I’m thinking a lot these days about kindness. Pancho Ramos-Stierle from Casa de Paz writes in his email signature “If you want to be a rebel, be kind.” To people who have their minds focused on dismantling oppressive and deadly systems and institutions, this directive might seem fluffy or naive. Especially, if it is understood to be steering us to be kind even to those people we are encouraged or disposed to think of as enemies or bad guys. Thing is, being unkind is dehumanizing. And a lot of injustices have their roots in a stripping people of their humanity and their status of being human. To be kind is to be a rebel against tyranny and oppression because it is an act of restoring (giving health and strength to) our humanity and what it is to be human.
Humanity is an odd word. I get the impression a lot of people use it to mean being human, of the human species. In the 15th century, it did come to mean that. In the 14th century it came into the english language referring to kindness and graciousness. I have a sense that that its origins presume that the essence of human nature is to be kind.
I like playing around with this notion and stretching it into the idea that when I am being unkind I am diminishing my humanity – reducing my essence. The image that comes to mind is Darth Vader who gradually turned into a machine, losing what it is to be human. Obi-Wan Kenobi actually says: “He’s more machine now than man. Twisted and evil.”
I’m also diminishing the humanity of the person on the receiving end of my unkindness. I’m making them somehow less than I, in terms of their value as a human being and worthiness of respect and kindness.
In a piece recently published by OpenDemocracy, Wise Fools for Love?, I explain how Wise Fool New Mexico artists I know define social justice as “creating a space for each person’s humanity to thrive….a space that allows people to feel their own empowerment.”
Simple kindnesses definitely play a role in nourishing people to feel their own empowerment and capacity to thrive. My 83 year old father had a massive heart attack two weeks ago. My family has been spending a lot of time in hospital. Since his surgery over a week ago, we’ve made sure one of us is there with him at all time.
In this time, I consciously chose to make an effort to be actively kind to everyone – hospital staff, other patients and their families. With staff, I focused on asking everyone’s names – even if I would only be seeing them for a few seconds – and how their day was going. If we had time for a bit of banter, I would do it. Find out the meaning of a name, for example. Or guess where they are from.
With other families, I offered to get water or coffee or simply to tell them where they could find it. I inquired about the progress of their family member. With other patients, I would say hello and perhaps comment on the color of their robe or what a lovely smile they have.
You might think that this was me being instrumental – be kind to the people who are involved in taking care of my father so they treat him well. Sure, there is something in that. The bigger context though was that for a short period, I was directly in community with these folks. And wherever I am, I want to cultivate beloved community. To me this entails compassion balanced by accountability (aka – justice). It also entails showing through my interactions that I want to see everyone’s humanity thrive.
In a short time, I created warm connections with people. As a result, in a very stressful time for my family and amidst people who have very stressful jobs, we had moments of laughter and tenderness. I do believe I made it clear to the people serving my family – be it the doctor or the person emptying the trash – that I valued them all as human beings. People with names, with smiles, with tough days, with good days, with mistakes, with different talents and abilities.
I do believe I let other patients know that I saw them – I acknowledged their presence in this community.
Hello! What’s your name? Good to meet you. Thank you. Where are you from? How is your day going? Nice yellow socks. Can I buy you a cup of coffee, I’m going to get some for myself?
In a world where people can so easily become invisible, such small kindnesses are rebellious. They are a way of seeing and listening rather than ignoring and blocking out. A way of saying “Hey, we are in this together, you and I.” A way of restoring (creating health or strength) humanity to my self and others.