Opinion

Kindness is Underrated – Time to Bring that Ship into Port

kindness

Kindness has been outsourced, and its time bring it back in-house – what do you say?  No better stretch than the holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah, and New Year’s.  Certainly, the great poets would want that, right? What jogs me is not “International Kindness Day” – which just passed.  It is a phone call.     

Recently, I had to replace my driver’s license, Social Security card, insurance and bank cards.  Frustrating but illuminating, too – since I had not done that in a while.  In each case, the party hearing about my predicament, offering advice, directing, correcting and redirecting me was a computer.

When one of these quick-ticking talkers told me to “have a good day” – I laughed aloud.  My laugh was not rueful just a nod to modern irony.  We have outsourced so much of who we are, that we now instruct computers to show empathy – and expect someone to respond.

Surely, we have it in us – even in politically charged times – to be our best selves, to take responsibility for compassion in the hubbub.  I have seen it happen, no kidding.  Two examples shine the light.

One occurred shortly after that computer wished me a “good day.”  I was in a large grocery store.  Unexpectedly, I saw a clerk sobbing.  Surprised, I paused.  Next thing I knew, an older gentleman was offering her kind words.  They must have been, since she was soon smiling.  The human touch mattered.

Another example takes me back to Colin Powell’s State Department.  Powell was a leader’s leader – military, civilian and human.  He showed it every day, to ten thousand employees, just as he had to 500,000 military personnel as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.   

Every day, we met and talked.  Every day he offered observations, advice, and leadership lessons.  One was to look after your people.  This was not condescension, but human, professional, and necessary.  He could be rough cut, and direct.  He could be painfully honest.  He could be breathtakingly human.  He was an example of what it takes to lead, and the first lesson was caring.

He advised us to mentor, teach, listen, observe and care about our colleagues.  He taught the same for their families. If you care about someone’s family, you are on one wave.  We care about our families.  Showing little kindnesses did not escape him.  One comes to mind.

Perhaps a year into working with Powell, my wife and I took our kids apple picking.  Our youngest was about three.  Out of the blue, the way kids do, she announced she was “picking apples for Colin Powell.”  We smiled.  We seldom talked about him, so that tickled the parental funny bone. 

Before long, she was asleep.  My wife surmised her conviction would be gone when she awoke.  At the orchard, she awoke – and boom, “I want to pick apples for Colin Powell,” issued from the back seat. 

Well, so be it.  She did.  Next day I sheepishly brought them in.  Fathers must do these things.  I told Helen, who kept the gate for Secretary Powell, the simple story.  She kindly accepted the apples and I returned to work, content with having done my delivery – thought no more of it.

Late that night, and we had a lot of those, I was typing in my office.  Around the door came a senior assistant to the Secretary.  He held an envelope, personally addressed to our three-year-old.  I was in shock and thanked him.  Not my envelope, we opened it together the next weekend.

Here is what it said, in a big hand for her: “Thank you for the apples.  I really appreciate your thinking of me!  I so much enjoyed meeting you.  Sincerely, Colin Powell.”  Of course, he was referring to her attendance at the swearing-in, a year earlier.  Now that was special.  That was an act of kindness.  If Powell could do it, we all could.  And if he did it once, he did it a thousand times. 

So, here we are in an age of compassion-dispensing computers, yet we have it in us – to show human kindness.  There is nothing profound about the observation.  It does belie vexing political times, but it is true all the same.  It is also traditional American.  And when better than now, at the holidays.

In short, we are all rushing about – rightly concerned for the future of our nation.  We should be.  These are consequential, objectively dangerous times.  But so were those times in which I worked for Colin Powell.  There is time to be kind, and it is so easy.  The reward is so great.

Maybe William Wordsworth put it best.  His words bump around in my mind, at times: “That best portion of a good man’s life – little nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”  That is it, the essence of what should be, can be, and is on us.  We have outsourced kindness.  It is time to bring it home, bring that ship into port – no better time than the holidays. 

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