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The practice of kindness encompasses a range of small acts and habits that we know as old-fashioned good manners – saying “please” and “thank you,” waiting your turn, being on time, lending a helping hand, or cheering someone up with a smile. It applies not just to your relationships with other people. It extends to things, animals, plants and the earth.
This practice also means being generous with your presence, your time and your money. Give freely without expecting anything in return. Just do it. Kindness is not a quid pro quo endeavor.
Few of us would describe ourselves as unkind, cruel, or nasty, yet we would have to admit that we often miss the mark on this practice. Just remember the many times you have been hurt by someone not doing something – the call that didn’t come when you were feeling low, the thank you note that never appeared, the missed appointment – and then consider how often you have neglected to act in similar circumstances. Kindness is very susceptible to the sin of omission.
Still, acknowledging that we have missed another’s kindness can make us want to be kind more consistently ourselves. This is one of those situations when a negative experience has a positive outcome.
Of course, sometimes we are simply too self-involved to notice that we are not being kind. Selfishness quickly undermines manners. And generosity is difficult for both the miser and the glutton.
In my work with hospice patients, I have found that there are four questions at the center of the human journey:
Who am I?
What do I love?
How shall I live, knowing I will die?
What is my gift to the family of the earth?
The most beautiful gifts are the small, lovely things. Kindness could be cooking for a friend, apologizing for a hurt, telling stories to children, tending a garden, or speaking an encouraging word.
The practice of kindness frees us from the isolation and the alienation that seems to be so rampant today. When we reach out to others, we open our hearts and theirs as well. “Grand Canyon” perfectly illustrates this process.
Set in contemporary Los Angeles, the film deals with the serendipitous interactions of six people whose days are set on edge by the fear and uncertainty accompanying urban violence, racial conflicts and the constant frustrations of modern life.
Yet despite the palpable tensions all around them, these individuals ask themselves the right questions: Am I giving enough? Are my eyes open? How do I say thank you? Can I make a difference in the lives of others? As the characters connect, interact and influence each other, new possibilities grow out of their deeds of kindness. In fact, we could even say that the gifts they exchange are modern-day miracles.
“Babe” is a delightful Australian film that celebrates the dignity and variety of animals – the whole story is told from their perspective. A taciturn farmer guesses the correct weight of a piglet at a fair and takes the animal home convinced that there is something special about him. And there is: He’s the embodiment of kindness.
Babe befriends Ferdinand, a duck who upsets the hierarchical social order of the farm by acting like a rooster. Then, through a series of dramatic turns, Babe learns the trade of sheepherding and overcomes the stigma of being a stupid pig, or, worse, Christmas dinner. Instead of intimidation, he uses affirmation to keep the sheep moving. His practice of kindness works wonders in the end.
Watering my houseplants is a cue for me to expand my practice of kindness to animals and inanimate beings. Watching someone give up a seat to an elderly person is a reminder for me to make little kind gestures. Recalling how nice it is to receive compliments, I vow to praise someone as an act of kindness today.
Bob Mueller is the vice president of advancement and community relations at Hosparus. The views expressed in this column are those of the writer.