Contrary to what earlier blog posts may have suggested, it’s not all dark, heavy rumination on existential topics around here. This past week has been quiet and basically ordinary, and the main thing on my mind has been kindness.
A bunch of kindergartners got me started. I was one of a group of people who had been invited to come to a local Catholic school and read a few books to students, as part of their Catholic Schools Week celebrations. “Okay,” I thought, “easy. I know how to read.” But then I arrived, and the teacher handed me a book and said, “We’re hoping this story will help us... we’ve been having some trouble with kindness in this room lately.” Oh goodness. Haven’t we all been?
The book was about a little girl whose class gets a new student, whom everyone realizes is poor. No one welcomes the newcomer, including the protagonist, and they keep rejecting her when she tries to join in games. Eventually, the new student moves out of town, and the main character is left feeling guilty about missing so many opportunities to be kind. I couldn’t believe it when the book ended that way. I kept trying to turn the final page, thinking there must be some kind of resolution, some promise that the new child would make other friends, or that the main character would act differently in the future. But the author seemed to trust that the children reading the book would understand the lesson without spelling it out for them. I felt like really driving the point home, though, so I asked the kids a few questions: "What can the main character do the next time she meets someone new?" "What would you have done if you saw someone being left out?" They all had thoughtful answers—some of which were pretty imaginative—but I left wondering if you can really teach compassion.
The little ones were sweet and well-behaved, but they’re growing up in a time where the leader of the free world is online every day tossing around childish insults, and deporting hundreds of thousands of innocent people. They’re growing up in a city where, just this week, the local council listened to citizens explain the importance of a local landmark for hours, and then immediately voted to demolish it. They’re growing up in a country where, current statistics say, if nothing changes, a third of the girls and a quarter of the boys will be abused at some point in their lives. As powerful as I believe that stories are, it will take more than picture books to inspire them to grow up and be kind. But what?
A few days after that trip back to school, my friend Breanna texted me: “We have to go ice skating!” The Lake Erie bay was frozen solid, and Breanna, who grew up skating on Wisconsin’s lakes all winter, was eager to get out there. Minus a few birthday parties at suburban ice rinks in early elementary school (at which I begged to wear a helmet because I kept falling and hitting my head) I had absolutely no skating experience.
“Sure!” I texted Breanna. “Let’s go now.” A few minutes later as I was walking out the door, I typed out, “Am I going to break my ankles?”
But Breanna didn’t let me break my ankles: she laced up her extra pair of skates on my feet, let me cling to her as I took little staggering steps, skated behind me so she could push me along, and best of all, cheered me on as I shuffled around independently.
“Oh my gosh, I’m really doing it!” I said, wobbling slowly in no particular direction.
“Good job!” she said, utterly sincerely, as she pirouetted and skated backwards.
On our way home, I kept thanking her for inviting me, and for being so patient with me. She kept thanking me for always being willing to go with her on adventures that I probably wouldn’t choose to do on my own. Basically, we were just grateful for the others’ kindness. And for a moment on that car ride home, I was swimming in gratitude for all the kindness that has been shared with me, by Breanna and by so many others.
Later, I found myself thinking about those kindergarteners again. I wished that I had asked them, “What kind things have people done for you lately?”
After all, isn’t receiving love really how we learn to act with compassion?
I’m often struggling to be patient and charitable. When I do manage to steer myself in the direction of kindness, it’s only thanks to the goodness that’s been shown to me over the years. I know how it felt when my childhood friend noticed that I was perpetually losing my gloves, and would share hers with me, each of us with one mitten on all recess, every day of the winter, so that neither of us would have two cold hands. And I know how it felt when my college roommate made my bed for me when I had early morning classes. And I know how it felt to look out into the audience and see the faces of my mother and father, who never missed a single one of my performances or competitions, including the outrageously boring Forensics tournaments in high school that almost all parents skipped. I know the feeling of finding a twenty dollar bill slipped secretly into my suitcase by my aunt after a visit home from college. And the feeling of having professors who let me turn office hours into soul-searching sessions, or having a middle school art teacher who would write me a note excusing me from miserable gym classes so I could help her clean the supplies. I know how it feels to be with the Benedictine Sisters, who have encouraged me to be gentler with myself, to be more positive about the future, to recognize the beauty around me. There is such a spirit of paying-it-forward here. You do a good deed for someone else, and before you know it, another person has done a good deed for you. It’s humbling to realize you’re not always the giver, but it's also inspiring.
Because I have been so lucky, and have had so many experiences of feeling what it’s like to receive kindness, it’s easier to want to spread it. It’s those memories of other people’s generosity and warmth that push me to at least want to do the compassionate thing, even if it’s still not exactly my instinct.
Some of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut lines are these, from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. …There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: damn it, you've got to be kind.” Doesn’t that sum it up?
I like to think that those kids I read to are in the right environment. They have teachers who recognize the importance of kindness, which is more than a lot of people get. They’re going to develop their own memories of being loved and receiving generosity, and hopefully, that will be enough.
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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.
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