Sunday Stories: Cultivating Kindness
To paraphrase the director and screenwriter Richard Curtis: If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that kindness actually is all around.
“Do you know her?” my son, then nine years old, asked as we were at a stop sign near the bottom of the hill that leads to our house. I had waved at the woman driving the car facing us at the intersection because she had made eye contact, smiled, and waved at us first.
“No, but she waved so I waved back,” I told my son, who at the time was in the early days of adjusting to a new culture and learning social norms and cues after moving to the United States from Malawi six months previously.
“Huh,” he shrugged. “How interesting,” which he pronounced in his squeaky wee boy voice, “eeeeeeeenterrresteen.”
I, too, was learning how to fit into the Southern California culture that was new to our whole family. We had moved a few months before from Chicago to Laguna Beach where, it seemed at the time, everybody was friendly and quick to smile. Maybe they were just so dang happy and grateful to live in such a beautiful place. Maybe it was 300-or-so days of sunshine a year — all that natural vitamin D.
Whatever the reason, we quickly learned that in our new home—a small town by the sea that we often (still) refer to as “The Shire”— people smiled and waved at each other on the street, in line at the market, when they walked into a restaurant or the bank. They knew their neighbors’ names. They were quick to lend a helping hand to a new mother who’d overpacked for a day the beach and was still acclimating to the long, steep slog from the strand to back to the street.
That’s not to say that people in Chicago, New York City, or even my native New England aren’t friendly, warm, helpful, and welcoming. It’s just … expressed differently. I grew up not far outside of Manhattan, which we visited often and I loved and still love dearly. In “The City,” I learned from an early age not to make eye contact with everyone who passed me on the street or in the subway. My father used to say it was because New Yorkers were crowded so close to one another that it was a way to give each other space.
Giving people space is also a form of kindness.
There are infinite ways to be kind, just as there are countless opportunities to choose cruelty, hatred, anger, and general meanness instead of kindness.
Kindness is a choice, and it’s always the best option.
One of the most moving scenes in the cacophonous multiverse of the multi-Oscar-nominated film Everything, Everywhere, All At Once is when Waymond (Ke Huy Quan pleads with his wife Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) essentially to save all of existence by choosing kindness.
“I'm confused too. One moment I am here. The next moment I am there,” Waymond says. “All day, I don't know what the heck is going on. But somehow it feels like this is my fault. I don’t know. The only thing I do know is we have to be kind. Be kind. Especially, when we don't know what's going on.”
Kindness is Contagious
Earlier this month, the actor Ryan Reynolds, co-owner of the Wrexham United Football Club in Wales, posted on his socials a video response to a TikTok post by the novelist John Green, discussing how one person’s choice to behave badly has the power to give a bunch of other people permission to behave badly as well.
Green referred to an incident that happened in 2015 at a Wrexham match against longtime rivals from Chester, England. A minute of silence had been planned to mark the deaths of 266 men who died during the Gresford mining disaster in 1934. But during the silence, a Chester fan began chanting, mockingly, about a well-known Wrexham fan, Scott Torrens, who had died of a seizure in 2013 at the age of 21.
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“One — and only one — Chester fan shouted, ‘Scotty’s in a box,’ as in a coffin, and then several other Chester fans took up the chant, and then there was complete pandemonium,” Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, explains in his TikTok.
“When one person is a jerk, it kind of gives permission to a lot of other people to be jerks, and so we all have that power, to be that one person who’s a jerk who starts the jerk revolution. But together we have got to learn not to use that power, we have to learn to be careful with each other, as Philip Larkin put it, to be kind, while there is still time.”
Antisocial behavior and negativity in general are contagious, but so is kindness.
Literally, scientifically contagious.
“People imitate not only the particulars of positive actions, but also the spirit underlying them,” Jamil Zaki, associate professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of The War for Kindness wrote in Scientific American. “This implies that kindness itself is contagious, and that that it can cascade across people, taking on new forms along the way. To be a potent social force, positive conformity requires such flexibility. Not everyone can afford to donate to charity or spend weeks on a service trip to Haiti. Witnessing largesse in others, then, could inhibit would-be do-gooders who feel that they can’t measure up. Our work suggests that an individual’s kindness can nonetheless trigger people to spread positivity in other ways.”
Practicing and actively cultivating kindness may be the best hope for digging our way out of the ideological morass we find ourselves in these days.
“The ill will now blanketing our country often reflects people following each other’s lead,” Zaki wrote. “People who hold extreme attitudes voice them loudly; when moderate individuals fall in line, groups grow more entrenched and further apart from each other.”
If more of us witness kindness and compassion more often than hostility, cruelty, and indifference, more of us are likely to choose to be kind.
“By emphasizing empathy-positive norms, we may be able to leverage the power of social influence to combat apathy and conflict in new ways,” Zaki says. “And right now, when it comes to mending ideological divides and cultivating kindness, we need every strategy we can find.”
For the last several weeks, Healthy Minds, the free, science-based app that I use for continuing my practice of mindfulness and daily meditation, has been teaching me how to cultivate kindness for those I love, friends, neighbors, strangers, people I don’t like, those who have hurt me, and — most challenging of all — for myself.
One of the exercises Healthy Minds has us do is picture moments when someone has been kind to us and to take that feeling of kindness inspired by someone else’s behavior toward us and turn it on ourselves. I often imagine the moment when, standing in the foyer of a Connecticut church moments before my father’s funeral started, a college friend I hadn’t seen in years and who lived hours away in Boston, walked through the door. I was so moved by her kindness (and still am a decade later). I can recall viscerally how that made me feel and try to show myself that same kindness. (Love you, Sara.)
It’s not easy. If you’re wired anything like I am, no one is more unkind to me than me.
Sometimes it’s easier for me to picture someone else giving me the kindness pep talk. In high rotation in my mind lately has been Keith Brymer Jones, the lovable host of The Great Pottery Throw Down, who is famous for the ease with which he is moved to tears — more often than not by a contestant overcoming their self doubt than by the beauty of something ceramic they’ve created.
Brymer Jones’ “don’t give yourself such a hard time all the time” is my new mantra.
It bears repeating: We must be kind — to everyone, to ourselves. Especially, when we don't know what's going on.
So, wave back. Hold the door. Let them have the closer parking space. Return the shopping trolley to the stand. Tip well. Smile at the awkward trans kid making your latté. Say please and thank you. Give them space. If the spotlight finds you, share it. Wear a mask to protect people whose health isn’t as robust as yours, even if you can’t tell by looking at them.
Rather than a problem to be solved or an enemy to be vanquished or to guard yourself against, try meeting everyone you encounter with a gaze of lovingkindness, especially when you’re looking in the mirror.
Diana’s Sunday Musings
Staying bright amid unrelenting gloom
This morning, I had the honor of pinch hitting for my friend Diana Butler Bass over at her marvelous Substack, The Cottage, where I penned a reflection on today’s gospel lectionary reading from Matthew 5: You are the light of the world.
“Perhaps the simplest lesson amidst these many metaphors is that we should be generous with whatever light we can muster because everybody needs it and even the tiniest of sparks can be seen from farther away than we might imagine when someone is trying to feel their way through the dark.”
Read that post HERE.
Please join me in offering a heartfelt céad míle fáilte (a thousand welcomes in Irish) to new friends from The Cottage community who have found their ways to This Numinous World.
We’re so glad you found us.
As we head into a new week, let us all do our best to be brave and kind.
Remember that you haven’t met yet everyone you will love and you haven’t met yet everyone who will love you.
Much love from me,
Cathleen Falsani: This Numinous World is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.