On Kindness

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Everyone has a nightmare they fear may really happen one day.  Mine was to be alone at home in a vulnerable situation, be it sick or injured.  Well, this nightmare of mine became a reality a few months ago when a jar shattered in my hands. I found myself with two hands gushing with blood on a Sunday afternoon. After a few minutes of calming myself down, I wrapped my hands, took my purse, and went to the street to take a taxi to the hospital.  There were a few taxis on the street but all had passengers.  As I passed by them to look for a free taxi, one of the drivers rolled down his window and pointed at me. “Good,” I thought to myself, “he is going to take me to the hospital and maybe drop his passenger on the way.” But that is not what happened. Upon rolling down his window, the driver opened his wallet and gave me a dollar.

You can imagine my shock.  This instantly brought another nightmare of mine to life, which is to be homeless. Although I am not homeless, that taxi driver thought I was. Between that and my injured hands, it was a very tough and trying moment. With surprise I looked at him and said  “Are you kidding me? I need the hospital, not a dollar.” And without a word, he took his dollar back, rolled up his window, and drove away.  A few cars later a taxi driver stopped, and he got out of his car to open the door for me, and helped me get in as I couldn’t use my hands easily.  He then took me to the emergency room, followed my instruction to take my wallet from my purse to pay him what I owed him, and bid me farewell after making sure I got into the emergency room safely.

The rest of the story is not as exciting. I obviously survived with functioning hands, which are allowing me to write this piece today. And by having to face my nightmare—not by choice but by force—I came out knowing it was not so bad and that life keeps on going despite all.  Most importantly, I realize that fear no longer carries the same weight in my heart. It actually lost its meaning and this time it was not replaced by anything else but the knowledge that there is no need to fear.  All of us have a great sense of resilience that we can face these challenges and pass through them. I know I do.

But that incident left me reflective on the meaning of kindness. You see, the first taxi driver who offered me the dollar is a good man. Think of it: he saw a vulnerable woman, he went out of his way to roll down his window, and offered a full dollar—which is not a small thing to give. But he did not see me and what I needed, which was to go to the hospital. His act of kindness was more about him identifying as being “kind” than about the person he was being kind to. It’s like a woman I met once who kept on expressing her love, admiration, and friendship over and over again through emails, gifts, invitations and what have you.  But when I reached out to her one day and asked for her perspective on a certain story that required her to show up, she wrote: “My life is crammed to bursting with people who want my attention. I have many friends going through breakups, illness, depression, death. My love and good wishes for them are infinite. But my time and energy aren’t.”

Well, the taxi driver and this woman feel the same to me. In both cases they chose to enter someone else’s space, him by rolling down his window and her by overly expressing her love and friendship. Both defined themselves as kind and loving from their own perspective, and both missed seeing the need of the person in front of them.  Kindness in this case feels more about the giver than the receiver. It’s reflected by the “act of giving” rather than “seeing” what the person needs. I am sure both individuals define themselves as kind and loving, but both individuals did not take the time and care to look at what exactly needed to be shared through their kindness.

On the other hand, the other taxi driver who took me to the hospital probably does not think he did a kind thing by picking up a passenger who was injured, taking her all the way to the hospital, and only taking what she owed him from her wallet. He was doing his job and he got paid for it. But from my perspective—the perspective of the person in need—I experienced true kindness through him. For he saw me and what I needed, and responded accordingly.  His kindness was not about him but about the person who needed the help.  It’s like when my mother was dying, some friends who I did not think as close at all-no constant repeat of loving expressions-showed up fully in times of need with kindness and grace in actions that made a real difference for my mother and I.  I still don’t know if they will call themselves as close friends, but for me they are a true expression of friendships in how they showed up.

This made me think about the meaning of kindness in our own lives and how we think of ourselves as “good” and value the “doing” kindness if we buy someone a nice gift or send a loving email to a friend for reasons or no reason.  I am one of those people who probably did that many times but never stopped and questioned what the other person needed, and—relating to the story I just told—if I am giving them a metaphorical “dollar” or helping them go to the figurative “hospital.”  I have also been the recipient of many acts of kindness in my life—and I am always surprised by who shows up and who doesn’t show up in times of need. The two taxi drivers only magnified the story for me and put it into perspective.

Love is abundantly around us, and so are words. It is not enough to say “I love you” or to roll down your window. That is the easiest thing to do, but in it is a deception to ourselves about the meaning of kindness. Kindness, as I see it, is about being present to what is around us rather than being self-serving about ourselves and our definitions of kindness by giving a dollar, a gift, or loving words.

I know next time I roll down my window for anybody, I will be conscious how I will be entering that other person’s space. I will see them and their needs before I fool around with words that are meaningless without true action. Without understanding what the other person needs, a supposed act of kindness could lead to more damage than help. Could it be that kindness is as simple as showing up fully and taking a moment to consider what the other person needs? I think it may be as simple as this indeed.