Those moments

The kindness of hospital staff made post-op pain more bearable for Matt and others. Children's National Medical Center, Washington, DC, April 2014

The kindness of hospital staff made post-op pain more bearable for Matt and others.
Children’s National Medical Center, Washington, DC, April 2014

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”   –  George Saunders

There’s nothing at all wrong with acting in ways that are sensible, reserved, and mild.  But there are times when such demeanor is the result of fear.  Fear of getting involved, fear of engendering expectations of future solicitude, fear of being harmed in real or imaginary ways by people of whom we feel unsure.

I’ll bet there are none of us who cannot remember seeing, or being, a school-age child who was treated unkindly by peers.  When I look back on the times that persecuted person was me, I remember with tremendous respect those who stood apart from the crowd by refusing to capitulate to mob psychology; the ones who were kind to me for no reason at all, perhaps even catching a bit of jeering themselves in doing so.

When I remember standing by and saying nothing while others were being mistreated, I agree with Saunders; those are among the moments in my past that I most regret.  But the fear of being kind extends far past the school years.  In a world where stranger danger is not just a phrase we teach our kids, it can be a dilemma to know when and how to show kindness to a suffering person in a way that is not harmful to them or us.

But as the saying goes, “hard cases make bad law.”  For every situation where we may feel legitimate reservations about reaching out in kindness, there are dozens more where safety is not the issue; where we are just too tired or preoccupied to concern ourselves with people who may require time and energy we’d rather save for our own interests.  It’s true that one can be easily overwhelmed by the magnitude of need around us, and we could easily wear ourselves out (as some do) trying to help everyone but ourselves.

However, looking at my own life and many around me, I think most of us tend to err in the other direction.  Sad, really, since thoughtful kindness is a self-sustaining practice that almost always yields high returns on investment, for ourselves and everyone around us.

As we face daily situations at work, home and elsewhere, may we hope and pray for the wisdom to know when it’s time to go beyond sensible, mild reserve, and take a risk — even a small one — to make a difference in the life of a person who is hurting.

One year ago today:

The most effective technique


  1. Good morning, Julia! You brought up several very good points.
    I tend to under-react, but on the other hand, I’m like you in that I get through the crisis and then feel the emotions afterward (I think you said something like that once). On the other hand, hanging back to observe has caused me to miss moments when I think I should have stepped in and maybe even made a scene.
    To another point, my cousin Bradley has ever remained my hero because once when another cousin and friends were giving me a hard time for not smoking, he just quietly said, “she doesn’t have to smoke,” and put an end to the whole discussion, just like that.

    • WOW, what a perfect verbal rescue by Bradley. We should all have such champions when we are being harassed unfairly. I think we’ve all had times when we hesitate and later second-guess ourselves, as well as those when we jump in impulsively and later regret it. It’s a fine line to walk, for sure. I have noticed that sometimes in a crisis it’s like something in my brain clicks to a different channel and I think fairly logically until it’s over and then it all just hits me. Maybe that’s just a basic survival instinct.

  2. singleseatfighterpilot

    In a continuation of my last comment on the Sept 16 blog, the sample group of 20538 individuals (from the article cited in red) should prove to be much more representative than a sample group of only 45 individuals.

    • Yes, that was quite a sample. In all the abstracts I’ve read, I rarely see ones with that large of a group.

  3. bobmielke

    There’s an elderly man who eats breakfast each morning at my favorite McDonald’s. I developed an attitude when I saw him giving the counter workers a hard time for asking him if he wanted something extra added to his order, pancakes with his “Big Meal” for example. He went through this routine every morning, getting some kind of satisfaction shaking up the worker. I resented that but decided to befriend him instead of chastise his actions. It turned out to be a winning decision for me as he no longer upset me each time he went through his routine.

    • Bob, that’s a good example of the old saying “be kind to people who don’t deserve it, because they probably need it the most.” Maybe your kindness will rub off on him. I wonder if he knows that sometimes employees are required to “suggestive sell” every customer and will get marked down on reviews if they don’t. This eventually happened to me when I worked in airline reservations; they started pressuring us to suggest rental cars, hotels and first class tickets. When they started telling us we had to ask twice even when people said no, I had a real problem with doing that as I found it just insulted the customers. In any case, maybe the man should take his complaints to management and leave the staff alone. But I still think he needed and appreciated your being kind to him. Isn’t it funny how sometimes once we get to know a person, we see them in a different light? Thanks for sharing your story.

      • bobmielke

        I’ve dealt with a lot of high ranking brass in my lifetime. In the Air Force it was officers up to general. In civilian life as a troubleshooter I dealt with plant managers and plant maintenance supervisors. All wanted things fixed yesterday. Once I earned their respect & trust I could do my job efficiently. Before that happened I had to butt heads with ranking managers. It was a stressful job.

        • I can imagine it would be stressful. I sometimes have to remind Jeff to leave his commander mentality at work 😀 because I think it would be really easy to get used to having efficient co-workers who knew how to deliver quality work done yesterday or even earlier. Unfortunately efficiency has never been my strong suit so Jeff gets lots of chances to practice patience with Matt and me. We had a friend who was a Navy man that went on to civilian contract work for the Navy, and he had lots of funny stories about the times he had to “butt heads” with people in command who were new to the job and didn’t realize what they were asking for sometimes. There used to be a very ancient cartoon where a big burly guy walks into a taxidermy shop and throws a big fish on the counter and says “I want you to stuff this fish, and make it look like a bird!” Jeff and I have laughed many times about what a perfect parody that is, of how often people demand the equivalent by asking the impossible. Whenever I feel as if his expectations for me are a bit too high, I remind him not to ask me to stuff the fish and make it look like a bird!

          • bobmielke

            I had to laugh at your parody because I worked in electronics maintenance and used to get told I had to fit 5 gallons of beef stew into a 4 gallon can all the time. Managers lack a certain understanding of the laws of nature. LOL

            • I guess that’s how impossible things get done sometimes, like the recent post I had about Henry Ford. But I’d hate to be the one asked to spin straw into gold (to borrow from another famous story about high expectations)!

  4. If we had more kindness in the world…there would fewer wars.
    Blessings, dear Julia. 🙂

    • Thank you Merry! We’ll keep working on increasing the cumulative global kindness index. Who knows, it might make a difference to a few people even if not to everyone.

  5. If we could commit but one tenth of the example of Saint Mother Teresa to another, it could be life changing for each-the giver and receiver.

    • Alan, I agree. Mother Teresa was an example to people of all faiths, all over the world. She was a living demonstration of letting light shine into the darkness.

  6. raynard

    Julia, We got bad news the other day and today it was alittle bit better. Concerning my wife’s aunt. She has pressure on her brain from the blood vessels not getting oxygen to it. My wife was told instead of opening up her head to relieve the pressure, the dr’s might be able to go through her neck.With my aunt’s age and health comes into play. My wife was told there is a one percent chance her aunt might have another stroke.Prayer along with talking to the dr’s in person and my wife. Bottom line what is best for my aunt according to God’s will.Be blessed

    • Raynard, thank you for sharing this prayer request with us. I will be praying and I’m sure many of the readers will pray along with us. Please keep us posted. I know you and your wife have been so involved in her care. Blessings to you for your concern for her.

  7. MaryAnn

    Wise words, my dear. I continue to want to bring “kindness” closer to home. Words are powerful like you shared, making the normal, commonplace things happy & leaving others feeling worthwhile. (Not sure I am communicating my thoughts clearly.) I recently shared my 3×5 card stating: “Kindness is Contagious” with a 9 year old girl. She decorated it with stickers & put it in her backpack. I had told her that card was on my mirror & she wanted to have it on hand at school.

    • MaryAnn

      This photo of Matt brings to mind how he adds such joy wherever he goes. So, I thinking the young children & their parents love spending time with him.

      • Aw, that is so nice! I appreciate your ability to look at him (and us) through the eyes of love.

    • Mary Ann, I love thinking of that girl with your card at school, all decorated with stickers! Many people may see and be inspired by it. Kindness really is contagious. I have noticed that when I take the time to let others merge or change lanes in traffic, I seem to see others doing it too. I don’t know whether we are “catching the spirit” from each other, or just noticing it more – either way it’s great!

  8. Julia, a little kindness goes a long way! 🙂 I love the quote by Charles Kuralt, “The everyday kindness of the back roads more than makes up for the acts of greed in the headlines.” I see much tenderness in the photo.

    • Sheila, I think he’s right. I think you are right too. 🙂 A lot of genuine caring goes on in hospitals, much of it on the emotional level.

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