There was a time I didn’t trust kindness, not from anyone and not even from myself. For a cynical, damaged period in my life, I couldn’t see human decency and compassion without an agenda. Acts of kindness could be easily traced to desires or hidden requests or power-plays. Why should someone go out of their way for me, unless they wanted something from me? Unless it was to prove their own moral superiority — there was a lot of that, too.
It’s a dark, awful world when you look around and believe that the only lights are those lit to burn you.
I included myself in that mistrust because I didn’t trust myself at all in any way then. I couldn’t hold a door for someone without wondering if I was doing it so that they would think well of me. I couldn’t extend courtesy without chiding myself for being manipulative. That’s one of the problems of being deeply introspective, at least for me — I have a gift in doubting myself or looking for the underbelly to my own actions and choices. Usually I want to find out what I’m doing for wrong reasons so I can root it out, but it’s not a confidence-booster to question your every move and constantly think the worst of yourself.
I still have trouble practicing Kindness to myself sometimes.
But I believe in it again.
I was a Girl Scout as a kid, and while I only retain a tiny, tiny bit of anything I learned from my troop, the one thing I did hold onto and internalize to a very deep level was one particular bit that was brought up in meetings maybe once or twice:
Leave the world better than you find it.
It’s not part of the Girl Scout Oath, or even the Law (which only says “make the world a better place”). It’s just one of those throwaway lines that stuck with me. “Make the world a better place” didn’t resonate with me the way it did to improve upon what is already there. It instilled in me a soul-deep desire to improve everything, every place my feet come to rest, every situation in which I take a breath.
Sometimes that means volunteering, as I do at CONvergence or with the TCWC, lending what abilities and time and energy I have to contribute to a greater whole. Sometimes it means picking up some stray garbage, or changing a roll of toilet paper, or handing a bag into Lost and Found. Sometimes it means donating money, or time, to causes which are trying to safeguard the environment, or civil liberties, or libraries, or education. There’s a lot of places I traverse even in one day at home, and I try to help them all along whenever I can.
But it also applies to people.
I believe in courtesy, always. In saying “please” and “thank you” and “have a nice day” — and genuinely meaning them as much with a cashier behind the counter as I do the people I love. In taking notice, holding doors, making way for others. In smiling at people, and meaning it, as if that one smile is everything that matters in the whole world.
It’s been said that you should live as though every day were your last. Whether or not that’s true, I made a decision long ago to treat others as though every day were THEIR last.
Imagine you go to the post office. You don’t know any of the people in line or behind the counter. You don’t know which one has a spouse with a terminal illness, or is dealing with bankruptcy, or has just lost their job, or has a child being bullied. You don’t know which one will get into their car tonight and never make it home. You don’t know which one will fall asleep and never wake up again. But imagine for a moment that any one of those things could happen or be happening to those people in line and behind the counter.
What would it change in how you interact with them?
That’s what I mean by Kindness.
Real Kindness, to me, isn’t about me at all. It’s about making certain that I treat others with as much gentleness, dignity, friendliness, and compassion as I can muster. It’s a recognition that I have no idea what their life looks like from behind their eyes, and it is therefore my chosen obligation to add only something good to whatever they are carrying. If they are going through hell, I will not be another blade to cut them down. If they are dealing with impatient customers, a broken relationship, depression, illness, whatever it is — if there is nothing I can do but be one smile and one moment of human recognition and compassion, then that is what I’m going to do.
I call myself an outgoing introvert, which is a fair description. It’s not natural to me to want to be in the center of attention, to want to constantly interact with people. But I can strike up a conversation if I want to, and I know how to speak to others in public with ease. It costs me, sometimes, but I know how to do it. And when I’m in a good place and my own heart isn’t fighting me, then I make every effort I can to be the best smile a stranger gets all day. To be the friendliest customer, the most respectful person in the line.
Kindness isn’t just holding doors and donating to causes and buying the dinner in the car behind you in the drive-thru. It’s using every tool of language, spoken and unspoken, to tell someone that they are welcome. That they are wanted. That they are appreciated.
Instead of just saying “Thanks,” it’s saying, “the humanity in me recognizes, acknowledges, and celebrates the humanity in you.”
There is no one who doesn’t deserve Kindness in this world. And there’s not nearly enough of it.
(Being very honest, there are some people in the world I would and do have a very hard time treating Kindly. The people who protest funerals, for example, or certain people connected to politics, or a host of others. There are people I believe would be thoroughly improved by being dropped off on an ice floe and left to watch it melt. There are people I hate, and hatred does not come easily to me. With them? Honor demands I do the best I can to live up to Kindness. Courage demands I give it a shot, because it is difficult. Kindness forgives me when I fail. Defiance absolves me of guilt because fuck those people anyway.)
Random acts of Kindness have always appealed to me, particularly when anonymous. Because that’s the real point of being Kind, isn’t it? To give something, and to get nothing in return but the knowledge of the difference it made to someone else. I’ve gotten involved in a lot of those over the years. I’ve written cards for people at summer camp to tell them that they were amazing when they felt they didn’t fit in. I’ve helped coordinate large-scale gifts to classmates or friends from choir. But usually I get found out. And then I get weird because I don’t necessarily want to be thanked for the act. I didn’t do it to be thanked, or called out, or recognized. And while it’s appreciated — deeply — it still feels like cheating.
Because Kindness isn’t about the return. It’s about the gift.
That gift can be a heartfelt smile and “thank you” or letting someone go ahead of me in line. It can be quietly standing beside someone and letting them know that I’ve got their back if things get weird (sometimes both; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve insisted “they were here first” when they were, but for whatever reason they got overlooked, and I hate that it’s sometimes about age, or race, or gender presentation; so I do what I can). The gift can be saying “it’s fine, take your time” when someone is flustered and stressed and clearly needs a moment to compose themself.
And those things? I just don’t believe that those things should be remarkable. They should be standard. They should be the default. Kindness, making room for another, acknowledging the needs of someone else, showing appreciation for a task even if someone is getting paid for it — these should be what the world is founded on.
It’s not, but it is when you ride with me.
There have been times in my life when I think I was saved by Kindness. I have vivid memories of them — like the boy in high school who saw me crying and sat down, even though he was popular and I was despised, even though he was older than me and busier and had a million better things to do, and told me that he thought I was a good person. Like the first person to come up to me when I sang a solo in the TCWC and told me she thought my voice was beautiful. Like friends who picked up food for us when money was tight. Like the Clan who came to gather around when my depression was beating at the gates and every breath tasted like harm.
I don’t have memories of all the littler ones — the people who made way for me in a store when I wasn’t in a good place, or the people who gave me that one smile in an awful day — but those saved me all the same. When we moved into our house, someone on our street bought us a bunch of flowers and gave them to us to welcome us. When Sarah was in a car accident years ago, someone helped her get home. These smaller Kindnesses didn’t shift the bedrock of my world, or stave off the worst, but they improved something that wouldn’t have been improved on its own.
For all the harshness and awfulness in the world, I have been shown some very genuine, very life-affirming Kindness along the way. And now I demand of myself that I show that same Kindness everywhere, to everyone. Because I’ll never know what a person is suffering, but I can sure as hell not add to it. I’ll never know when a person is at the end of their rope, but I can sure as hell hold them up for a moment.
They don’t tell you when you’re a kid watching cartoons that there are no heroes who can save the world with one big final boss fight. They don’t tell you that the real enemies — apathy, bigotry, prejudice — won’t fall when the bad guy goes down. They don’t tell you, but you figure it out far too soon, I think.
The only way to save the world is to save it a little bit, every single day, for every person or place or thing that provides an opportunity.
Kindness means picking up some trash, or putting some chairs to rights, or helping unload a stranger’s car. Kindness means smiling and meaning it, being friendly and patient, and easing the way for someone else even if it’s their job to ease the way for you. Kindness means picking up groceries for someone if you can afford it, or covering a meal, or accidentally buying an extra sweater and giving it away. Kindness means LISTENING to people, and finding out what they really need.
Because you can’t give someone a gift that is a burden and call that Kindness.
Kindness is adding to the world and creating space for others, not drawing lines and defining that space for them. Kindness would not be me, in my white skin, speaking for a person of color. Or me as a ciswoman speaking on behalf of transwomen. Kindness would be stepping aside and supporting the voice of someone other than myself to speak.
We need a metric fuckton more of that to save the world these days.
Kindness means meeting people where they are at, and giving them space, lifting the load, making it just a little easier for them to breathe. Even if it’s a blink-and-you-miss it nod of a head in passing, or getting out of line as fast as possible to ease the strain, or stepping back and not adding to the confusion. Kindness means putting in the effort so others need less of their own.
The world is, for the most part, a closed system. Other than some space debris and such, everything that is, is here. We’re not going to suddenly acquire more water, more natural resources, more land (unless and until we start colonizing/mining in space). What one takes, another doesn’t get. What one breaks someone else has to fix. And the work of living, of being human, is as heavy on one of us as it is on all of us.
Kindness is giving a little bit more of my share, so someone else can give a little less.
It can be exhausting. It can be draining. It can be frustrating. It can be overwhelming.
But it is never, never, never not worth doing whenever I can.
Leave the world better than you find it. Celebrate and uplift the world with whatever light you carry. Even by just one molecule. Even for one moment.
It makes all the difference. Sometimes I think it makes the only difference.
Next week — Endurance.