We experienced so many acts of kindness, especially in those early days when bad medical news seemed to dwarf anything even remotely hopeful. But there is another incidence I remember on the same scale as that of the packing up of the remnants of a little boy’s short life, and it came in the form of a former neighbor, with whom I had become very close, flying in from her new home in another state to spend a weekend with us and offer her help. Her husband had, at the end of the summer, completed his internship here and was opening his own practice in Coffeeville, Kansas…the state both he and my friend were from. So, despite having four kids of her own under the age of 5, as well as being in the middle of opening a medical office and having just moved into a new house, she found the time and the means to come and support me and see my son. Her visit, in late October by then, moved me so that it even penetrated my “PTSD-like existence,” providing a needed lift in the midst of sorrow and pain. She gave me courage and she gave me hope, much like a gift from her optimistic and cheerful way of looking at life. I have never forgotten her or the support she gave me, knowing that compassion exists as a universal and never-ending virtue, the application of which is healing and transformative by its very nature. And hers certainly was just that.
It’s true that there are many ways and means by which people can offer kind gestures to others in need, but that impulse which flows directly from one individual to another seems both instinctive and reciprocal in nature, stemming as it does from a desire to improve or make life better – or simply more tolerable – for another human being, thereby representing the ultimate act of charity. Thus it is in the service of the Golden Rule that we act when giving of ourselves in a selfless manner, such as spending time with the elderly, for example, especially one suffering from some form of dementia and perhaps bound to a nursing facility…where it is easy to become lost in the shuffle. We might be reminded in this particular circumstance that we are all eventually subject to debilitating infirmities if we live long enough, so in tendering simple acts of kindness and attention, we might consider the old saying, “There but for God (or Fate, or Karma, or Happenstance) go I.”
This adage, along with the application of the Golden Rule, illustrate just how much we are interconnected to one another in the vulnerability of our humanity, as I was able, not so long ago to observe firsthand. Just after Easter last year, my daughter’s in-laws, who had great affection for my mother, came from out of town to see her, bearing a basket filled with treats and a lovely white orchid to brighten her rather sterile room in the nursing home where she had been confined since the first of that year after an illness and a fall. I got there before them and fixed her hair and changed her clothes so when the family came, she looked fresh and had a nice visit – so much so, in fact, that I was sure she had recognized them even through the clouds of her dementia. I remember it as a good day though, ironically, it was the last time I would see her smile and hear her talk, for she died two weeks later of pneumonia. But I saw that visit then as I see it still, as a gift.
In a similar way, the giving nature of individuals can represent itself in the form of paying it forward, an act that truly embodies the notion of a random act of kindness in that the giver and the recipient don’t actually know each other. This is a form of generosity that may illustrate that sometimes kindness can actually be an act of impulse…innate and inherent in the secret hearts of us all. A friend was having breakfast in a restaurant after a yoga class when, having finished, she signaled for her check but was informed that it had already been paid. Startled, she asked by whom and learned that a couple at a nearby table had “gifted” her the meal but had already left. Since she couldn’t thank them, she decided to leave her waiter a hefty tip, committing her own random act of kindness in return. I observed something similar happen in a checkout line at the grocery wherein an elderly couple, laboriously counting out their money to pay for their purchases, were told to “Never mind – someone already took care of it.” Those of us waiting in line were left smiling at the sheer gratitude we saw on the faces of that man and his wife.
There are many forms of giving to others that can involve actual charity through an organization, a business, a religious institution or some other entity. But I think that those simple acts of kindness and compassion offered to one individual by another are like the balm in Gilead referenced in the old spiritual…a healing agent that soothes the troubles of the human spirit in the best possible way. It represents a kind of heart-to-heart experience that can be life changing and everlasting, for the giver as much as for the one on the receiving end. For the secret heart is nothing more or less than our love for and understanding of one another as we navigate through life in the selfsame leaky vessel. We are all in this together, so when someone does us a kindness, we ought to respond in kind with a grateful heart, ready and willing to pay it forward when the time comes.