It's a big, busy world. Most of us barely know our neighbors. We have many acquaintances, but not many true friends. We think good thoughts, and we mean well, and then we tell ourselves that there simply isn't enough time.
I didn't grow up with the kind of mother who baked pies for new neighbors or visited the elderly. We didn't donate to food drives, buy holiday gifts for underprivileged children, or deliver Meals on Wheels. I want to excuse this, to say that money was tight (it was) and that time was short (not so short that we didn't watch soap operas), but I know that what we were lacking was an abundance of kindness.
I believe kindness is learned. I can't fault my mother for not having it, because I know that often in her life it wasn't given to her. Later, after I left home, I saw more kindness develop in her life.
Kindness and obligation are not the same thing. If you help someone out, and complain about it later, then you acted out of some sort of obligation, but you were not kind. Kindness and generosity are not the same thing either, although they can appear in tandem. You can be generous and not kind; for instance, you might be generous with your money or your time, helping someone out but complaining about it. You might be kind, offering your sympathy at another's financial difficulty without having any money to be generous with.
I am reminded of something I read, about how presents are something you want the other person to have, and gifts are something you give them that they want, and how not all presents are gifts, and not all gifts are presents.
An act of kindness touched my heart today, kindness from a woman I have never met in person. For years we have hung out at the same little piece of cyber real estate. She knew I was hurting, and she offered kindness. I have no doubt that she is kind to people all over, those she knows personally and those she doesn't. She is kind.
Kindness has been creeping into my life over the past couple of years, mostly kindness given, but sometimes kindness received. Outside of my immediate family, kindness received is rare enough that it can still bring tears to my eyes.
Still, I am cultivating kindness. It was easier at first with online friends. Way back when I first got online I made a friend and started sending her handmade cards and care packages to cheer her up when she was low. I've sent many little packages since then. I had to learn kindness, to accept and to offer it; doing so with online friends was a low pressure way to move though the discomfort of learning to be kind.
I had to move on to my own community. One thing I decided to do is to offer kindness to someone that I had never been genuinely kind to, even though we are family!. I also extended kindness and understanding to another family member, erasing the unkind thoughts I had thought for years. I forgave my mother's best friend of a hurt my mother had forgiven her for years before, and offered kindness there as well. These were little kindnesses, experienced mostly in my heart, but the energy between us did change for the better.
There are little kindnesses and bigger kindnesses. When one friend couldn't find her iron and was planning a photo shoot that evening I dropped what I was doing and took my iron over to her, and kept her company while she pressed their shirts. When a friend experienced a miscarriage, instead of wondering what to do, I did something.
I said hello to a neighbor who is so shy that she avoided making eye contact for the first 5 years we lived side-by-side. It is a slow thaw, but she talks to my boys now, and a few weeks ago I heard her talking to the Girl Dog. I pause to catch the eye of the young man across the street, to wave and say hello to this man who is mentally disabled. I do it to let him know that not everyone in this world is afraid of him.
I am aware now that I must teach my children kindness. It is not enough to offer kindness to them, though they certainly deserve it. It is not enough to gently correct them when they are unkind (not to punish, but to guide). They must see kindness emanating from me. When they ask why kindness has been give I must give them explanations. Sometimes I am sad that my children have to ask why we are kind, because it means that they don't see it all around them.
It really is so easy. Little kindnesses can be offered everyday. I can say hello to people as I pass them on the sidewalk. I can smile at the postal clerk. When a cashier apologizes for a wait I can say that I understand, that I was fine with waiting, that I know it wasn't her fault. When people make mistakes I can remind myself that everyone makes mistakes, including me, and I can react out of kindness instead of anger or impatience.
When I make a soup I can make extra and freeze it to offer to someone who is ill. I can bake extra cookies and give them to my neighbor. One thing we do when we are walking in the morning is take newspapers up to the door/porch so that our neighbors don't have to walk to the curb to get them. If we know someone is out of town for the weekend we stack their papers neatly by the door (out of sight if possible).
We aren't at the new year yet, and certainly I don't mean to wait until then to start, but I have decided that 2007 will be a year of conscientious kindness for me.