When I think back on my life — especially the dark and desperate times — what has made the difference was that someone went for a walk with me; someone fed me; someone took me for a pint. I have very little memory of what anyone said to me, but I do remember those who listened attentively. It was their practical kindness that made the difference.
The wonderful thing is that kindness isn’t tricky. It isn’t sophisticated. It doesn’t require a great deal of wisdom, or insight, or discernment. In fact, it’s quite hard to get kindness wrong.
While it’s simple, kindness has a profound effect on us. If we’re unfortunate enough to come under another person’s judgement, it causes us to shut down, to withdraw, to try to protect ourselves. Kindness does just the opposite, and then some. Its influence can open us up, call us out, and call forth the best in us.
The contrast literally makes a world of difference. I was once waiting in the departure lounge of the Los Angeles airport. I was tired and worn out with the rigors of international travel. Fifteen minutes before we were to board, the dreaded announcement came over the PA: “We regret to inform passengers on Air Canada flight 796 to Toronto that this flight is cancelled due to mechanical malfunction.” Those of us who were frequent flyers knew the drill, and quickly hoofed it back to the ticketing counter.
An irate, vulgar man made it there just ahead of me. He immediately began ripping into the ticket agent. “BLANKing Air Canada has done it to me again. I hate flying with this BLANKing airline. They just cancelled the 14.00 to Toronto. Get me on the next BLANKedy BLANK flight.”
The ticket agent began typing furiously, and slowly shook her head. “I’m very sorry sir, but the next direct flight is fully booked. I can get you on the red-eye, but that’s a little over eight hours from now.”
That was not what he wanted to hear. Without restraint, he ripped into the ticket agent, the airline, and if there had been a small dog nearby, he would have kicked it into Tuesday. Once he’d successfully reduced the ticket agent to tears, he stormed off in search of another airline that would get him home.
I stepped up to the counter. I smiled. “Hi. I’m not the guy that was just here. That guy wasn’t nice. I’m nice. Take a cleansing breath. We’re gonna be ok.”
The ticket agent looked at me like I was an alien.
I smiled again. “When can you get me back to Toronto?”
She wiped a tear from her cheek, and began typing. Moments later she said, “If you’re willing to run, I can get you on a flight to Vancouver; you’ll just make the connection, and be in Toronto a little over an hour later than you would have on your cancelled flight.”
I thanked her, grabbed my new boarding passes, and assured her that I would run. I then said, “Have a great day, won’t you?”
She smiled and said, “I already am. Thank you.”
Both the guy ahead of me and I faced exactly the same set of circumstances. Both he and I chose very different attitudes – and got very different responses. These are timeless dynamics. Nearly three hundred and fifty years ago, John Milton wrote his epic poem Paradise Lost. In it he said,
“The mind is its own place,
And in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell,
a hell of heav’n.”
If we commit to kindness, we can change our little world, one act at a time.