Kindness

One of those childhood memories, which lingers with me – though it has little to do with anything of importance to my childish interests – was an assignment in grade school to do a dramatic reading of a lyric about racial prejudice. We did this in unison as a class.

On the surface this seems like something out of the recent conflicts over the teaching of CRT in today’s schools. But this event took place more than sixty years ago, when I was about ten years old – or thereabouts.

The song lyric was from the Broadway musical South Pacific. I didn’t know that until a few years later, when I saw the movie version. In that presentation the actor John Kerr sang to the lovely Mitzi Gaynor about having to be “carefully taught” to hate based on racial differences. His musical insights followed a clearly stated premise that one is not born with any ethnic bias. It must be learned.

The song was controversial in that post World War II era, when Jim Crow attitudes still held sway. Rogers and Hammerstein, the creators of the musical based on James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, claimed it was the theme on which the entire production hinged. They refused to remove it from the stage play, which subsequently secured its inclusion in the movie adaptation as well.

I mention this childhood episode for the simple reason that I think it takes even greater care to carefully teach someone how to be kind. Virtues are not endemic. They derive from experience, usually instilled in us by word and deed from those we love and admire. As a result they become outcomes of our nature and produce behaviors, which in keeping with this week’s message include acts of kindness.

For this series I am working my way through a list of what I consider to be outcomes as presented in a letter of more than two thousand years vintage. It was written by a man of Hebrew heritage for an audience of mixed ethnic members in a Greek city governed by Roman authorities. Within this cultural concoction of conflicting influences the Apostle Paul encouraged his readers to exhibit the qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

I have already written, no doubt inadequately, about the first four qualities. It’s time for me to consider the merits of kindness.

The Greeks, whose language Paul used to reach a global audience, had a word for it; chrestotes. Its implication was one of moral goodness producing a variety of actions designed to benefit others. Things have not changed much over the millennia as we have also been encouraged, through marketing like messages, to commit random acts of kindness to counter the prevalence of selfish, destructive behaviors.

A survey of the stories that make the news and dominate social media might prompt us to decide the advocates of kindness have failed. But I would say that kindness rarely makes the news. It’s simply not violent, manipulative or sexy enough to matter. Controversy reigns.

For me on the other hand, I once fell in love with someone whose very expression was infused with kindness. Tone of voice supported my perception of the illumination behind her eyes and the manner in which she attended to others’ needs, mine own included. Physical beauty was a bonus. That she said yes to my proposal was just as astounding to me then as it is now, some fifty years later.

Much has changed during that time, but not the essential qualities which comprise her heart and mind; kindness being one of them. I’ve come to believe she simply can’t help herself. The lessons carefully taught her when a child have held claim to her soul with no less certainty than pigmentation determines the resolute color of our skin.

Here are six takeaways from a lifetime of marveling at the art of kindness on display in my most intimate of relationships.

Whenever we were in a group my wife had an innate commitment to speak with everyone present. If she were a politician we would call it working the room. With her, however, it was a statement about the importance of even the least auspicious personage within her reach.

Every contact began with a smile; an unconditional, wordless statement of goodwill. I never saw her gesture rejected.

Each conversation was a Q&A session. My wife asked the questions – always concerning the interests of the other person, who reciprocated by sharing information of the most personal nature, confident that such insights would be held in confidence by someone emerging as a new best friend forever.

Where kindness proved to be appalling, within my way of thinking at least, was in my wife’s tendency to create a sense of mutual identity with such phrases as “I know exactly how you feel” or – even worse – “I’ve done exactly the same thing.” These twin phrases usually followed a person’s admission to some weakness I could not countenance. In my mind, we weren’t that bad.

Before these one-sided telling exchanges were over, my wife made sure to mention the other person’s name at least once. Dale Carnegie informed us in his 1936 masterpiece How to Win Friends and Influence People that a person’s name was the most important word – to them – in the English language (unless you spoke French or some other foreign gibberish). My wife was apparently a Carnegie acolyte.

Somehow conversations ended without ever saying the word “Good-bye”. My guess is that it created an implied promise of a future meeting, which in turn likely left the impression with her counterpart of being likeable.

I would say that the above items provide an outline of human kindness on the make.

Kindness may lack the depth and the risk of compassion, but that is okay. Kindness is much more flexible in its outward expressions. Kindness allows us to be anonymous in our giving and humble in our magnanimity. We offer someone else precedence at in a place in line. They respond with a thank you. It is a matter of give and give in return. Try it. It is an inexpensive way to create happiness.

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