I recently finished reading the book “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio, an easy read with a great message about kindness. (I think they have made it into a movie, coming out in the States soon). I won’t give away the whole story line in case you want to read it, but it’s about a boy born with a rare face deformity and his adventures entering public school for the first time. He faces the challenges of bullying, the adversity that comes with entering middle school, and the joy of making friendships and being true to himself. In the last chapter, he has reached the end of the school year and there is a graduation assembly. The school principal is making a final address to the school body and families, about to give out the last award of the school year:
“…Not just the nature of kindness, but the nature of one’s kindness. The power of one’s friendship. The test of one’s character. The strength of one’s courage….Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.”
And then the principal quotes Henry Ward Beecher:
“Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right using of strength…He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.”
I don’t know why, but this section of the book really hit me and got me thinking about one’s character and actions. We all have amazing God-given qualities, but if we don’t use them, what good are they? Or if they are used for self-advancement or to boost our pride, what good are they?
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness. Mostly because some days that feels like all I am doing here…showing simple kindness to sweet, but at times challenging, children from diverse backgrounds. It can feel hard at times to know what good you are doing in a foreign country as an outsider. We don’t always see results or know of our impact when we work alongside others. Sometimes we may never know. I took a summer course a few years back in Peacebuilding and the professor said something that stuck with me…basically the idea that we do not know how we impact the children we encounter on a daily basis. But maybe, just maybe…our words, our lessons, our kindness can shift the trajectory of that child’s life just a little bit. And maybe, that little bit of change will send them down a certain path. Perhaps they will end up somewhere different because of that small thing many years before. Maybe…
Asher and I can’t help or reach all the children and youth that come to the center…mostly because there are so many of them (sometimes 200-400 on any given Saturday morning!). I may not even learn all their names by the end of our term (I am terrible with names in America, so it’s much worse here since some of their names are difficult to pronounce …but I will try.) I won’t be able to listen to all their problems or give them my undivided attention. I probably won’t completely understand why some come from homes where they leave the house dirty and unbathed for days. But the one thing I know for sure, is that I can show them simple kindness; something many of them may not experience in a given day. I don’t know what happens in their homes, but I know that corporal punishment is common here and sometimes even teachers hit children as a form of discipline. I know that I have seen a lot of the children hit each other if a friend isn’t listening to them or to tell another child to move.
Simple kindness may not seem like much. It isn’t an earth-shattering movement or a grand gesture. Obviously not, because it’s simple! But if the only thing I am remembered for by these children when we leave, is my smile and high-five or that I held their hand or consoled them when they were crying….then I did something!
Simple kindness is…
…a gentle pat on the shoulder when they hand in their colored sheet.
…a high-five for doing something well during a game (even if they flinch because they think I’m going to hit them).
…a “hello” greeting, smile, and conversation about their day or school.
…a smile and gentle side hug to little girls who recognize me from previous times.
And perhaps the simplest kindness of all…giving a child a glass of water during the after-school program. It may not seem like much and water is such a basic life necessity, but I don’t think some of them have running water at home or drink it very often. I love filling a cup of water for them (which we bring from home since there is no running water at the center) and seeing them take it as a precious gift.
I love this quote from George Saunders (here’s a link to part of his address at a graduation…I love this video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1KCzrTg9ic):
“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly. Or, to look at from the other end of the telescope: who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet. It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.”
May we all strive to use our talents and abilities to further God’s kingdom towards peace and justice. And may we be remembered for our acts of kindness, love, and hospitality.
Blessings to all,