“Kindness can become its own motive. We are made kind by being kind.” (Eric Hoffer)
It can be upsetting and bewildering when someone rejects our kindness. An act which was meant to be helpful and benign is rebuffed or rejected. Sometimes, the intended recipient even lashes out at us. What did we do wrong? Are we in some way at fault, or inadequate?
As a result, the next time we want to extend a kindness, we hesitate—fearing rejection or scorn. Our act of kindness dies before it is born. Some weeks it feels like there is worldwide scarcity of kindness, and we must do our part to keep the impulses alive.
There is a simple saying that I use often in working with groups or in one-on-one situations: We assume one another’s good intent. So simple, and yet so powerful. If only we could always remember it!
The Seattle Times runs a daily section call “Rant and Rave.” It invites readers to share examples of good and bad behavior and positive and negative encounters in our community. The raves are frequently descriptions of generosity and kindnesses experienced and witnessed—they’re often uplifting and touching, little vignettes that reinforce our shared humanity. Here’s an example: “For the Men’s Warehouse employees who helped my developmentally disabled son have the senior prom he’d dreamed of, and for his teachers who made it all happen. It was a night he’ll never forget!”
The rants, on the other hand, often describe careless, rude, or unscrupulous deeds or situations. A rant caught my eye recently: “To the guy in the VW who flipped me the bird, mouthed obscenities through the glass and then sped off when I was knocking on his window to let him know his tire was flat.”
Who knows why the driver reacted as he did. He may have been frightened, surprised, or embarrassed. He may have thought he was caught doing something naughty. He may have been having a lousy day and the knock on his window put him over the edge (if that’s the case, the dawning awareness of a flat tire a short time later can’t have added to the day’s enjoyment). But how sad it is that the first reaction some people have to unexpected contact by strangers is to strike out at the individual.
We’ve all heard of road rage precipitated by a honking horn when someone fails to notice the light has turned green. A tap on the horn is a kindness under those circumstances, one to be responded to with a wave of thanks as the driver proceeds through the light. Too often it initiates an angry gesture, a curse, or even a brandished weapon.
For those reasons, we are often wary. I’ve seen lines of cars patiently waiting through two green lights for the oblivious driver to notice that the light has changed (this is Seattle, remember, we are boundlessly courteous). Rather than honk, I once saw a man get out of his car and politely tap on the driver’s window of the car ahead. For his effort, he was rewarded with an unkind gesture and screech of tires as the driver shot through the now-yellow light. I’m sure the driver was embarrassed, but what is it about embarrassment that makes some of us lash out.
Embarrassment is part of the human experience. It’s also what makes us human, whether an unzipped fly, a broccoli-adorned tooth, or a verbal gaffe. It happens. We’ve all been there. To not risk embarrassment is to shun human contact entirely. It seems to me that grace is the ideal response to those embarrassing moments. More broadly, though, isn’t grace the best response to almost anything?
I hope the driver who knocked on the window of the VW isn’t deterred from doing so the next time s/he thinks a stranger would want to know what s/he has noticed.
And I hope we all (myself most definitely included) can learn to react with grace when someone tries to help us.
“He who sows sparingly will reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will reap bountifully.” (St. Paul)