Be kind

While walking in my neighborhood the other day, on practically every street, I became aware of  the presence of kindness. I had noticed the kindness before — this neighborhood is full of people walking or riding bikes or skating down the street or sitting on a porch, and they always speak to one another.

But on this day, the kindness felt more purposeful. I saw a hand-painted sign in someone’s living room window. “Be kind,” it said in large letters, and next to the word “kind” was a large red heart.

Down the block, in somebody else’s front yard, there was a banner showing pictures of a doctor, a school teacher, a nurse, a sanitation worker, a delivery truck driver, a fireman and a policewoman. Beneath these pictures was this message: “Essential workers, thank you for keeping our community strong!”

On another street there was a flag in the yard that read: “Throw kindness around like confetti.”

Soon enough, near somebody’s front door, I saw one of those ubiquitous posters mounted amid shrubbery. “In this house, we believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, No Human Is Illegal, Science Is Real, Love Is Love, and Kindness Is Everything.”

These signs lifted my spirits out of the flatness of these pandemic days — almost a year’s worth of them so far. More particularly, they reminded me of the weeklong winter storm here a couple of months ago – the most powerful snow and ice event in Austin, Texas, in 50 years – and all those heroic people who were moved to set out into the 8-degree temperatures just to be helpful to somebody. One man went in his souped-up truck on the first day of the event simply to get a Mountain Dew and a pack of cigarettes, and instead spent the whole week using his towing cable to pull almost 500 cars out of ditches and to drive stranded people with no heat to emergency shelters where they could get warm again. A cook who works in the kitchen of a middle school opened her own kitchen so that neighbors could line up for breakfast tacos and hot coffee. A local rapper assembled a half-dozen drivers and promised to cover all their costs to respond to hundreds of messages that he was getting from families stuck and running out of resources in houses with no power and no water. Essential supplies, medicines, baby formula and diapers got delivered, and the rapper wrote on Facebook: “No babies going hungry while I exist.” Activists, nonprofits, churches, people came together and threw kindness around like confetti.

None of us can look at the words “Kindness is everything” and discern whether the owner of the sign in front of the house is a Presbyterian or a Buddhist or, for that matter, perhaps a post-Christian who gave up creeds and confessions but nonetheless still cares profoundly about people and the world they live in. As Frederick Buechner wrote in “The Clown in the Belfry,” kindness “is not by a long shot the same thing as holiness, [but] kindness is one of the doors that holiness enters the world through, enters us through — not just gently kind but sometimes fiercely kind.” I love that!

Henry James gave some profound advice to his brother’s son. “Billy,” he said, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

I love that, too! I’m thinking about putting a sign in my front yard. “First of all, kindness. But secondly, kindness. And finally, and most importantly, kindness!”

Ted WardlawTheodore J. Wardlaw is president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.