Everything you have, every good quality in your character, (almost) every bite of food you eat, everything you consume—comes from the kindness of others.
Think about it. Just start with your own body—created by your parents, nurtured by your mother, fed by your parents, protected by your family and community. Then move outward. Your clothes. The shirt I am wearing today was made in Egypt. The pants I have on, made in India. My socks—who knows? The computer I am writing this essay on right now was made in China. The phone I use, also made in China. The food I have eaten today (even what I cooked myself) was produced, grown, and packaged by someone other than me. The car I drove to work was made in Mexico. So how much of what I have or am has to do with me? The answer is very little, extremely small.
So what of it?
Many of the people I rely on for my everyday life and comfort I will never meet. They work in shops in countries like Bangladesh, India, Egypt, and China. They have lives that I don’t know about or understand. But I rely on them everyday to have the kind of prosperity and material comfort that I so often take for granted. And I hardly give a thought to the work that they do for lower wages than I would ever accept. And this is just the physical comforts.
When I think back on all the people in my life who have supported me, loved me, encouraged me, and rescued me, I feel overwhelmed with the magnitude of the kindness of others. There are my family members, of course. Then there are teachers who did more than what was required; friends who looked out for my needs and listened to my troubles; people who I have worked with over the years; even students of mine in far off places like Egypt and India, who showed such generosity of spirit that I still glow from the care that they have given me.
Let me share one specific example. When I was a freshman at university, living in the dorms, an older lady was the “dorm mom.” She lived there in a small apartment, and her name was Mrs. Halverson. I know so little about her and her life, but remembering her kindness toward me has influenced me deeply throughout my life. Somehow, despite the hundreds of young men around me in the dorms, she took notice of me. And I mattered to her. My own personal life at that time was what you might call “dark.” I was that troubled kid who listened to heavy metal and kept his blinds closed. There were some things going on in my family life that triggered this difficult time in my life, but that is another story.
Anyway, somehow Mrs. Halverson took notice of me, and always greeted me when I was around. One day, she told me she had heard somewhere that everyone needs to hear “I love you” five times each day. From that day forward, she found a way to tell me “I love you” five times. Sometimes she would just see me on my way in or out, and would stop me and tell me that she loved me. If for some reason she didn’t see me around, she would watch for me to come home at night—which was sometimes quite late. About thirty seconds after walking into my room, the phone would ring. “I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. Goodnight Matthew.”
And this is just one example of a countless stream of people who have looked out for me, shown kindness to me, and treated me better than I deserve to be treated.
Still, what of all this?
Well, I have two suggestions for you. First, contemplate upon the kindness of others in your life—the people you know as well as the people serving you who you will never meet. Choose just one of these people—it could be a parent, friend, former teacher, or someone else—and write them a note expressing your gratitude. Do it today. Do it now. And put it in the mailbox.
Part of what I have shared here is from what we have been discussing in the university class I teach on Cultural Psychology. The reading I gave the students to introduce these ideas is written by a Buddhist lama named Geshe Jampa Tegchok. He suggests that we take a few minutes to meditate on the kindness of others. He says “the more we think about this, the more embarrassed we’ll be at thinking of ourselves as important and precious, and the more we’ll realize that, in fact, it is others who are important and precious.”
So, sit down, relax, and imagine strings connecting you to the person who made your shirt, the person who made your shoes, the person who grew the food you ate for breakfast, the teacher who made an impact, the friend who rescued you in a time of need. Imagine those strings going out in the world and connecting you to those people. Then, see what happens when you spend just ten or fifteen minutes feeling those connections.
Share a story with us of what the kindness of another meant for you or an experience you had in contemplating the kindness of others.