“If there is any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not deter or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.”
~ William Penn
A version of this post was originally written and published in October 2013. I am re-posting as part of the #1000Speak Movement, a group of 1,000 bloggers who committed to writing posts about compassion today. And I think we could all use a little reminder that that Compassion and Kindness take practice, that Compassion and Kindness aren’t necessarily synonymous with nice and polite and easy, and that sometimes the smallest acts – a phone call, an email, a hug – can make the biggest difference.
One hectic and frenzied Wednesday morning, I found myself standing side by side with another mom – a woman I had seen a few times, but didn’t know personally – and her son in the preschool bathroom. I had been helping Teddy wash his hands before school, when she came in with her son, who was visibly quite upset. He was having one of those irrational I’m-three-years-old-and-don’t-want-to-wash-my-hands-so-I’m-going-to-make-your-life-as-difficult-as-possible kind of tantrums that I knew all too well. As this other mom calmly tried to reassure her son about this whole scary washing hands thing, I heard her mutter, “I am totally failing this parent thing today.”
She said it quickly and quietly, and in the next few minutes a million thoughts went through my head. Could I help the situation? But how? Should I say something to reassure her? But what? Should I say nothing and let her deal with the situation privately?
In the end, I froze. I finished helping Teddy wash his hands, walked him to his class, and left the other mom and her son alone in the bathroom.
But as soon as I walked out the door I couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling that I should have said something, I should have helped.
I told myself that I had been giving them privacy. I rationalized that I hadn’t wanted to make the situation worse by interjecting myself. And I excused my silence with my inability to find the perfect words. By saying nothing and giving them privacy, I told myself that I had done the polite thing, the nice thing.
But, really, I had done the easy thing. And I failed to do the Kind thing. Because there is kindness, and then there is Kindness. With a capital “K.” One is polite, gentle, nice, and relatively easy; the other is awkward, vulnerable, messy, and incredibly hard. And the harsh and honest truth is that while I may know kindness, I still need some practice when it comes to Kindness with a capital “K.”
Later this realization hit me like a punch in the stomach. Sure, I write about kindness, I speak about kindness, and I try to live with kindness. But did I act with Kindness? At that moment, the sad truth was that no, I did not. I chose polite, nice, easy. I chose less awkward. I chose nothing over something. I chose kindness over Kindness.
And how many other times have I chosen kindness, yet stopped short of Kindness? How many times have I been nice and polite, but failed to be Kind? How many times have I been satisfied with my own good intentions, but neglected to follow through with my kind thoughts and good intentions to actually make a difference?
Sometimes kindness with a lowercase “k” is the appropriate route, when nothing more is necessary, when it is all that can be done. But other times – and, if I am really being honest with myself, most times – I rely on kindness with a lowercase “k” when Kindness with a big capital “K” would be so much better.
In the days since the preschool bathroom incident (or, rather, non-incident since I didn’t actually do anything), I have continued to think of all the things I could have said to that other mom, the things that I should have said. I should have told her how she was never failing, how parenting is always hard, how we all have those days. I should have said something, anything, to ease her burden and make her feel a little less alone.
I have tried to rationalize that she probably forgot about the whole thing and moved on to the next parenting calamity. I have justified my reaction – or, rather, my lack of a reaction – with my inherent shyness and inability to think on my toes to find the perfect words to say. I have reasoned that I respected her privacy by not drawing any more attention to the situation or her distressed statement.
But the harsh reality of it is that I did the easy thing instead of the Kind thing.
For days, I have replayed the scene in my head. Sure, the incident might not sound like much, but when you’re in the dredges of parenthood – sleep-deprived, constantly confused, and always questioning yourself – these are the kinds of little moments than can make a big difference. This woman and fellow mom – this fellow human being, for that matter – was struggling and hurting and I failed to do the Kind thing. Because it was awkward and messy and hard. But Kindness with a capital “K” – real, radical and transformative Kindness – is always hard. And messy and awkward. Kindness with a capital “K” isn’t about finding just the perfect words or the perfect solution; it’s about stumbling over our words and taking chances. Kindness with a capital “K” isn’t about waiting for someone else to make the first move; it’s about showing up and reaching out in the best way you know how. Kindness with a capital “K” isn’t about polite; it’s about vulnerability.
I cannot expect others to act with Kindness if I am not doing the same. There are a million reasons why someone might not act with Kindness, why someone might not say or act the way we would hope and in the way we would expect ourselves to act. Sometimes those reasons are selfish and unkind, but what I realized in the preschool bathroom that morning is that many times the reasons that someone chooses kindness over Kindness are understandable and grounded in good intentions. Just as much as Kindness means doing the hard thing, it sometimes means extending radical empathy, assuming good intentions, and cutting others some slack. Kindness with a capital “K” means fumbling over our words, sometimes getting it wrong, and then starting over again. Because Kindness with a capital “K” takes practice – lots of it. In fact, I think that Kindness with a capital “K” just might take a lifetime of practice.
When I told my husband this story a few days ago, his response was shockingly simple. “Why don’t you just tell her all of this?” he asked.
“Ohmigosh – I couldn’t do that. That would just embarrass her more, don’t you think?” I shot back.
But, really, it was only me that I was worried about embarrassing; the conversation would be awkward and difficult for me and I didn’t know what I could or should say.
But it didn’t matter what I said as long as said something. It didn’t matter if I said it clumsily as long as I told her what was in my heart. It didn’t matter if I was embarrassed or uncomfortable as long as I was trying to make things more comfortable for her. I didn’t matter if the conversation was awkward as long as it was authentic and Kind.
Last Friday –several days after the original incident – I tracked down the woman’s name and phone number, and I called her. I stumbled through an awkward conversation, my voice cracking and constantly on the verge of tears, with very few perfect words but all the right ones. I apologized for not saying something to reassure her in the bathroom that morning. I told her I admired the way she handled the situation. I told that I understood just how hard it all is.
In the end, I’m not sure if it was enough, but it was something.
We have so many chances to do the right thing, to do the hard thing, to do the Kind thing. All too often we miss those chances for any number of reasons – some decent and reasonable, others less so. We squander away opportunities to connect, to ease someone’s pain, or to brighten someone else’s day. These chances pass us by – noticed or unnoticed – and soon we forget about them as they fade into the backdrop of our lives.
But sometimes we have the chance to make things right; to say the things we should have said in the first place; to do the hard thing; to swallow our pride, open our hearts, and put ourselves out there. And when we have those chances, we can practice using Kindness.
So many transformative moments in my life have come disguised as simple, everyday encounters and those ten seconds in the preschool bathroom were no exception. I learned that Kindness with a capital “K” is very different – and so much harder – than kindness. And I learned that I cannot hope to live in a world with Kindness unless I am acting with Kindness every chance I get – whether at the first chance, the second chance, or the 100th chance.
May we have the strength to not just act with kindness, but to act with Kindness no matter how hard it might be. May we have the empathy to understand that we are all fighting our own battles. May we have the compassion to feel deeply and love justly and act open-heartedly. May we have the knowledge to know when an opportunity for Kindness isn’t completely lost, and the courage to seize each and every one of them.
Because, in the end, isn’t that what really matters?
We can do hard things and compassionate things. We can do kind things, and we can do Kind things. Even if it takes a lot of practice.