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[Chalice] Kindness Matters [Chalice]

Presented February 17, 2013, by Susan Hebble

Listen to a recording of "Kindness Matters"
27:11 minutes - 10.9 MB - Kindness Matters .mp3 file.

Opening Words:

"We cannot live only for ourselves. Thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects."
--Herman Melville

Kindness has gotten a bum rap over the years. In character and in action, kindness rarely makes headlines, or even water-cooler discussion, for it is typically neither dramatic nor passionate. In an increasingly cynical world that seems to value individuality, assertiveness, and a competitive mentality, quite often, those who are kind are seen as weak, naïve, boring, maybe even passive aggressive. Being perceived as kind is like the consolation prize of praise, especially compared to other culturally valuable traits: like beauty, or financial, athletic, academic, or professional success. I mean, how often does Miss Congeniality also wear the Miss America crown? And which one gets the most applause?

What the public seems to relish, what we seem to love to talk about, read about, watch, is people being mean to one another. If television mirrors culture, our TV is showing us some pretty ugly stuff in High Definition: overtanned, narcissitic twenty-somethings gossiping about their overtanned, narcisstic "frenemies"; a "bridezilla" reeking emotional havoc as she plans her wedding; "Real" housewives throwing drinks at one another or complaining about the inattention of their husbands or their maids or their children; and Donald Trump or Simon Cowell or Gordon Ramsay vilifying an aspiring apprentice, singer, or chef for his or her ineptitude. You get the idea.

Such reality TV has dominated the airwaves for a few years now, and its success requires an audience that wants to watch people being mean to one another. A recent study concludes that the "rampant displays of name-calling and snarky gossip" provide a viewing experience that validates meanness as an acceptable form of interaction (Hsu).

This no-holds-barred, public nastiness extends beyond "reality TV." The news - on TV, online, in print - is full of reports of bad behavior, from road rage to exploitations of the Superstorm Sandy victims. Many public personalities, like Rush Limbaugh and Bill Mahar and any number of trash-talking athletes/politicians, perpetuate meanness in the guise of argument or ambition. And closer to home, I'm sure we've all been on the receiving end of the snide comment, the mean response, the rude gesture, whether from someone cutting in front of you in line at the grocery store or flipping you off on the highway or spreading a rumor about you to co-workers. And, perhaps, some of us have even delivered the snide comment or rude gesture. Despairingly, UU minister Richard Gilbert warns that "[W]e are witnessing the barbarization of American culture and the triumph of meanness in our midst."

Being mean, aggressive, rude may make one feel - at least momentarily - superior, in control, removed from the fray. And while most of us rarely, if ever, commit acts of nastiness on a "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" scale, we do far too often respond to the world around us with derision or indifference, which is corrosive in its own way as well. Sometimes we retreat into our own little protective bubbles of resentment or ignorance, right next to but far away from others. But in the long run, that's a lonely place to be.

Still, I'd like to suggest that kindness is alive and well and, indeed, all around us, if only we can see it. If we look beyond the attention-grabbing verbosity of mean girls and boys seeking their 15-minutes of fame, we will find some public figures of strength and intelligence who stand up for kindness, whose character and actions show that being kind does not preclude someone from being successful or popular or even beautiful.

Exhibit A: a man who personifies spirituality and grace is the Dalai Lama. This Buddhist monk could stay quietly in India, but instead he travels the world, writes books, and gives speeches purporting the value, the need for kindness in our world: "Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries," he insists. "Without them humanity cannot survive."

Exhibit B: Perhaps a surprising advocate for kindness is retired 4-star General Colin Powell. General Powell has written and spoken about the power of kindness not only in personal relationships but in professional life. Move over, Gordon Gekko! You may think "Greed is Good," but Powell - and an increasing number of academics who study such things - agree that the truly kind leader will get more positive results than "the command-and-control" business model of recent centuries (Baker and O'Malley x).

Exhibit C: The most public face of kindness is most likely Ellen DeGeneres. Ellen - yes, we are on a first-name basis - has fashioned her wildly popular talk show around warmth and humor, without being sentimental or cloying. She actively avoids nasty humor because, she says, "Kids grow up hearing that . . . and they think it's OK. But that negativity permeates the entire planet." Ellen closes each show with the affirmation, "Be kind to one another."

And some of our most enduring examples of kindness are found in the great stories that we are compelled to tell over and over: in Les Miserables, a humble bishop not only exonerates the paroled thief Jean Valjean but also gives him a pair of silver candlesticks and a blessing that turns Valjean from embittered convict to kind-hearted savior; In It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey's friends literally re-pay his many kindnesses when he is the one in need; and in A Christmas Carol, after a night in the past, present, and future, grouchy Scrooge transforms into, as Dickens declares, "as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, . . . in the good old world."

My father has always been "as good a man as the good old city of Quincy, Illnois knew", but I once saw his goodness, his kindness put in action in an entirely surprising way. One evening when I was about 14 or 15, my parents and I were returning home from somewhere. As we pulled the station wagon into the garage, we saw that we had startled two guys looking to steal whatever one finds in a cluttered garage. Well, my father moved as swiftly and suredly as I'd ever seen him move. Most of you know him: a gentle giant, always smiling and ready for a hug. Well, one guy got away, but Dad nabbed the other young man by the scruff of the neck and, get this, dragged him into our house and sat him down in the family room. My mother and I looked at each other, agape. The thief turned out to be a 17 or 18-year-old kid named Bob who, in the bright light of our home, looked like a scared kindergartener who'd gotten caught taking crayons out of a neighboring desk.

My father did not call the police. Instead, he spoke with Bob for what seemed like a long time. At the end of their chat, he took down Bob's information, reminded him that one of his closest friends happened to be the Adams County State's Attorney, and made a date to meet Bob for coffee a few days later. And guess what: Bob showed up a few days later, and the two sat and talked over coffee. We never heard about the garage bandit again. I don't know, perhaps this guy just focused his nefarious crimes outside of Adams County thereafter; or perhaps, as in Les Miserables, my Dad's kindness provided just the push this young man needed to get his act together.

Indeed, there are innumerable examples that show that "one small act of kindness can turn a life around" (Armstrong 112). In her book, The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong explains the power of such moments of kindness through the words of William Wordsworth:

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence,
. . . our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired.

If we pay attention, we can often find quiet and discreet examples of such benevolence all around us. Perhaps you saw the story of the police officer who bought a pair of boots for a homeless man on the streets of New York? Had a tourist not been on hand to snap a photo of the exchange, the incident would have gone unnoted. Or maybe you saw the story on CBS's fine Sunday Morning program about the "Secret Santa," a wealthy Missouri businessman who each Christmas goes to a different town and hands out $100 bills to people in need. What is notable about these examples is the consciousness of the gesture - that policeman went to a shoe store and carefully selected boots and socks that seemed appropriate for the man on the street, and the Missourian actually scouted out people at places like thrift stores, engaged them in conversation, and then handed them the cash with a kind word. He too prefers anonymity.

Karen Armstrong argues that "we can all create 'spots of time' for others, and that many of these will be the 'little, nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and of love' through which we share the best of ourselves (112). Yet the paradox of kindness is that we don't always know when it is received, and just as often, when it is received, we don't always know the depth of its impact. Kindness is never a sure thing: you can offer a kind word or gesture to someone who is deaf to it; or you may forget your own kind word or gesture even though the person receiving it may never forget it.

Here's such an example: Shortly after I moved to the city of Chicago as a 22-year-old graduate student, my purse was stolen. The feeling of vulnerability and violation was awful, but what happened a couple of days later restored my faith in humanity. I got a call from someone at Roy's Furniture, on Clark Street. An employee there had found, near the back door of the store, my wallet - minus the cash and credit card, of course. There were my driver's license and some goofy pictures of friends and family, along with some favorite quotations I liked to have on hand. This fellow realized that these items were, technically, worthless, but most likely things I'd like back. So he tracked me down to return them to me. I don't know if that guy remembers the incident at all, but I certainly do, and, nearly 30 years later, that act of kindness still brings a smile to my face.

One thing I've noticed about kindness, too, is that it can spread like wildfire. Like you, I was astounded by the shootings in Newtown, CT. I couldn't get my mind around what had happened, and I couldn't stop thinking about it, trying to understand it, trying to make myself look at the pictures of those beautiful children, even though doing so made my heart ache even more. Aside from sorrow and despair, I felt helpless. At least when Superstorm Sandy hit, we could recognize the tragedy as an unavoidable act of nature, and we could collect blankets and coats and money and deliver them to the East. But what does one do in the face of a tragedy like that which occurred in Newtown?

The only response that seemed reasonable - and do-able - was one presented by NBC news correspondent Ann Curry. On her Facebook page she posted a message promising to commit 20 acts of kindness to honor the lost children of Newtown. She then used Facebook and Twitter to promote the idea, which gained momentum and morphed into several different movements - you'll find social media pages reflecting variations on her idea, with some people promising up to 26 or 28 acts of kindness to also honor the adults killed that day. Even though publicizing our kindnesses seems counter-intuitive, Curry knew that such kindness can catch on, if others know about it. So to encourage others to log the kindnesses they committed, Curry posted each of her own "random acts" - things like buying a coffee for the guy behind her in line at Starbucks, and dropping off treats to her local fire department. Her actions sparked hundreds, if not thousands, of such positive random acts. One fellow paid the tolls for the next 26 cars behind him on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida; one woman, admittedly afraid of needles, donated blood for the first time; a family anonymously placed cards with a kind note and a lottery ticket on the windshields of cars in a parking lot; one high school student made a point to thank each of his teachers and his bus driver for doing what they do.

While kindness should perhaps be something we do spontaneously, in this case, such deliberate acts of kindness in response to such deliberate acts of violence have, perhaps, reminded us that people are good. As a recipient of a random act of kindness explains it: "It's awesome to know there are people out there who have kindness in their hearts" ("'26 Random Acts'"). This response to the tragedy resonated with me. Like high school sophomore Andrew Glanton, I was comforted to realize that, as he said, "Even though there is something so horrible, you can make something good out of it, to keep the good in the world" ("'26 Random Acts").

You see, the benefit of a movement like this and of actions like those of the policeman, the Secret Santa, my Dad, and the guy at Roy's is that they remind us that acts of generosity and kindness are within our midst and within our own capabilities. And, most importantly, we can see that even in a world that sometimes seems filled with violence, meanness, sorrow, and indifference, kindness is contagious. Just the other day, a woman posted this on Facebook: "I have 3 acts left in honor of the Sandy Hook victims but I think I will just keep going, it feels good."

Now, a lot of people say altruism is "really self-interest in disguise" () And there's the rub: it does feel good to be kind and generous, but in a way that establishes and reinforces our connection to humankind. Meanness and aggression may also be satisfying, but in a way that disconnects us from each other. Sure, the "Random Acts of Kindness" response to the Sandy Hook tragedy is self-serving: it was born out of a need to feel better, to somehow make sense out of the most senseless act imaginable. But it is also all-serving: it makes a lot of other people, usually complete strangers, feel good too. And goodness spreads.

Recent psychological studies even suggest that being kind to one another is, as the Dalai Lama insists, essential for the survival of our species. One UC Berkeley study concludes that we may indeed be "hardwired to be benevolent," that such traits can, individually, "lead to a longer and healthier life," and globally, "ensure our survival" ("Are We Wired for Kindness?") Another study, this one out of British Columbia, found that children who are kind and helpful are more likely to be "more positive, more accepting, and more popular" than those who are not (Shute). So ranking in the top of your class and leading your football team to the State Championships are not the only roads to success.

In a culture that expects instant gratification, one of the intriguing and unpredictable things about kindness - and perhaps one of the reasons it doesn't make for great TV or conversation - is that we never really know what will stick and what will go unnoticed. Here's one more story: As most of you know, my mom was the consummate 4th grade teacher: kids loved her, parents loved her, even the administrators loved her. My brother and I got really tired of hearing what a great teacher she was! And it wasn't because she taught geography and math. She was a great teacher because she treated each kid individually, with respect and kindness. I was recently reminded how far this influence can extend. Last December, in one of those people-on-the-street interviews, the Herald Whig asked folks what their favorite Christmas ornament was and why. One interviewee identified an origami foil star. He explained: "I made one of these and threw it across Mrs. Morrison's fourth-grade Baldwin South classroom and got caught. Instead of reprimanding me for it, she turned it into a Christmas ornament project and had me teach the class how to make one. Every year, when I hang it on the tree, it reminds me to be kind and patient with my own kids." I don't know that my Mom even remembers that incident some 20 or 30 years ago, but it clearly made a lasting impact on a 10-year-old origamist. And that's what matters.

The thing about kindness is this: we often don't know when it's going to matter to someone or not, but that shouldn't stop us from being kind, for kindness is the powerful and practical application of compassion. It is, as Herman Melville said, the "thousand fibers. . . the sympathetic threads" of our connection to one another. So if we pay attention, if we acknowledge the other guy in an affirming way, if we show gratitude for the small and great joys in our own life, then we all benefit. By making kindness a choice, perhaps even a conscious habit, then, at the worst, your own day will be a bit brighter, and most likely you will, maybe even unwittingly, spread that "respect for the interdependent web of existence." I think of what George Washington Carver said: "How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all these." Kindness is tangible, not abstract - we can give it easily and often, whether with a smile, a generous remark, or a thoughtful gift. But give it, we must.

Closing Words:

"It is one of the beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Works Cited
Recommended Reading

©2013 Susan Hebble

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Hebble, Susan 2013. Kindness Matters, http://www.uuquincy.org /talks/20130217.shtml (accessed December 14, 2018).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.