Kindness in troubled times 

When we lived in Atlanta, my oldest daughter attended International Community School, a public charter serving the local refugee and immigrant community. About half of the students were refugees or immigrants, and for kindergarten and first grade, it was an extraordinary place to be. In the face of the refugee ban and travel restrictions, the neighborhood flooded the school entrance with signs of support and love. It started with a lone sign and they quickly multiplied, with friends and strangers rushing to assure the kids and their families that they belong, that they are loved. 

It can be easy to forget that “refugees” or “immigrants” refers to individuals, to families, that are just like us, but born in a different place. The school’s neighbors went out of their way to recognize that to the school community immigration and refugee policies are not just policy, but affect people’s lives. And they made a statement that they consider these refugees and immigrants to be part of the community, not separate from it.
Here’s the CNN story with a few more details (and the school Facebook account has more photos of the inspiring signs).

I’m thinking about how to show kindness to strangers in troubled times, to recognize their humanity and acknowledge their struggle. What do you think?


Being open to kindness 

I experienced a rare kindness at the grocery store this week. I had the baby strapped to me as usual and as I hoisted things from the cart to the conveyor belt, the woman behind me asked if she could help me. She said she remembered how it was to do things like that weighed down by a baby. I was almost done anyway, and politely thanked her, but for the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m forced to conclude that I am not terribly open to receiving kindness. A big part of this is that I loathe imposing on others, so I hate asking for help unless it’s absolutely necessary. And I’ve been told I project the impression that I simply don’t need help, so honestly, I don’t think it’s offered much. But even when it is, accepting it is very difficult for me, almost repellent. Part of that is the feeling that I’m imposing, and part of it is exposing weakness, that I can’t do everything myself. I also feel obligated to do things by myself as long as I’m able, even if it’s more difficult alone. At the same time, I appreciate opportunities to be kind to others, which I’m denying to other people with my resistance to accepting.

I don’t have a profound conclusion here; it’s just something I’m musing on.

A Dozen Muffins

My good friend Sandy, who just turned 85, lives in a seniors apartment. This complex used to have a board who would organize social events, dinners and birthdays, but there are no longer any residents who are up for the challenge. Sandy used to work the kitchen, but age and health forced her to give this up.

Since the board has disbanded, Sandy felt compelled to do at least something to get the seniors out of their apartments once a day so she took it upon herself to host a coffee and cookie five days a week. She sets it all up herself and bought the supplies out of her own money.

I was running an errand near her place a couple of days ago and I decided to pick up a dozens muffins from Tim Horton’s for her to share with her “clients”. Sandy was so surprised and thrilled to add this treat to her coffee offering.

She called me after the days service was over to tell me  just how pleased the residents were to enjoy the muffins. Sandy also told me that, originally, she intended to charge 25 cents per cup but to her joy, a number of other residents donated coffee, sugar and whitener. Enough to last her through to next March.

Sandy told me that so many of the residents rarely leave their apartments and so many only have one meal a day delivered by Meals on Wheels, so this simple kindness that she has been able to provide has made such a difference.

Kindness on a train

In Calgary we buy tickets to get on the train and then someone who works for Calgary transit will occasionally check to see if people have tickets (very Canadian!). Today, I was running to catch a train; I needed a ticket and someone gave me his. This saved me ~$3 and more importantly let me catch the train and go home. It had been a long day and I needed to go home.

This is the kind of generosity that I find easy to overlook. It’s small, but it was exactly what I needed (I was also tired, which makes it harder to be grateful). It amuses me to think that what I want is extravagant excesses, however as the old English proverb says: “Enough is as good as a feast.” This holiday season I can be a bit jealous of the Muscovite Boyer bride in the picture below. There are many reasons that Muscovite Boyer bride might not be happy. Would too much really make me happy? Hmm.

A Boyar Wedding Feast (Konstantin Makovsky, 1883) Google Cultural Institute.jpg
By Konstantin MakovskyGoogle Cultural Institute (original file link), Public Domain, Link

What can I do to help me see that I have enough for today?

Brittle isn’t sensitive

In the previous post, I talked about the benefits of being sensitive, there’s a closely related idea that I want to talk about, brittleness. Brittle: inflexible, shattering.

brit·tle (ˈbridl/) –

  • hard but liable to break or shatter easily.
  • (of a sound, especially a person’s voice) unpleasantly hard and sharp and showing signs of instability or nervousness.
  • (of a person or behaviour) appearing aggressive or hard but unstable or nervous within.

It’s interesting to note that the dictionary lists relaxed as an antonym.

I am also brittle, and I think that’s bad. I’m brittle wherever I’m inflexible. Brittle is where I’m not being kind to myself (or anyone else); instead, I demand that the universe be the way that I want it to be so that I can feel OK. Whenever I expect the world to accommodate my feelings, I’m being brittle.

Places where I’m sensitive rapidly become places where I’m brittle. What makes the difference? Well for me, it often becomes a question of how full is my gas-tank? When I take care of myself I’m less brittle.

There’s an interesting mental trap here that I fall into though: because I can make myself less brittle with self care, I expect myself to overcome being sensitive. That isn’t the point, but my mental circle on that one is a tight orbit that’s hard to escape. Kindness towards others can help my brittleness, kindness towards myself can allow me to accept my hurt. Both are needed to keep me from shattering.

(Let me know if there’s interest in pages on being tough and resilient.)

The eye of the beholder?

I’m finding Christmas particularly stressful this year. There are cards, presents, and events for a lot of different people, and I’m overwhelmed and low on resources. I was pondering what of the great Christmas task list I might be able to drop, and it occurred to me that some of these things I actually enjoy, some the recipient actually enjoys (obviously these two ideally overlap), and some are just obligatory on both sides. I’m having trouble figuring out which things are which (primarily because I don’t know for sure what the recipient actually thinks since I’m not in that person’s head). Does everyone who gets a Christmas card perceive it as kindness? Probably not. If my only contact with a person on the Christmas card list *is* the Christmas card…does that make it more, or less important that I send it? I really have no way of knowing, so I just have to go with how I’d perceive it (which could very well be wrong). None of this overthinking has actually resulted in a smaller to-do list, by the way, though it does have me considering that I ought to balance kindness to myself along with the kindness of gifts, social interaction, etc. And I’m not really sure how to let some obligations drop to enhance my own enjoyment of the holidays, which are at the moment just something I have to get through while executing a number of tasks, all with tight deadlines, most of which are set by tradition and/or other people.

This got me thinking in a broader way about perception of kindness from the point of view of the giver versus the recipient. Ideally, those perceptions would be similar, but they aren’t always. How do you make sure that your kindness is aligned with what the recipient thinks is kindness (this is obviously easier with close friends and family than with strangers)?

And back to my original thoughts, how do you balance the demands of kindness to others with kindness to yourself?

Sensitive isn’t a bad thing

I have long been paranoid about being sensitive. In this post and the next, I want to try to distinguish between two ideas: sensitive and brittle.

I’m the sort of person who actually does watch for trigger warnings because, well, I react to certain topics very poorly. I appreciate having when people are being courteous about topics that I may react to.

Recognizing where I’m sensitive, where I over-react, where I need to be gentle with myself, all of these are good. Ducking over to the dictionary:

sen·si·tive (ˈsensədiv/)

  • quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals, or influences.
  • easily damaged, injured, or distressed by slight changes.
  • (of a person or a person’s behaviour) having or displaying a quick and delicate appreciation of others’ feelings.
  • kept secret or with restrictions on disclosure to avoid endangering security.

(I’m skipping the bit about being psychic, that may be relevant, but I don’t have anything useful to say on that front.)

In order for me to appreciate the feelings of others I have to be sensitive. This leads me to the strange conclusion, since I want to be able to do that, I want to be sensitive. The same pieces of me that allow me to appreciate another person’s feelings are the pieces of me that can get hurt. The same pieces of me that need to be kept secret in some situations are good to keep secret sometimes because they can be hurt, and they are valuable. This means in order to be sensitive to the feelings of those I care about, I must respect my own sensitivity.

Tune in soon for a quick essay on being brittle (which is a closely related but different idea). If there is interest , I’ll also write my views on the difference between tough and resilient.

How do you maintain the ability to be sensitive to the feelings of others?

Opportunities To Be Kind

I have actually come to post a few times and been brought up short by a dearth of kindness. Sure, I have other related topics to ponder, but I haven’t felt like I’ve done anything particularly kind recently. A misdirected package gave me an opportunity today, and though it was a tiny thing, it made me happy to do it. The mail carrier dropped off a stack of boxes yesterday, and at the bottom was one meant for a different house up the street. Only the first number in common with my house number, so she must have grabbed it by mistake. So I took the baby on a walk this morning and left the package at the right house with an anonymous note explaining what had happened. Probably I only saved the recipient a small amount of distress and hassle, but it was nice to do nonetheless.
How do you find opportunities for kindness when they don’t simply appear on your doorstep?

Keeping my Gas Tank Full

I have a tendency to hate my needs. I don’t like admitting that I need things. I believe that admitting that I need things is the same as admitting weakness, or some deficiency in my character.

I do need things, oxygen, water, food, shelter, safety, a feeling of purpose, sleep, rest (not actually the same thing as sleep), recreation, fun (and many more). Each of these is like a gas tank. If I let one run out, then my engine doesn’t run properly. I can, for a little while, borrow from one gas tank or another to tide over the low tank. There’s a cost.

I feel ashamed to have these needs, which is strange, because we all do. Worse, it’s counterproductive because the more I refuse to admit that I have needs, the more my needs control me. It’s a paradox: the more I embrace my needs, the less control they have.

Questions to ponder:

  • What are my needs?
  • How do I make sure that those needs are met appropriately?
  • How does ignoring my needs affect my attitudes towards others?

Writings of Jason Donev, Allison Ketchell Campbell and Romy Tittel