Back when I was single, I created a few personal profiles for online dating sites. When asked to name my religion, I wrote “Kindness.” While it sounded kind of flirty, it’s also what I truly believe in and try to practice.
Kindness touches the soul, transcends language, and connects people on a primal level. Growing up in a Catholic family, I heard a lot about the Golden Rule—treating others as we’d have them treat us. And who doesn’t want to be treated with kindness and compassion? The hard part is doling it out on a regular basis when we’re feeling stressed, hurried, defensive, or judgmental.
That’s why I’m a sucker for people who go out of their way to be kind.
I’ve struggled with depression in my life and, while it no longer overtakes me, I’m still what they call a highly sensitive person. Some days, I just feel things very deeply and inhabit a tender place, emotionally. Sharp words, like sharp objects, feel wounding on those days, and being dismissed can hurt.
When someone takes the time to be kind to me, it feels like a big deal and pierces through the emotional haze like Cupid’s arrow. It might be the barista who compliments my earrings while making my latte, the driver who lets me cut into the long line of traffic, the woman with the umbrella who escorts me to my car in the driving rain, or the gas station attendant, smiling and wishing me a great day when all he needed to say was “Thanks.”
There’s a popular saying that goes something like, “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness.” These days I see kindness as a strength, and those who consistently practice it as my role models.
When my husband moved to the United States from Senegal, he arrived with a duffel bag and a knapsack. He’d given nearly everything away to friends and family before emigrating, but among his few possessions were a pair of slightly tight work boots given to him by a caring friend.
As his funds were limited, my husband took the boots to a shoe repair shop for stretching. The Ugandan man behind the counter welcomed him to America with a 1,000-watt smile, unlike some of the strangers he’d already encountered in Boston. “I have something for you, my African brother,” the cobbler said, handing my husband a snazzy pair of shoes that another customer had abandoned. It was a memorable gesture of kindness during a time of traumatic change.
One day, I dialed the yoga center where I teach and left a message. Moments later, I got a call back from a man in New York with a nearly identical phone number. “Namaste from Brooklyn,” he said into my voicemail. “You dialed the wrong number and I didn’t want you to think that no one returned your call.”
Namaste, indeed, I thought, for being considerate enough to let me know that my call had misfired.
A real king of kindness in my mind is Narayanan Krishnan, a talented chef turned social worker who started feeding the homeless and destitute in his Indian hometown. The astonishing part is not the meals that Krishnan delivers, but the love that he feeds to his people—cutting their hair and bathing and hugging them, even though his caste rules forbid it. As Krishnan says, “We all have 5.5 liters of blood,” no matter our race, class, or bank account balance.
Choosing to be kind isn’t easy when others seem unkind. That’s when I have to remember that I can’t really know what pain lies in the heart or mind of another person. That guy who cut me off at the rotary may have just lost his job. The woman who let the door shut in my face may be worried about a sick child. “If you’re gonna make up a story, make up a good one,” a friend of mine used to say when I’d get all twisted up about a perceived slight from someone.
And so I try, and fail, and try again to be kind to those around me. It helps when I remember to start with myself, because practicing self-compassion makes it easier to feel loving-kindness toward others.
I like to think that practicing kindness creates ripples of goodwill that extend far beyond the original gesture, but perhaps the most motivating reason to be kind is how good it can make us feel. In the words of Swami Kripalu: “By making others happy, you make yourself happy. The key to your heart lies hidden in the heart of another.