Wherever there is a human being there is an opportunity for kindness.
-Thomas Bailey Aldrich
It’s that time of year when we head to the nurseries for all varieties of flowers, plants, and seeds, and get our knees dirty planting our gardens with zeal and frenzy. Navigating jammed parking lots, we reunite with neighbors we haven’t seen since last fall emerging from their homes in getups reminiscent of Mr. McGregor of Peter Rabbit fame. We have expectations that come with our agrarian purchases and efforts – praiseworthy yards, impressive front porches, and garden harvests to come.
If you are lucky, you live next to a neighbor with an amazing green thumb who will share their garden bounty in a few months. You might even want to offer them a hand with that load of topsoil and secure a coveted spot on their favors list. This idea brings to the fore a question that has been running through my mind lately. When was the last time you engaged in an act of kindness or giving without any conditions whatsoever – that unspoken expectation for something in return? – The secret expectation you keep hidden in your psyche simply because we are conditioned towards a give-and -you- shall-receive means to an end?
I recently watched a video circulating on LinkedIn of a young man encountering a beggar a few years younger than he on the street. Instead of passing by the rough and tumble looking, cardboard sign holding sidewalk denizen, he did something I think we all ideate ourselves doing at some point in our lives – he offered his hand to his fellow man. The man, who looked as “regular” as you or I, saw to it that his hungry counterpart got his hair cut, had professional clothes to wear; they enjoyed a good meal together at an upscale bistro, and he introduced him to the owner who happened to have a position open in the kitchen. Needless to say, the former sidewalk “lounger” was overwhelmed by the compassion shown him. That is where the video and story end. We can hope that he accepted the job and worked his way up through the ranks to the house manager and someday opened his own restaurant, but why must we expect that outcome? Why not just celebrate the act of compassion the other man showed – with clearly nothing in it for him – except the simple joy of sharing lovingkindness?
I find it ironic that in a world in which we can pay for nearly everything we could ever want, kindness costs us nothing, and yet most of us struggle with this sort of economy. I want to give and do unconditionally (at least that’s what I want on my better days). But to live unconditionally and without strings attached is harder than it sounds. We have been conditioned by a world of economy, exchange, and transaction. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, and that is as deep as it goes.
Think about all the ways this give and take happens and how commonplace and acceptable it is.
- We exchange goods in hopes of a business referral.
- We feel indebted upon the receipt of a gift to return the favor, or at least send a thank-you note. (Not that this is bad!! Manners do have virtue!) But even our best-intentioned gifts can leave the recipient with an unintended debt of gratitude.
- And think about how you felt when you did not receive a thank-you note or other acknowledgment after giving a gift. Did you give that gift expecting something for your generosity?
- What about the dinner invitations you’ve extended? Are you still waiting for your guests to reciprocate?
- Have you ever sent flowers after an argument? Were you giving a gift or expecting forgiveness?
- Do you determine whether your charitable gifts are charitable enough to get rewarded with a tax deduction before you give?
- Have you ever wondered why somebody was doing something for you, wondered what was in it for them? Haven’t we all said or done something as a means to an end?
Societal norms expect us to return the favor or reciprocate in some way. It’s a convenient economy that shields us from the true and revelatory nature of genuine kindness, kindness that has the capacity to transform the suffering that all of us experience in some form into generosity and compassion. This form of kindness is costly – it requires payment in the form of first acknowledging our own weaknesses, struggles, and suffering, and then instead of growing bitter or passing our pain on to others, we offer understanding and compassion because of it.
In her book “Words Under Words: Selected Poems,” the poet Naomi Shihab Nye has written an exquisite poem titled “Kindness”. In it, she reflects on the gritty origin of kindness and how you must first lose something, see your future dissolve before you, know how desolate and lonely the landscape can be, realize that the person who lies dead next to the road once had plans and breathed just like you, and know sorrow as the deepest thing within before you can know what kindness really is. And once you do, then it is only kindness that can dwell in the deepness of your heart because kindness is the only thing that makes sense anymore.
I’ve tasted genuine kindness and I have known the depths from which it can be born. A kindness that knows no economy. A kindness that can only grow from the depths of my heart. As I plant my gardens this spring, my only expectation is one of myself – that kindness grows deep roots within me – the genuine, revelatory variety that can flourish, despite this sometimes transaction-heavy, economy of exchange world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if gardeners everywhere were nurturing this kind of bounty? Happy planting and growing.
Let your light so shine!