What does it mean to be truly and deeply kind? Maybe you can think of someone who was always kind to you. You might remember their smile, a gentleness, a lap you knew you could climb up on. Maybe she always had time for you. Or perhaps he was the only one—no matter what you had to say—who would remind you that you were doing your best. Chances are that this kind person looked you in the eye and listened with care, and if they offered you any advice, it felt like encouragement, like they were gently steering you toward the better angel of your nature.
Kind people have learned how to put down the weapons of war. Not only outward weapons, but inward ones too, those ideas that harden the heart, that make us pull back, that separate us from one another so we judge and criticize and worse, dehumanize. Over time those layers of hardness hide and maybe even imprison the soft spirit within us. We are living in a time when we see a lot of that—a lot of hardness—people feel polarized and it’s hard to trust those we don’t know. Trusting and relaxing and being open is hard in an environment like that. We pull back, we look down, we guard ourselves, we’re on alert. Just last week a friend of mine was considering a trip to hear a public speaker she likes but then she thought better of it, saying, “I don’t really feel comfortable going to public events right now.” And she’s not alone in that.
So my inspiration this week came from a simple idea. We are not powerless, even in what feels like an overwhelming time. Our society is not broken. There is an important power each of us has that perhaps we’re not using to its fullest potential. No matter what’s going on around us, we always have the power to be kind. It’s a creative force, a gift God gave us, right from the beginning. Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, our demeanor, our presence, our attitude toward the world is affecting those around us, they can feel it, for better and for worse. When we decide to be kind, whatever the circumstance may be, we shift the energy toward peace.
So today’s message is a practical one, sharing 10 simple ways we can choose to use our capacity for kindness to bring a little more light to our struggling world.
- Let’s begin with the easiest of the easy: Smile. Simply smile. Not only does a smile let other people know that you are friendly and wish them well, but it makes you feel better inside. I had a funny experience many years ago that convinced me of this. I was in the middle of a crunch writing project, facing a deadline, and feeling super-stressed. My son needed me to drive him downtown to a golf event with his high school team. On the way home, driving around 465, I of course got behind every slow driver on the road. I noticed that I was scowling and gripping the steering wheel, and suddenly a random thought occurred to me: I wonder if I would feel better with a smile on my face? So I relaxed my grip and started smiling as I drove down the center lane. And the more I smiled, the bigger my smile got until I was half-laughing at myself. I thought I must have looked ridiculous to the other drivers. But the change inside me was very real. From tight and annoyed to light and laughing. All because I put a smile on my face—none of my external pressures had changed at all. So our expressions aren’t just an outward symbol of our inward feeling. They can also be a doorway into a better mood and a changed outlook.
- Second, be easy on yourself. Kind people have learned not only to let go of their need to criticize others but also to be gentler with themselves along the way. Being kind to yourself might be something simple, like getting enough rest. Letting yourself eat that extra cookie. Taking mistakes and challenges in stride. Remembering you are God’s beloved child, whether you do everything perfectly or not. And here’s a super easy kindness you can do for yourself any moment of any day: breathe. I know, how can you not? But breathe deeply, all the way to your belly, counting maybe to five as you inhale, five as you exhale. Breathing slowly and deeply brings more oxygen into your bloodstream, which reduces your blood pressure, and calms your mind, just that quickly. Breathing is a simple and fast stress-reliever, no medications needed. And when our stress is low, it’s easier to be kind to ourselves, which means we’re also likely to be kinder with others.
- Third, look for the good. With so many upsetting headlines and so much uncertainty swirling around us right now, it is tempting to think things are going from bad to worse and we’re in for a rough road ahead. But that leaves God out of the picture. When we purposely look for that of God in one another and watch for God’s goodness to show up in our experience, we will begin to find evidence of love and grace all around us. We’ll see it for others, and we’ll see it for ourselves. God never misses an opportunity to let us know how loved we are.
- Fourth, keep it simple. Sometimes we withhold a kind welcome until we know the other is friendly or at least not a risk. Ideally, they’ll think just the way we do so none of our defenses get triggered. But what if we kept it simpler than that? What if we just decided, across the board, we will be welcoming and friendly to everyone we meet today—period. No matter who they are, no matter what kind of mood they are in, we can choose—because it’s our choice–to greet them with a smile as though they are carrying that of God in them (because, well, they are).
- Fifth, say thank you. I think of the expression of gratitude as an almost magical thing, changing our energy instantly from upset to thankfulness. Once long ago I had an object lesson in this. I had a big presentation I’d been preparing for, and the night before I was supposed to give it, I woke up sick at 2am. I was in a panic, praying, “God, I can’t be sick! I can’t be sick!” That was the extent of my prayer–I was worried and alarmed. Suddenly I heard in my mind, “Thank me.” What?! I thought. “Thank you? How can I thank you? I’m sick!” But I made the attempt. “Okay, God, thank you that it’s still 2am and I don’t have to get up for four more hours. Thank you for this comfortable bed. Thank you for the softness of the sheets.” And then I felt myself begin to calm down and the real “thank yous” started coming. I prayed, “Thank you that you know me, you know my body and you know what I need. Thank you that you are here with me. Thank you that this is all unfolding in your care.” Soon I began to feel drowsy. I remember looking out the window at a star just before I slipped off to sleep. And when I woke up in the morning, I wasn’t sick and I was able to give the presentation as planned. And I’d learned something really important—something that has stayed with me ever since–about the power of gratitude.
- Sixth, let others go first. In the course of a normal day, it’s easy to get triggered when we feel slighted—someone steps in front of us in line, somebody orders when it’s not their turn, drivers are rude or aggressive. But when we purposely choose to do a kind thing—to put down the weapons for war—it changes the way we respond to things like that. Instead of reacting, we might step back and let another go first, or give someone our seat, or have more patience in traffic. Our choice to be kind not only makes us feel better, but it just might shift things in the other person’s day as well.
- Seventh, let your heart be soft. We talk about our hearts all the time. But how many of us truly believe that the heart—the actual organ here in our chests—has anything to do with the nature of our relationships with one another? Yet researchers now believe that the heart has a kind of literal mind of its own, guiding us with wisdom and intuition in a way that is different from what we hear in our minds. And early Friends knew that the heart is the place within us where we find, are refreshed by, and share the peace of God’s presence. I like the way Quaker Caroline Stephen says this. She wrote, “Words may help and silence may help, but the one thing needful is that the heart should turn to its Maker as the needle turns to the pole. For this, we must be still.” And something else science says: learning to listen and respond to one another from our hearts increases our sense of well-being, reduces stress, and helps us find a sense of inner balance and harmony. The softened heart connects, while the hardened heart rejects.
- Eighth, everybody gets a do-over. This is all about forgiveness. Often when we’ve been hurt or let down, we carry those wounds with us for a long time. “Yes but,” we say, “they shouldn’t have done that.” And although it’s understandable when our hurts take a while to heal, it’s also true that we’re imprisoned by them until we can forgive. We miss an opportunity to feel freer and lighter and more in tune with God’s light. When we let go of what we hold against others, we discover that that kind act frees us too. Everybody gets a do-over. That’s a Godly idea. That’s grace.
- Ninth, let Love surprise you. William Penn famously wrote, “Let us then try what Love will do.” He was urging others to forgive rather than retaliate a wrong-doing. Strong, smart, truth-telling Lucretia Mott put it this way, “The likeness we bear to Jesus is more essential than our notions of him.” When we let Love lead, we grow into the likeness of Christ one kindness at a time. I think of Love as an active, present force—infinitely bigger than we are, one of God’s greatest qualities working within and among and through us. When we have softened hearts, Love shines through and can bring surprising changes. I’m thinking of a time when I was standing in a long line at the grocery store with probably a dozen people in front of me. Folks were irritable, looking at their phones, sighing loudly. Suddenly about halfway down the line, someone said something funny about their shoes, and the whole line erupted in laughter. We smiled and nodded and looked at all the different styles of shoes on our feet. It was funny! And when the line began to move again, we almost didn’t notice. We were still smiling. It was a good moment. Our energy had shifted for the better.
- And tenth, want—more than anything –the peace of God. Want it for yourself, want if for those you love, for strangers, for the world. When peace is truly what you value, you can’t be anything but There’s a gentleness built right into that desire. But we all know other things vie for top priority. Some people want to be right. Others want to be the expert. Still others are determined to get their turn. But choosing to be kind is an act of peace. It is also a generous act, an act of service to the world. Kindness dissolves what is hard and defensive within us and sets us free to be soft, gentle, caring and curious about the hearts of those we meet each day. This is how Isaac Penington puts it, —again, mentioning the heart: “This then is the way of redemption; to wait to feel the appearance of the light of the Spirit in the heart; and, at its least or lowest appearance, to be turned from the darkness towards it.” That right there is the seed—and the beacon—of kindness.
Both of our scripture references this week are about the choices we make and the care we’re called to show when we’re dealing with others. It’s important to consider how we clothe ourselves the verses say. Are we dressed in kindness or judgment? Are we carrying a friendly energy or a vibe that says “stay away!” Proverbs says, “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”
Paul wrote to the Colossians urging them to clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. He writes, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” It’s our choice, what we choose to put on. And it can make a big difference on the world around us.
And that’s just what we’re talking about here: Choosing to be kind clothes us with love, softening our hearts and connecting us to light of Love at the center of our being. That’s how we learn—in a practical, daily way–that the peace of Christ does truly abide with us, waiting only for a tender moment to shine freely—brilliantly, beautifully into the world.
- OT Proverbs 31: 25-26
- NT Colossians 3: 12-17