As children, and even as adults, we are often told to be kind. It's one of those statements that seems to be an effective form of edification, like “be yourself”, but if you think about it, what does it mean? What does it take to be kind? It is not easy to deconstruct kindness, but paying attention to our gestures and why we are doing it can help us gain insights. I think to be kind and to be mindful are rather essential practices, especially in a time when there is so much confusion and conflict. It is also interesting and heart-warming to think that sincere gestures arise during lapses, as when we falter we recognise those who truly support us in our best and worst moments.
We have different interpretations of what kindness means and how to be kind. Some of us express it through little acts everyday in being polite, charitable, generous, or patient. And, most of the time, the unfortunate reality is, we do acts of kindness if we think we will get something in return. For example, we give to those in need during a crisis or calamity, because we think that we will eventually be rewarded or it makes us feel good and reassures us that we have no further responsibility to help because we have already given. And it does not have to be a grand gesture, giving your time to listen to a friend who is going through a tough time or even being patient with someone.
When I began working at a university museum, an encounter with a child and two women who run a food stall showed me how genuine gestures of kindness can positively transform people. The child, a boy of nine, is an orphan being raised by his grandmother. To earn extra income, he sells hair ties around campus after attending school. I know, this story seems a little too Dickensian for comfort, and a rather perfect formula for a sob story show on local TV, but it's also a reality that people have to come to terms with. The women decided to take the child at their store, feed him, and let him sell to their customers. Sometimes he'd dance to entertain their customers and they'd eventually buy from him. Writing this down makes it seem rather comic and frivolous, but seeing the child daily (I have become friends with him, too, and as a consequence, have several hair ties despite having a short bob!), I've also observed that he appears happier and rosier than before. He sells plenty each day and earns enough money to help him and his grandmother get by.
Now, the women have a choice to have nothing to do with this boy. After all, he was not theirs and bore no relation to him at all. But they did not do this and instead chose to care for him, perhaps their mothering instincts are strong? Then again, our security guards would also help these children, and even foster and care for stray cats. They care in totally selfless, warm, and empathic ways, and it's rather interesting to see that this genuine care and cultivated kindness is sometimes expressed by some of the most disadvantaged people in our society. Where does this come from and how are they able to sustain it? I know it's somewhere from the mind and heart, but what is it particularly about the way we think and feel? I'm inclined to think that perhaps this is, again, a case of nurture against nature, of how one was raised and in what kind of environment or household. Although I am certain that it's kindness that begets kindness. And if you find yourself in a rut or crestfallen on what's happening in the world, just remember: sit, breathe, love.