And here’s a perfect example.
Yesterday I read, and got permission to use, a perfectly lovely comment about kindness. Look, I’ve written about this before, but for my Medium dollar, it’s a lot more powerful when you and I can share other folks’ comments about how they operate in the world.
To that, here is Shefali O'Hara’s comment, with her consent:
Small, consistent gestures of kindness change the world. People are constantly telling me how nice I am, which used to really surprise me, because I was just acting the way I was raised.
I grew up with a mother who always planted extra tomatoes so she would have some to give to the neighbors and who would ask the elderly woman across the street if she wanted anything from the store. In India, where my mom is from, she saw her own mother routinely do small acts of kindness — she would always make an extra roti or two to give to the hungry stray dogs and she’d always gather up any leftovers from meals for the local beggars.
I always give up my seat to a pregnant woman or an elderly person and hold the door open for someone carrying packages. I routinely fill dishes of water for the birds and wee critters in my back yard and, in the spring, after brushing my dog’s hair I toss it on the wind so that the birds can use it to line their nests.
It astonished me one time when I was in New York City and this black man was struggling on the sidewalk trying to get his crutches and people just walked by. I stopped to help him and he said he’d been lying there for several minutes. That just astonished me. He said it was because he was black. I couldn’t believe it. Who cares about skin color when someone on crutches falls down? You just give them a hand and move on. It takes half a second. (author bolded)
The other day I read a piece that stated that how you handle your cart in the parking lot speaks to who you are. Okay. Let’s talk. First, whether or not you corral your cart is just one indicator. I am in the habit of not just corralling my own, but last night when an older woman was clearly struggling with her big one just outside Lowe’s after loading her plants into her car, I put hers away for her first. Now. Did I stand in the parking lot and scream LOOK AT ME?
Did I demand a hero button for being polite? Oh fer crying out loud.
Nope. I finished with mine and loaded my cart in the corral and went home. I often will pick up multiple carts at my TJ Maxx store, especially on a brutally hot day and take them back inside. However, just taking care of your cart isn’t the point. You could simply suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Neatness and not give a flying shit about people.
Shefali’s comment speaks to the fact that we are often born with a kind gene. More so that kindness, an appreciation of others and the ability and willingness to notice other people and creatures in need are demonstrated by example via those closest to us. We are born with the capacity, at least most are, but how we see it modeled has a great deal to do with how we operate.
We learn empathy by watching empathy, although there are some powerful arguments that humans are often hardwired already to care about others’ needs. To that:
From the article:
Zahn-Waxler, who has studied children’s emotional lives for decades, says that parents often miss expressions of kindness in their babies, even in the presence of the experimenters who are recording the child’s empathic expressions at that very moment. In the flow of everyday life, tantrums, conflicts and other demands can obscure more gentle behaviors, and adults may start reinforcing achievement-related skills over helping behaviors in the preschool years. (author bolded)
When parents of any culture start going off the deep end by pressuring their kids to succeed at all costs, a great deal gets lost in translation. We shove performance standards at them and don’t realize the cost to their humanity.
I was listening to an NPR program the other day about the Chinese obsession with school grades at younger and younger ages and how that turns parents into monsters:
From the article:
“A Little Dilemma” follows two families who have very different ideas about their children’s education. One mother is obsessed with grades, pushing her son in fifth grade to study at every opportunity. In China, they call this “chicken parenting.”
In one scene, after being pushed to the limit, her son stands up in front of his classmates and their parents and calls his mom out for the mental stress caused by her.
“My mom doesn’t love me, she loves the me that scores 100%,” he says, tears welling up in his eyes.
This is no different from any other parental behavior where the children are little more than extensions of the parent’s insecurities and ego-needs, which not only robs the child of who they are but also any kind of self-expression. This kind of intense pressure to perform, whether in sports (the dreaded sideline soccer mom) or to achieve in school to be able to sport a Harvard Law Degree, is abuse of the first order.
I’m reminded of the terrific movie Dead Poet’s Society, where a boy commits suicide rather than succumb to his father’s intense pressure to follow a different career path, which the father intends to enforce by sending the boy to military school. The inspirational teacher, played by Robin Williams, was blamed.
It was the father’s fault for being so focused on having his child live out his own failed life fantasies that cost the boy’s life. In such ways we rob our children of their birthright.
As a child, my grades seemed to be far more a reflection of my parent’s success or lack of it than whatever skill I might have possessed. This has become rampant in the world, as we focus more and more on material success and less and less on what might make the world a more habitable place for even more of us. However, my parents were both kind in many ways. Growing up poor as well as thoroughly surrounded by, and growing up alongside, poor Black kids as well as four of them that I considered family, were my own deep education in empathy.
Part of the birthright of all of us, girls and boys alike, is our ability to be kind, generous, compassionate and gracious. I see none of this in all the articles on Medium and elsewhere extolling the virtues (there are none, thank you) of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Both of whom are guilty of employee exploitation, greed of the highest order and not much give-a-shit about anyone else except anyone whose yacht might be bigger.
I also have a hard time with the proliferation of videos on LinkedIn which document acts of kindness. If you’ll forgive me for pointing out the obvious, while I get that telling a story might have an impact, I have a fair bit of distrust for those running around recording, for public consumption, what should be everyday courtesies. That we would stoop to marketing our kindnesses like packaged goods to get eyeballs speaks to how fall we have fallen. I find it appalling, but that’s just me.
For those oh-so-VERY loud evangelicals, if I may:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.” (Matthew 6:1 NIV)
The more public the displays, for my part, the less genuine the intent.
We have leaned far too hard towards the win-at-all-costs model, and the derision of characteristics such as empathy, the ability to cry in public and all the immensely powerful goddess-given gifts of human caring as weakass. Pussy. Because they can be and often are related to the feminine or at least the feminine side, the patriarchal knee jerk response is that such feelings of kindness mark us as wobbly in the spine.
The great patriarchal insult is You’re such a fucking GIRL.
If you’re old enough you might remember the Oscar-winning 1937 Disney animated cartoon Ferdinand. There are some ridiculous aspects to the story (bulls gathering around a poster showing a bull pierced with the muletas- you tell ME how happy they’d be knowing that this was nothing more than a public spectacle of their painful death by a caricatured asshole). However, historical nonsense aside, the notion of a bull who preferred to smell the flowers makes the point.
Some of us, male or female, have no interest in the kind of greed-fueled, superiority crap that is sold us by the hack creators and self-help book purveyors. Not all of it for sure, but that which has the unfortunate underlying message of abundance mentality, or monetizing what we otherwise refer to as fellow human beings. When we stop seeing one another as human and little more than an ATM machine, kindness goes out the window for the pursuit of profit at all costs. While this isn’t that article, the dehumanization process of all major social media sites that were intended to bring us together are, to me, part of the problem. It’s like Amway on a global scale, get rich by using everyone you know, no matter what.
A rich piece of shit is still just a piece of shit. As is regularly evidenced daily.
I don’t care about Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. I care a great deal more about whether or not the mating flickers in my yard have cool water in the heat, whether or not the turkeys’ water supply is full and clean, and whether or not the chickadees using my small bird bath can be protected from my neighbor’s cat. When those turkeys came through my yard on a 112 degree day with their beaks open in the heat, I ran outside to refresh their water. Made sure all the suet was refreshed. The bird baths cleaned out.
You just do that.
I cleaned out the common areas of three properties of their blackberries. Last night cut a huge tree branch that had fallen in my neighbor’s yard and cleared it out. Did I videotape it? No. Did I make LOTS of noise so that all my neighbors would be able to see how hard I was laboring? NO. When the only time we do something kind we have to document it in order to be perceived well by others, you will forgive my derision. Just do the fucking thing.
Shefali doesn’t walk around with a camera man capturing every single time she gives her seat to a pregnant woman. I didn’t take out my phone and ask another customer to document when I helped a handicapped woman by putting a thirty pound bag of cat food into her car.
You might argue that by telling these stories I am asking for applause. You’d be missing the point. The simple fact that someone would make that accusation is a statement about themselves, not me. Nor Shefali.
When I travel, I will spend time petting stray dogs, playing with the barefoot kids in the village and sitting on the sagging porches of the village elders, having my guide translate for me. These acts of engagement and kindness are far more important to me than showing off my latest Porsche. My bigger yacht. (Okay, more like, my newest $12.00 workout bra from TJ Maxx) Whatever thing I think is so fucking important which at some deep level inside me I think it going to make up for a greater poverty of heart and soul.
Happily, I fall into that category of folks who make just enough money to pay the bills and a bit more, which means I don’t have enough to show off my wealth, but I do have enough to give to others. Research indicates that the more we have, the more we worry about what we have, feel the need to protect what we have, and feel threatened by people who don’t have enough. That is precisely Trump’s America, fueled by hate, greed, fear and patriarchal ignorance.
In such ways, rich and powerful folks might well be surrounded by sycophants but not too many folks who care about them. Most certainly unless paid awfully well, the folks who have to tend to them on their death beds aren’t exactly sad to see them suffer and expire. I can’t speak for anyone else but that’s a horrible way to go.
Real wealth, and real health
The good news about kindness, love and all the other best characteristics of our humanity is that the bank for those parts of us cannot be emptied. In fact, in that great mystery of life, the more we give of all of that the more we have to give. Acts of kindness tend to generate more acts of kindness and generosity not only inside us, but in others. Research shows that kind acts have a cascading effect, which again for my dollar, is one hell of a lot better than cascading the sins of our fathers onto others out of a paucity of spirit.
Think I’m nuts? Watch this:
Shefali’s comment underscores for me how those who are either poor or at least not particularly well-to-do have far more compassion for those in need. When I travel, I eschew resorts and fancy hotels, and instead prefer to ride out or hike to where everyday folks live and toil. I learn what life is really like for them. Attending to such mundane details allows me to embrace a country at its heart, not what a tourist brochure is selling. The poorest villagers I have ever met have been among the most generous. They understand that my efforts to hike to where they live,to spend time sitting with them, listening, watching their faces and holding their kids are valuable time out of my life. I am interested. That’s important to them.
Social media is about as cruel is it gets, and it can also be a way to spread goodness. That’s a choice.
The cure is kindness. It’s one of the few things that heals- it heals those to whom we are kind, and it heals us as we are kind.
Each day you and I are given umpteen opportunities to show up in new and different ways. You and I can choose to be kind. We can choose to be shitheels. One path grows the bank inside us. The other drains it.
I can’t speak for you. But the older I get, the less time I have, the more I want to fill it with what feeds my soul, soothes those around me, adds value and creates good in the world. While I will stumble, as I am human, my challenge is to continue to do more of what heals than what hurts. That’s Goddess work.
And if that makes me a pussy, that’s fine by me. It also makes me a Warrior Woman, a She-Wolf, and a Protector. I would prefer to protect a place that is getting kinder. Let’s all do our part, because we can, and because this is how we heal ourselves, and the world around us.
With sincere thanks to Dear Reader Shefali O'Hara who inspired this story.