March 4, 2023: The Healing Power of Kindness

This past month, the personal struggles of my daughter has weighed heavily on my mind and my heart.  Discussions with her about her situation have been emotional, only serving to elevate my worry, sense of helplessness and loss.   After another sleepless night last week, I called a family friend and asked to meet and talk.  I needed help to wade through the many, and often conflicting, emotions.   She was busy–in the midst of preparing for a business matter–but immediately made time for me to meet and talk.  Her compassion and objectivity were invaluable, and I left her home an hour later, not only clearer but grateful. 

“Before you know what kindness really is,” poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells us, “you must lose things…” 

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

 (From “Kindness”, by Naomi Shihab-Nye in The Words Under The Words ©1994)

Kindness is an unselfish act, defined in Aristotle’s Rhetoric as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself.”  When a life hardship or serious illness strikes, our lives are challenged in multiple ways, affecting not only our bodies, but the sense of who we are.  In those human losses, the landscape between those regions of kindness, as Shihab notes, can seem desolate.  Yet, it’s often the small acts of compassion and kindness we experience from others, that offers us solace, making room for hope to find a way back in our lives. As Shihab-Nye writes,

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Even small acts of kindness from others can help soothe and raise your drooping spirits.  We often discover kindness when we least expect it–even from people you may not even know.  It may take the form of a thoughtful note sent in the mail, a call from a friend, compassion from a doctor or nurse. Larry Dossey, M.D., wrote that altruism behaves like a miracle drug…having beneficial effects on the person doing the helping as well as benefiting the person receiving the help (Meaning & Medicine, 1991).   Some authors suggest that kindness also benefits immune system functioning in both the recipient and the giver.

Kindness is an unselfish act, defined in Aristotle’s Rhetoric as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself…” Kindness is also an act of friendship, compassion or generosity to others, and it has a long history in humankind.  Kindness was one of the “Knightly Virtues,” a set of standards for daily life for the Knights of the Middle Ages.  Across cultures and religions, acts of kindness are valued. The Chinese philosopher Confucius urged his followers to “recompense kindness with kindness. The Talmud tells us “Deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments.” Prophet Iman Musa Al-Kadhi, wrote that “Kindness is half of life,” and Paul of Tarsus defined love as being “patient and kind.” And in Buddhism, Mettä, one of the Ten Perfections, is most often translated as “loving-kindness.”

As you have may have experienced during your own painful life chapters, kindness exerts healing power to our wounded spirits.  We often discover kindness when we least expect it, even from those we may not know.  It’s in the small acts of kindness that we discover hope and gratitude for the small gifts in life, ones we might even have overlooked or barely even noticed before. 

In the poem,  “Finding God At Montefiore Hospital,” written by cancer survivor Lorraine Ryan, illustrates the power of kindness.  Ryan writes about Juan, the man who mopped her hospital floor at night:

I remember the rhythm of the dunking;

The mop going into the pail

Juan squeezing the mop

The mop hitting the floor with a whoosh…

With every move, he looked up:

“How’s it really going?”

“Did your boy come up today?”

“How is he doing without you at home?”

Sometimes I couldn’t lift my head

off the pillow—

when vomiting and mouth sores

wouldn’t let me speak—

the swish of his mop

bestowed the final blessing

of the night…

(In: The Cancer Poetry Project, Karin B. Miller, Ed., 2001)

Kindness helps us find our way out of darkness.  It helps us heal.  Compassion and caring are often manifested in small acts of concern:  How’s it really going?  This is kindness, the small everyday acts that go a long way to healing ourselves and others.  Kindness not only helps us heal; we become better—kinder ourselves– for experiencing it.  In this turbulent and troubled world, we all could use a little more kindness between people, don’t you think?

Writing Suggestion:

First, take a blank sheet of paper and list all the acts of kindness you remember, ones that brightened your day, eased your pain, and made a difference in your day.  Perhaps you played it forward. Because of the kindness you received, you were motivated to reach out to other friends, acquaintances or even strangers in need.  Write about how an act of kindness eased the desolation, sadness or loneliness you experienced during a difficult time.

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