We expect, or hope, that the people who love us — family and close friends — will be kind to us more often than not. “Kind” is an interesting concept: it doesn’t mean, to me, insipid flattery or blind acceptance or infinite compensation. “Kind” means acting out of a profound respect for the human frailty that we all share. “Kind” means a forgiving posture toward the times that we speak out of haste or anger or irritability, but a strong response when we veer toward doing something destructive or out of character or just plain beneath us.
A friend who is a longtime cancer patient has had a recurrence, and this round of treatment may call for her wearing a wig. She found a salon that specializes in wigs for women undergoing chemo, and the kind salon owner worked with her to design something flattering and tolerable to put on. What she described as an emotionally wrenching experience was made less so by his intervention. He didn’t know her. He had a product that she needed; their time together might have been purely transaction. But it was more than that, because the man is kind. My friend describes him as the saint she needed in that painful and difficult moment.
In the weeks after Jerry died, I wasn’t eating very much. I’d gone back to a very stressful workplace, trying to stave off financial disaster for our business and for me personally. I’d not yet adapted to doing the grocery shopping, a task Jerry loved and claimed for himself. At one point I nearly burst into tears at Wegmans because i couldn’t find lentils and couldn’t find anyone to ask. I’d not not yet figured out where to sit to have dinner, being unable to sit at the table and stare at Jerry’s empty chair. And I had no appetite, not even for the home-cooked food that friends brought and left in my refrigerator.
One late afternoon, upon leaving work, I stopped at a favorite VietNamese restaurant to get take-out. Be, the owner, certainly knew our family — we were regulars. Family and close friends went to her restaurant to eat after the interment. Be and I were cordial, but not friends in the sense that we had no relationship outside of her place, Mamasan’s.
As I stood waiting for my order to come up, she took a closer look at my pale and exhausted face. Then she took my arm. “You come, you eat with us. Hot soup. Not for customers, just for us. You like.” Toward the back of the restaurant, I saw her servers gathered around a table eating their own meal before the crush of evening diners came in.
I sat down, and she served me a portion of steaming soup with vegetables that I didn’t recognize. We didn’t have conversation, per se, as Be is the only one who spoke any English. But the servers, all women, smiled and accepted me in their midst. I had someone to sit with, someone to eat with. I had someone — Be — who saw and cared how I looked, which must have been pretty terrible. My flagging appetite, perhaps piqued by the strange and exotic vegetables and seasonings, was tweaked. I was suddenly hungry, the first time since Jerry died. I ate all the soup, and some rice. I remember Be nodding and smiling.
Our spirits would wither and die without the ongoing kindness of family and friends. But the kindness of strangers — often episodic and emerging from unexpected places — is part of the weave too.
Having received kindness in this way, I try to offer kindness when and where I can — like offering my cell phone to a stranger on my long delayed Panama return flight who was making her way back to Canada while having lost her passport. She was arriving in Sea-Tac very late at night and without a place to stay, and my phone was getting data while hers was not. We were able to find her an airport hotel room, and she booked online then and there. It was a small gesture, but, I hope, kind.
Kindness, fortunately, is not zero-sum. Received, it begs to be given, and kindness begets itself. Kindness is perhaps, an invitation to be our better selves.