March 20, 2016

The Power of Kindness

A story from my last year in academia: It's the first week of term, students wrangling to get into my over-enrolled classes. After a long day, I receive a phone call from my sister: "Dad's in the hospital. They think he had a stroke." I start sobbing. Jackie quickly replies, "Joy, he's okay. The doctors are doing more tests, but it's probably a mini-stroke. He's okay." The rest of the evening, I process and wait. Before bed, I talk to Dad for a long while. He tells me he's fine, answers my questions, and even sounds happy. I feel reassured though still shaken. (Later, we learn it was bell's-palsy of the 7th optic nerve, not a stroke. How quickly things change. A reminder of the preciousness of life.)

The next morning, I'm exhausted and raw. There's a light knock on my office door. I feel irritable, anticipating yet another student who must get into my class. The student enters and I feel armor encompassing me. She asks if there's space in my course. I firmly say "no." She lingers. I begrudgingly ask about her situation, which she explains in detail. I maintain that the class is full. Then something shifts: I really look at her. I see her as a person, and I see the protection around my heart. I know my class is the best choice for her, and though I feel over-burdened, this isn't her fault. So I invite her in. As she fills out a note card about herself, I take a bathroom break.

In the bathroom stall, I quietly cry. I'm tender and vulnerable, but this armor around my heart isn't helpful. It separates me from myself and others. And it separates me from kindness. So I return to my office and apologize to the student. I tell her about my night. I tell her I'm tired and not my best self. She smiles and says, "It's okay. I really appreciate you letting me in the class." 

This was an awakening moment: I saw the importance of kindness. First I saw how kindness gets lost when I armor my heart; how it gets lost in busyness and urgency. Then I saw my path back in: pause, notice, open, and be real. My act of kindness didn't just help this student, it helped me. It helped me return to myself and what I most value.

Now I regularly use kindness to shift my mood or maintain good spirits. These acts needn't be grand. They can be quite ordinary: holding the door for another, giving a genuine compliment, getting coffee for a colleague, smiling at a stranger, or sending well-wishes via postal mail. When I move from a place of kindness, I feel better. I feel more open and connected. And I'm available to accept kindness—to see the good in others.

I think kindness is powerful—more powerful than greed and anger. Whether we give or receive kindness, we benefit. Kindness flows in both directions; it connects us. When we feel overwhelmed, not sure how to navigate this uncertain life, we can take one small step: Be kind. Be kind to ourselves, friends, and strangers. Because kindness changes the world in small yet powerful ways.

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  1. Joy I love this!!!!!!!!!!! Thank you for your words, so true. I do this too but sometimes when I get stressed out I forget the power of kindness. Thank you. My father died suddenly in the Fall semester and it was like I had to constantly try and not get frustrated with my students for the rest of the term. Being kind to them was also healing for me. It is such a great truth but at times easy to forget so thank you so much

    1. Sometimes we resist (or forget) the very things that are most helpful to us. But we can start again in any moment. That's really the power of the practice. Thanks for your truthful, beautiful comment.

  2. I have been thinking so much about kindness lately too. I love this story and how if we reach out in kindness, it often circles round back to us. Thank you Joy!

    1. Yes, Cathy, kindness ripples outward and ripples back. Just like compassion, generosity, and genuine laughter.