KINDNESS: A WAY OF LIFE
by Visu Teoh
(feedback, comments welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org)
“At its most basic, kindness is simply the act of opening the heart and being genuinely good to someone else.”- Cheryl Carter-Scott
We may not be out there distributing food to the hungry in soup kitchens or nursing wounded civilians in war zones but that does not mean that we cannot practise kindness.
It is certainly great and laudable to serve the poor or needy or working full time for some charitable or service organisation helping and supporting various noble and worthy causes.
That, indeed, is an admirable way of life - one that is dedicated to being kind to our fellow sentient beings.
But the majority of us, who are going about our normal everyday life, can still make kindness our way of life simply by interacting with others in a kindly way, by thinking kindly thoughts and speaking and acting kindly. Everyone can make this effort.
As a saying goes: “A friendly look, a kindly smile, one good act, and life’s worthwhile.” And we can make our life worthwhile many times over by flashing lots of bright smiles to light up others’ day and, of course, carrying out simple acts of friendliness and kindness in every way we can.
Cultivate the habit of extending a warm friendly greeting with a genuine smile to others. While brightening up another’s day, it also makes us feel more cheerful and upbeat ourselves!
Little things matter. As the late Dr Leo Buscaglia, who has written many books on love and kindness, put it: “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
We have the power to touch lives deeply in small and simple ways. Consider how many times you have been moved by a kind compliment or small acts of kindness which even now, when you recollect them, still bring a warm sensation to your heart or a smile to your face.
I have made it a point to remember many various acts of kindness, small or big, which I have received from others in my life, and to send metta or good wishes to those kind souls. It rekindles in me gratitude when I consciously bring these acts of kindness to mind.
If I may give a few examples: When my wife Barbara and I were living in Hong Kong some years ago, we used to frequent a restaurant for a late lunch on Sundays before I led a three-hour meditation session and discussion at a meditation centre in Prince Edward Road.
Once when we were ordering a bowl of noodles together with my favourite strong Hong Kong milk tea (nai cha) to go with it, a friendly smiling waitress told us to please wait about ten minutes before she put in the order as we would get a substantial discount for food ordered after 2.00pm. I was touched by this kind gesture, this act of caring, which was accompanied by a bright warm friendly smile. To this day I can still picture the smiling face of the waitress when I send her metta, wishing her wellness and happiness.
On another occasion I had just left our apartment in Tung Chung and was heading towards the MTR (the mass transit railway) when my wallet dropped out of my pocket without my realising it. Someone suddenly came rushing up to me from behind, thrust the wallet into my hand and sped off even before I could properly thank him. He must have been in a hurry but I had managed to catch a brief glimpse of his face which still appears in my mind whenever I think of him and send him metta.
Back in my hometown in Penang, while standing one day on a divider in the middle of a busy road waiting for an opportunity to continue walking across, I was pleasantly surprised when a motorist stopped and waved me on. Just after crossing, as I turned back to give him a wave as a gesture of thanks, he tipped his head, put up his hand and gave me a broad smile. That made my day and I continued on my walk with a big grin, thinking how wonderful the world would be if more people behaved in such a friendly way to each other. And, yes, the face of this man, too, comes occasionally to my mental vision when I radiate metta.
And what of the big kindnesses we have received? How can we ever forget them? When I disrobed at the age of 49 in 2003 after being a Buddhist monk for 17 years, I had no idea how I was going to survive. Then, from out of the blue, an old friend, whom I had not been in frequent contact with, took pains to inquire about my whereabouts and sent me an email, expressing his understanding of my predicament in words which touched me to the core, and urging me to kindly accept his financial support.
He said he had benefitted from reading the books I had written as a monk and his offer of support was a way of showing his gratitude. He added that he believed in me and would like me to continue teaching and benefit people even though I was out of the robes. I was deeply touched and tears rolled down my cheeks when I read his email. He gave me courage and confidence at a time I most needed it.
To this day this kind friend is one of my greatest benefactors without whom I would not have been able to continue as a lay Buddhist meditation teacher all these years. With his generous support and those of other friends, dear ones, and those who attend my retreats, my wife Barbara and I have enough funds to live by and are able to continue living the life we love, which is the sharing and spreading of the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness, wisdom, lovingkindness and compassion. We feel honoured, privileged and fortunate to be able to play this role of serving the Dhamma.
Everyday, without fail, I send metta to this great benefactor and many others whose kindness has touched me and uplifted my life. Truly, considering that our life is so dependent on others, how can we not show kindness to others in return? There is no better way to live than kindly.
Make kindness our religion
Do we need a religion to be kind? When you think about it, the answer is “No” as anyone can be kind - with or without a religion. It is up to each of us to practise kindness. The Dalai Lama was once asked by an interviewer what his religion was. You would expect his answer to be Buddhism. But no, the Dalai Lama’s reply was: “My religion is lovingkindness.”
I like the Dalai Lama’s reply: his emphasis on kindness. If everybody would eschew violence and practise kindness, the world would surely be a much better place to live in. No doubt, there will still be accidents, natural catastrophes, aging, sickness and death which are inevitable but kindness will alleviate much of the suffering and make it more bearable.
What is it that this sad world of ours needs most? The late American poet and writer, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, put it well when she penned these lines:
“So many gods, so many creeds
So many paths that wind and wind.
While just the art of being kind,
Is all the sad world needs.”
People can, unfortunately, practise religion in a divisive way, harbouring a holier-than-thou attitude. Religious followers can be intolerant, arrogant, fanatical and extreme. Some religious books, too, may contain violent passages which can mislead their followers. Thus, it is best if we give more emphasis on kindness because this is what will uplift and ennoble our lives. Perhaps, the best religion then is the religion of kindness. We should believe in kindness and make it our religion.
Kindness in speech
“Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will break your heart.” – Robert Fulghum
“Speak not harshly to anyone. Those thus spoken to will retort. Painful indeed is vindictive speech. Blows in exchange may bruise you. But if, like a broken gong, you maintain silence, you have approached Nibbana, for no vindictiveness is found in you.” – Buddha, Dhammapada 133 & 144
Anger provokes anger. If we snap at somebody in anger, the other person is likely to retort in kind. Anger is destructive. Harsh words spoken rashly in anger can deeply wound the feelings of another and destroy or permanently impair a relationship. Then, even if we say sorry the damage is already done. It may take some time for the other person to recover from her wounded feelings and even then the relationship may never be the same again.
Rather than lash out in anger, it is better to maintain noble silence when we are angry. If we can’t be kind, at least let us not be unkind. We can hold our tongue and keep our peace. However, if we must say something, then we must be extra careful not to say things that we will regret later. It is best to keep a lid on our anger and speak as calmly and rationally as possible.
A practitioner of kindness would not want to get angry because he knows that he is liable to hurt another when he is in an angry state of mind. Thus, he would embody qualities of patience, perseverance, tolerance, self-control and understanding. If anger arises, he would want to rein it in and nip it in the bud.
While a harsh word can ruin a day, a kind word can, on the other hand, make someone’s day. As a Japanese proverb goes: “One kind word can keep you warm for three winters.” Should we then not make a concerted effort to practise kind speech, to find words that will uplift, cheer up and encourage another?
Consider how an honest compliment can brighten up a day. Consider, when there is an opportune moment, to give positive and encouraging feedback. Say, for example, you find somebody’s service in a shop impressive and satisfying, then tell the person so. You can say, “I am really impressed by your service. It’s great! You are so efficient, helpful and friendly. I am satisfied and delighted with your service” or whatever words of appreciation that come spontaneously to your mind.
If we are pleased with somebody’s service, why should we not tell the person so? What does it cost us to make a little effort to express our genuinely felt appreciation? And consider how that little feedback might make the other person’s day, make her feel appreciated and encouraged to continue with her great service or good work. It can brighten up her mood which, in turn, will have a ripple effect on others. A good mood is contagious. It spreads.
As a meditation teacher, I can say that I deeply appreciate all the positive feedback I received from my students. It does make my day and encourage me to continue to teach to the best of my ability. Sometimes I received little notes of thanks, appreciation and gratitude that touched me deeply. For example, there is one that I still keep close to me. I am sharing it here not with the intention to inflate myself but to underscore the importance and beauty of positive feedback.
The note was written by a young man in his twenties at the conclusion of a nine-day metta (lovingkindness) retreat I led in Ireland: “Visu, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us. Your radiant metta has been inspirational. Sometimes when I’m down your smiling face pops into my head saying ‘May you be happy!’ I always feel better! I have learnt so much in this week and I will continue to radiate metta. I am eternally grateful to you, my friend!” and below the words, he drew me with a bespectacled smiling face. I chuckled when I saw his sketch of me.
I can still see this young man’s face with his bright eyes and smile whenever he came for the daily interview to report on his day’s meditation progress. I can see him sitting with the group of meditators in the meditation hall, immersed in radiating lovingkindness. He may not realize it but his words have made a great impact on me and they still make my day and bring a smile to my face whenever I bring to mind his little note of thanks.
I am sure many people would have similar stories to share on how some positive feedback they received has made a difference in their lives. Thus, we should not underestimate the power of positive feedback and should readily give it whenever there is occasion or opportunity to do so.
When I am teaching, too, I always try to give every possible encouragement and positive feedback to my students. I know how hard the practice can be, how easily discouraged we can become while striving on the spiritual path. So I always try my best to shore up the practitioners’ spirits, acknowledge and applaud their good effort, and point out to them the progress they have already made along the path.
We all need such reassurance and encouragement in our journey through life. When the Buddha’s attendant Ananda commented that spiritual friendship, encouragement and support was half of the holy life, the Buddha went even further and said it was not just half but the whole of the holy life.
What are the two most important words in the English language? They are “Thank you,” which is an expression of our appreciation. There is occasion for us to say ‘thank you’, many times a day for all the things, little or big, that are done for us by others. Often we may take some of these things done for us for granted, especially those kind acts and services we have been in the habit of receiving from our dear and close ones.
It is good to be in the habit of saying, ‘thank you,’ and not take for granted those things that are done on a daily basis for us. Say, ‘thank you,’ with a smile and take a few moments to feel and appreciate the kindness. Be more expressive in your thanks, saying: “I appreciate this. You are very kind. This is wonderful. What will I do without you? You are an angel!”
Sometimes our loved ones who care for us on a daily basis may feel tired, unappreciated and taken for granted. It is important to reassure them that we notice and appreciate what they have been doing for us – day in, day out – consistently, meticulously, uncomplainingly and lovingly.
A hug, a kiss, a gentle caress, a squeeze of the hand and a bright smile are gestures that can accompany our words of thanks. More than just words of thanks and appreciation, we should also reciprocate their kindness. See how we can light up each other’s day, what are the little things that we can do for each other – make a cup of tea, help in the chores, run an errand, give a sympathetic ear, give a gift, sing a song, and inject friendly humour to create a cheerful and pleasant atmosphere.
Kindness, like love, is a two-way thing. If one person is always giving and rendering all the kind deeds and services while the other is only receiving without knowing how to practise reciprocal kindness, the one doing all the giving will eventually feel unloved and unappreciated. She or he will wither in the long run for lack of care, love and attention. The relationship will flounder as it is lopsided and unequal.
The word, ‘please,’ is just as important as the words, ‘thank you.’ Politeness is a mark of courtesy and respect. We should not forget to say ‘please’ with every request we make, no matter how small we think it may be. No request is too small that it should not be accompanied by a ‘please.’
And there’s another word that is just as crucial – ‘sorry.’ When we have hurt somebody it is only right that we say sorry. When we are late, when we break a promise (it’s better not to promise anything lightly), when we have been insensitive and thoughtless, when we have done something wrong, when we make a mistake, when we lose our temper, when we have been unkind, and for all those occasions when a sorry is called for – we should accordingly say, “I’m sorry.” And according to the situation, we can explain, “I didn’t mean it. I made a mistake. I lost my cool. It was insensitive and thoughtless of me. I didn’t realize it would hurt you. Please forgive me,” and whatever words that can help to clarify the situation and make the ‘sorry’ more acceptable to the injured party.
Polite, warm, friendly, kind and cheerful conversation can make our days so much more light and pleasant. We can create lots of happiness through our way of being, through our skilful words and actions.
And at times when we have to hold a serious conversation with another, when we have to discuss or say things which the other person may not like to hear, we can do all this in a calm, objective and rational manner with all the goodwill, sincerity and well-meaningness that we can muster.
The essential ingredient of a successful relationship
And why do some relationships succeed beyond all bounds while others fail miserably? The answer is simple: We need the magic elixir of kindness. Kindness is the glue that binds and heals. Kindness is the essential ingredient for a successful and happy marriage. As a couple put it so wonderfully:
“I feel so lucky and blessed. After fifty years of marriage, I look around me and see so few relationships that last with any fun, fire, and passion. So many times, people have asked us what our secret is, and I am always at a loss about how to respond. It has always been easy. I have heard my husband insist that he could never do enough to repay me for my kindness and understanding to him and it always amazes me, because I am just as convinced that it is I who can never do enough to repay him. If I had to explain the success of our relationship very simply, I guess I would have to say that we are very kind to each other, every day, and in every way possible.”
From the authors of the book, “Random Acts of Kindness,” comes this astute observation: “So many people feel like they can fall in love with someone, set up housekeeping, and then turn their attention to the rest of life, convinced that their relationship will run smoothly all on its own. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is, of course, that love requires a constant feeding from a stream of authentic presence and the responsive exchange of feelings and thoughts. It can survive neglect or bad feelings – for a while. But the soul of each of us is very tender and needs a great deal of loving attention from our spouse. In order to keep love alive, we need the balm of gentleness, the spice of appreciation, and the support of attention.
“Above all, it needs kindness. Kindness is the magic elixir of love. It greases the rusty stuck places, fills up the frightful empty voids, dissolves the day’s accumulated grime, smooths the ruffled feathers, and fuels the fires of passion.”
The power of kindness
We often do not think of kindness as a power. We equate power with those who have wealth, status, authority and control over others’ lives. But the power of kindnes lies in its special ability to touch and change lives.
This again from the authors of the book, “Random Acts of Kindness,” who only identified themselves as The Editors of Conari Press. They brought out so well the unique power of kindness that I can do no better than to reproduce this excerpt from their book:
“We were doing a radio interview in Portland, Oregon, about Random Acts of Kindness, and an obviously very old man called to tell a story of a couple who had taken him in for a few months when he was a young man. It was a simple story told in a very shaky voice, and afterward we asked him if he would mind telling us how long ago it had happened. He replied, ‘Seventy-five years ago, and a day doesn’t go by that I don’t remember those people.’
“Of all the thousands of stories of kindness we’ve heard, that one always sticks with us because it illustrates so simply and beautifully the awesome power of kindness. Two people’s compassion and hospitality offered to a young man seventy-five years ago is still echoing strongly in the world – throughout the life of the man they helped, over the airwaves of Portland, and now here on these pages.
“It is so seemingly implausible and yet so undeniably true that the simplest acts of lovingkindness are the most powerful force in our world. So powerful is the force of love that it is the foundation of all religions and the unbreakable thread that binds us together as a tribe, a community, a nation, and a world. By believing in the depth and lasting strength of kindness, we can remember to employ it as often as we can.
“Today, think of one nice thing you have done for someone and picture the effect it might have had on the person you assisted. Think of the old man in this story and imagine how the world might have changed from your one tiny act.”
How would you measure the worth of a lifetime – by competency or by kindness?
Dr Rachel Naomi Remen, a physician and author of the beloved book, “Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal,” has this to say: “I am no longer as inspired by expertise as I once was. Perhaps the worth of any lifetime is measured more in kindness than in competency.”
A passionate advocate of compassionate healing, Dr Remen, 76, emphasized that expertise and technical skills alone are not enough. Doctors and healers need to cultivate compassionate presence and the ability to listen deeply and connect with the heart.
In an interview with journalist Bill Moyers she related how many people when they have cancer talked about being touched as if they were a piece of meat. One woman told her: “Sometimes, you know, when I go for my chemotherapy, they touch me as if they don’t know anybody’s inside this body.”
“It is important,” Dr Remen said, “to make people feel loved, respected and valued as a person and to help them recognise their inner strength and capacity to respond to the challenge of any disease or to life as a whole.”
A founder and medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program in the United States, Dr Remen said that “in all her years of hearing people telling their stories, people with cancer, no one has ever said to me that if I die of this illness I will miss my Mercedes.”
“What matters is relationship, what matters is who you touched on the way through life and who has touched you and helped deeply and what will you be leaving behind you in the hearts and lives of other people.
“My grandfather, an orthodox rabbi, told me when I was a child ‘What matters is to become a blessing and to receive life’s blessings from other people, to realize that we each have the capacity to bless the life of each other.”
Relating her own personal experience, Dr Remen recalled how she once contemplated suicide after an operation for Crohn’s disease, an intestinal disorder, at the age of 27. “I was a young doctor at the time and I had most of my intestines removed. I was left with an ileostomy. A loop of bowel opens on my abdomen and an ingeniously designed plastic appliance, which I remove and replace every few days, covers it.”
She said her first feelings after the operation were that of shame and humiliation. The appliance which she realized she had now to carry around and live with for the rest of her life “made her feel permanently shut out of the world of femininity and elegance.”
She then fell into a profound depression, became suicidal and started saving the sleeping and pain pills that was given her with the plan to take them all at home after her discharge from the hospital. She recalled how the professional but cold and impersonal way, in which a team of specialist nurses removed and replaced her appliance during her week-long stay in the hospital, added to her feelings of despair and despondency.
However, towards the end of the week, a woman came to change the appliance for her. She was late and was not dressed in a white coat but in a silk dress, high heels and stockings, as if she was going out on a date. She did not put on a mask or a white glove but she kept on talking to Dr Remen in a most natural and friendly way as she removed the old appliance and replaced it with a new one.
“Her hands were very soft and gentle and she was wearing pink nail polish and rings of gold. I could smell her perfume as she conversed with me and suddenly I felt something come up in me and I just knew that this was not going to be easy but I could find a way to do this (i.e., to live with her incurable and life-long Crohn’s disease). I could make this all right, even something like this was going to be all right,” Dr Remen recalled.
Dr Remen said the nurse in the dress, who was about her age, did not know this but she has given back Dr Remen her will to live. “Now this woman did not give me back my intestines, even medical science can't do this, but what she gave me back was my life, not because she knew how to cure me but because she was willing to touch me.”
Dr Remen pointed out that small things count and that, in fact, every little thing counts: we can be touched by each other’s kindness in wondrous and amazing ways, in ways that we do not realize. “This woman is probably completely unaware of the difference she made in my life. In fact, I do not know even her name and I am sure she has long forgotten mine.”
Competency without kindness is sterile
While competency is much desired and appreciated, if it is not accompanied by kindness it is somewhat sterile. Worse still, if competency is delivered with an attitude of coldness, indifference, pride, arrogance, haughtiness, harshness, rudeness, condescension and belittlement.
Consider what a difference it makes when you are served at a government office by a bureaucrat who is not only efficient but also friendly and helpful, who greets you with a reassuring smile, who is patient and who explains things and does his best to help you. Don’t you consider such a person a heaven-send, an angel, a blessing? Does he or she not make your day?
Consider how much you appreciate a doctor who is compassionate, who makes you feel that he is a person with a kind heart, who understands and listens attentively with empathy, patiently answering all your questions and taking pains to make things clear and comprehensible, who treats you with courtesy and respect, and who gives you the confidence that he is trying his best to heal you.
Contrast this with a doctor who is impatient, who cuts you short as you are taking a bit more time struggling to explain your symptoms, who is watching the clock, who is curt and dismissive of your questions, leaving you feeling even more insecure and anxious.
Remember the pleasant meal you had when served by a friendly, efficient and smiling waiter who aimed to please the diners. Or the satisfaction of being attended to by a helpful and friendly shop assistant. And don’t we appreciate, too, the friendly greeting and smile we receive from the checkout personnel at the supermarket when it comes to our turn to be served?
At the end of the day, it is kindness that carries the day. At the end of our life what we will be remembered for is our kindness. The best legacy we can leave behind are the memories of our kindness that continue to reverberate in the hearts of those we have touched, long after we are gone.
Kindness begets kindness
Oncologist Stefan Einhorn knew he was in trouble when he stepped into his clinic one morning. One of his cancer patients had died in the night and the doctor on call had accused him of negligence and wanted him reported to the authorities.
The patient, a 75-year-old woman, had wanted to go home after her second chemotherapy treatment for lymphatic cancer and Dr Einhorn had not insisted that she stayed overnight in the ward in the clinic.
The patient was accompanied by her son who would be taking her home and care for her. However, complications arose in the night and she was rushed back to the clinic where she died a few hours later of heart problems.
When Dr Einhorn called the woman’s son on the phone that morning, expecting recriminations and possible threats of being sued, the son instead told him: “I’m glad you called. I wanted to thank you for the way you looked after my mother.”
When Dr Einhorn told the son that he was being criticised for not having admitted his mother that night, the son to his surprise, replied: “But you did. You insisted on her being admitted, but Mum refused. That’s my recollection, and if you’re reported then I shall say so on record.”
Before concluding the conversation, the son added: “There’s something you should know, Stefan. Mum said she didn’t like that duty doctor, but that you had been so kind to her. That’s why I shan’t do anything that might harm you.”
Recounting the incident in his book, “The Art of Being Kind,” Dr Einhorn recollected that he had had a long conversation with the woman on that fateful day, explaining to her the treatment and the risks it involved.
“As we stood in the doorway at the end of the consultation, she looked at me with a smile and said: ‘Well, you’re a very nice doctor, for taking the time to speak to an old lady when your waiting room is full of patients,” he wrote.
Dr Einhorn replied, “It’s really not a problem – it was nice to meet you,” while at the same time thinking that if he worked through his lunch hour he would just about have caught up in time for the afternoon clinic.
Recollecting his conversation with the woman’s son, Dr Einhorn wrote: “There was nothing wrong with my memory of the conversation with his mother. The son knew that I had not insisted on admission. He had chosen to protect me.”
Dr Einhorn, who is the professor of molecular oncology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, said he was never reported. “The opinion of the senior physician was that I had not committed any formal errors, while the duty doctor in turn ought to have asked a cardiologist to examine the patient. But if the relatives had reported me, I would have been forced to go through the whole process of reports back and forth to the National Board of Health and Welfare, and many months of uncertainty.”
“I had saved myself from all of this because I had been perceived as being kind.”
Truly, kindness begets kindness and it is only fitting that the woman's son had responded as he did - on the side of the kind doctor.
Amazing acts of kindness
Reading a book entitled, “The Compassionate Life: Walking the Path of Kindness" by Marc Ian Barasch, which details many acts of kindness, I came across this particular account: “A West Virginia postman donated a kidney to a man on his rural route he saw only once a month, explaining to his astonished wife that the people on his mail route “are like family to me.”
What an extraordinary act of kindness! This brings to my mind a Sri Lankan monk I met while teaching at the Buddhist Society of Victoria in Australia in 2002. The monk has given away a kidney to a woman he met at a hospital in Sri Lanka. Learning that she was a mother of two children and that she needed a kidney to survive, he offered to donate one of his to her.
The transplant operation was carried out in a hospital in India. The monk flew at his own expense to India for the operation. He said his recovery post operation was painful but he was happy that he had accomplished his noble intention.
What motivated him to donate his kidney was the traditional stories of the past lives of Siddhattha Gotama before he became a Buddha in this present life. In one of these accounts, the Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be) had sacrificed his own life as food for a starving tigress and her cubs. In other lives when he was an animal, such as a hare and a monkey, the Bodhisatta had also given his life to save others.
The monk told me that he formed the idea to donate his kidney after being inspired by these stories. He said he was not the only monk who had done this and that there were many other monks, too, who have quietly, without any publicity, given away their kidneys.
The generosity of children
Even children can dazzle us with their generosity. Again, there is this account from the book, “The Compassionate Life”: “At two and a half years’ old, Sara Jane, brought her piggybank to her mother after seeing a TV report of a Russian earthquake that had left hundreds homeless, saying, “Mama, send them my money.” The following Christmas she asked her parents to donate all her gifts to poor children: “I have everything I need. I wish you would give my presents to some little girl or boy who won’t get any.” At age six she organized donations for a soup kitchen.”
In her book, “My Grandfather’s Blessings,” Dr Rachel Naomi Remen wrote about her natural tendency to give as a child which was not so well understood or appreciated by her teachers in school: “Service was a way of life in my mother’s family. It was not a way of life in New York City in the forties or even later. Like many children, when I was little I used to give away my toys, my mittens, and sometimes even my shoes. If another child wanted my pail and shovel in the playground, I would not ask for it back; and if someone had no mittens, I would give them one of mine. This was seen by my teachers and many of the other adults around me as a problem that I would need to outgrow.
“Often I would be sent home from school without half my crayons or, once, without my shoes and with a note from my teacher explaining how I needed to learn to stand up for myself and have the courage not to let others take advantage of me. My mother would never scold me about these things but would, when necessary, simply replace whatever was missing. It never occurred to anyone else that I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.”
A word on wisdom
Kindness should not be practised blindly. A kind person is not gullible or stupid. She knows how to exercise her kindness with wisdom. She will not allow someone to abuse, manipulate, exploit or take advantage of her kindness. She knows how to protect herself from such exploitation and abuse. She knows how to be firm and say “No,” when the situation calls for such a response.
In saying this, I am not referring to Dr Remen’s giving as a child above. That is something she chose to do as a child. They are remarkable acts of generosity coming from a child which ought to be respected and appreciated as Dr Remen’s mother did by not scolding her but quietly replacing what she had given away, which is a tacit approval of her kind deeds.
Of course, there is also the possibility of a mother explaining to a child the need to exercise discretion and wisdom when giving. Admittedly, there might also have been situations where Dr Remen’s classmates could have taken advantage of her kindness. This is, however, something which has to be assessed according to the situation.
An example of unskilful or unwise kindness would be say someone continuing to live with an abusive, manipulative and violent person, tolerating his cruelty and bad behaviour and still behaving kindly towards him, thinking that such tolerance and endurance is a demonstration of unconditional love and kindness. In such a case, the victim should protect herself by removing herself from the control and abuse of the perpetrator. Continuing to live with such a violent person may well be a case of co-dependency which is unhealthy for either party.
Examples of simple acts of kindness
Here are some examples of simple acts of kindness that we can practise in everyday life, some of which have already been mentioned above. I am sure you can come up with many more or be inspired by new ideas that will strike you as you go about your daily life, focused on kindness.
1. Opening a door or keeping it open for another who you see is coming up behind you.
2. Helping with the household chores cheerfully – washing the dishes, hoovering the carpet, sweeping the floor, washing the toilets, disposing the rubbish, etc.
3. Running an errand for someone.
4. Giving a lift to someone, even happily going more than a little out of your way to do so.
5. Making somebody a cup of coffee or tea and serving it with some treats.
6. Giving a sympathetic ear, trying to understand another’s woes, offering suitable words of solace and comfort.
7. Offering words of encouragement to those who are disheartened with life, weighed down by sorrows and disappointments.
8. Being in the habit of giving a warm, friendly greeting with a bright smile to others. While brightening up another’s day, it also makes us feel more cheerful and upbeat ourselves.
9. Being in the habit of sending metta now and then throughout the day to people around us wishing them happiness; to all the people in our life and to all beings in general (please refer to my essay, Metta in Everyday Life).
10. Expressing appreciation and saying thank you for every little thing that is done for us. Not taking anything for granted. Similarly, not forgetting to say ‘please’ even when making the smallest request.
11. Offering a compliment when it is due or giving positive and encouraging feedback that motivates another to continue what she is doing.
12. Offering to help somebody who is in need of some assistance.
13. Putting money in the collection bowl of a busker who is playing his instrument in a public place.
14. Putting money in the bowl of the beggar or homeless person. Also offering him food.
15. Offering a seat in a bus to an elderly person, a pregnant woman, a disabled person, a woman with a baby or children.
16. Considerately giving way, while driving your car, to somebody who wants to come out from a side road.
17. Giving a generous tip to the waiter who has served you well.
18. Giving a donation to a charitable or worthy cause, there being so many causes we can give to.
19. Performing a random act of kindness. Don’t hesitate. Just go ahead and do it.
Here is an account I read of a random and spontaneous act of kindness that is sure to warm one’s heart. After a morning of volunteer work for the Salvation Army, four friends were driving home. It had been snowing hard and the flakes had piled up like a thick blanket when they passed an old woman trying to shovel the snow from her driveway.
One of the four friends promptly asked to be let off. When his request was acceded to, he got out of the car and walked up to the old woman, took the shovel from her and started to shovel her driveway for her.
His spontaneous act of kindness touched a woman friend in the car so much that she began to feel romantic feelings towards him. “I felt like jumping out of the car and hugging him. I felt like singing and running and telling everybody about his deed,” she told an interviewer.
If we are intent on being kind, we will find many opportunities to do so. Perhaps the only koan that we should constantly bear in mind is, “How can I be kind? How can I practise kindness in this situation?”
At the end of our life, what counts most is kindness. When asked on his deathbed to sum up what he had learned in his eventful life, the late English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley reportedly said, “It’s embarrassing to tell you this, but it seems to come down mostly to just learning to be kinder.”
I would like to close this essay with the following quotes:
“A friendly look, a kindly smile, one good act, and life's worthwhile.” - Author unknown
“Carve your name not on marble but on hearts so that long after forget-me-nots have withered, the fragrant memory of your kind deeds will still live in the hearts of those you have touched.”
- adapted from Charles H Spurgeon
“That best portion of a good man's life: His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”
- William Wordsworth
"How beautiful a day can be
When kindness touches it!"
- George Elliston
"One kind word can keep you warm for three winters."
- Japanese proverb
"Life is so hard. How can we be anything but kind."
- Jack Kornfield
"Even when the darkest clouds are in the sky,
you mustn't sigh, you mustn't cry.
Spread a little happiness
As you go by.
- lyrics from the song, "Spread a little happiness"
"Beauty catches the eye.
But kindness catches the heart."
- Author unknown
"My religion is kindness."
- Dalai Lama
"A friendly look, a kindly smile, one good act, and life's worthwhile."
- Author unknown
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
- Leo F Buscaglia
"Carve your name not on marble but on hearts so that long after forget-me-nots have withered, the fragrant memory of your kind deeds will still live in the hearts of those you have touched."
- adapted from Charles H Spurgeon
"I am no longer as inspired by expertise as I once was. Perhaps the worth of any lifetime is measured more in kindness than in competency."
- Dr Rachel Naomi Remen
“That best portion of a good man's life:
His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”
- William Wordsworth