye.

What if we took back ownership of the word, “radicalized,” and used it in the spirit spoken of by Dr. King?

We might self-radicalize toward full-scale compassion. Mobilize in the direction of brazen kindness. Maybe if we open our hearts and reach out our arms, we’d find we could embrace the whole world.

Over the weekend, I took a deep breath and suddenly was in so much pain, I doubled over. The doctor on call said it was something called “pleurisy” and told me to go to the ER.

My son drove me to the hospital, and, on the way, I mulled over what this mystery condition was all about. Could it be the plural version of leprosy?!? Something that sounds like a fancy French dish can’t be a big deal!

Two stern-faced nurses, one male and one female, started to disrobe me and put electrodes on my chest for the EKG. At least buy me dinner first! I thought.

They put an oxygen tube over my nose, started an IV line, drew blood and wheeled me in for a chest x-ray.

Finally, one of the nurses smiled. “Love your cat socks,” she said. Another one laughed and said, “How great!” and pointed to her jacket, which had a pawprint design on it.

Another nurse, Marielle, asked what I did for a living, and it almost occurred to me to say I’m a professional patient of late, but told her about my writing gigs.

Her parents only spoke Tonga at home, she told me, but she really tries to speak English like a native. Her “friends” corrected her all the time, and she said that she sometimes  confused “was” and “were.”

I was impressed with her because she worked in the ICU of another hospital in our town on weekdays, and at this hospital’s ER on the weekends. She’s already achieved so much, but what makes her feel less accomplished is her grasp of the language.

The nurses focused on my cute cat socks, even though all the while I was thinking, I look and feel like forty miles of bad road. They didn’t see what I saw.

Marielle focused on her perceived language issues, even though all the while I was thinking, she’s young to have accomplished so much in her career. She didn’t see what I saw.

When I got home that night, I prayed for all the nurses who had taken care of me, and that we could all see each other through God’s eyes, healing each other with kindness.

heart and hands

At eight years old, my son taught me an important lesson in body language and soul-speak.

After walking home from the bus stop, he came through the door, smiling.

In quick succession, I issued a list of his moving violations.

  • You wore that shirt?
  • Don’t slouch! 
  • You forgot your homework again.

Posture adjustment.

From “Glad to be home from school – oh look, there’s my Mom!”

to “Guess I did something wrong and didn’t even know it.”

Looked like a tiny candle’s flame, fading. Flickering out. Poof!

That very day, I learned something. I felt terrible that I had made my own child feel so terrible.

Next afternoon, I started a new tradition.

Since that time and to this day, when he comes home from school, I don’t harp or hassle or harangue. I don’t carp or criticize or cauterize with my words.

Front door opens. I dance.

Flail around like a dadblamed fool.

Like a cheerleader hailing a champion.

I clap my hands and sing. “My son is home! My sooooon is hooooome. Yay! Tell me all about your day, son,” as if talking to Magellan, returning from high seas with tall tales.

Sure, he may roll his eyes at such a dramatic display of MotherLove; still, he walks slowly down the hall to his room, as if secretly appreciating being appreciated.

Teaching is a part of life for all of us, but I’ve never learned anything from being yelled at, picked on or beaten down.

My son may have been the one coming home from school, but I’m the one who learned a lesson.

Note to self: When people you love come home, make them feel at home.

Love your loved ones.

Sounds obvious, but this basic truth can get lost in translation. I’m so glad I finally listened.

Alarming news abounds. Look at Ferguson. Look at the Middle East. The Children’s Defense Fund recently published a report that states the following horrifying facts: The United States, though first among industrialized nations in military spending and number of billionaires, ranks SECOND TO WORST in child poverty rates (only Romania is worse) and dead last — WORST — in protecting children against gun violence. How is this okay? (Answer: It’s not.) As usual, I turn to poetry to loosen my emotions. Please, everyone, treat each other with kindness. Okay?

There is ice here
and snow and sere
desert; there are children
(all colors) and guns,
explosives. The world
is cracking under the weight
of itself.

Lighter hearts can lift
(like helium) the gravity
of evil; open ears and arms
can hold the load so it
is never too heavy
for one person to bear.

We must approach
one another like hummingbirds,
gently avoiding the buzz of wings
and wait, abiding,
for the right instant
to offer nectar.

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