While on a winter break, I’ll revisit some of my favorite stories and book reviews from More to Come. Hopefully you’ll find a new insight or something that you may have missed.
We’ve recently talked a great deal about kindness in our family, so I looked for something in the archives that would resonate. A longer version of this story about the kindnesses I received upon announcing my retirement was originally posted on January 14, 2019, under the title Kindness. I also link to three additional posts on kindness and gratitude at the end. Valentine’s Day seems to be an especially appropriate time to remember the lessons found in these posts.
I expected to hear from a number of people after announcing that I was retiring. Two decades with the same organization gave me innumerable opportunities to connect and work with people across the country and around the world. I wasn’t quite ready, however, for the nature of the notes, emails, phone calls, hallway conversations, and comments that came my way. I felt a bit like a man who wakes up in the casket at his own funeral and decides to lie there for a while just to hear people say nice things about him.
The overwhelming kindness of the remarks truly caught me off guard. That led me to think about the nature and effects of kindness. I also found quotes about kindness — sappy, inspirational, nonsensical, insightful, and more — for every occasion. My favorite, from the poet Mary Oliver, reads:
I believe in kindness. Also in mischief. Also in singing, especially when singing is not necessarily prescribed.
Kindness — like good-natured mischief and spontaneous singing — can touch our souls in unexpected ways.
I also thought not just about the nature of the notes but also about the different types of responses I received. These include:
- The “pithy and poignant” note. A new friend who prepared copy for our appeal letters sent an 11-word note that spoke volumes. Messages of kindness can be very short and to the point while carrying extraordinary power.
- The “playing against type” note. One famously cranky preservationist sent me a very gracious and thoughtful note. In my response I told this long-time friend that it was clear that his email account had been hacked and that the hacker was saying nice things about me. I suggested that if he didn’t regain control of his account quickly, I was afraid his curmudgeonly reputation would soon be in tatters.
- The “voice from the past” note. People that I’ve known professionally over the past four decades reached out to me, some of whom I had not heard from in years. I was reminded that you can never lose touch, and a voice from the past can add context and richness to a time that can be bittersweet at best.
- The “small acts of kindness” note. There is a whole inspirational industry built up around “small acts of kindness.” Small acts have ripple effects that we can’t even imagine. You never know who is watching your actions and where the ripples will reach.
Kindness often gets a bad rap for being soft. My experience is that it is possible to be kind and yet make the very difficult decisions required as we move through work and life. Unfortunately, many people value so-called leaders who are never kind, granting a type of permission to bully those with whom they disagree. John Steinbeck noted these contradictions when he said,
“It has always seemed strange to me… the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”
As we deal with turbulent times, I am reminded that history has leaders who can show us a better way forward. Through the Great Depression and World War II, few dealt with more challenges than Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yet he recognized what mattered when he said, “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”
I am very grateful for the many kindnesses shown to me over the years. Having been the recipient of extraordinary kindnesses as I retired, I know the positive effect kind words and gestures can have on an individual. Be kind to one another. It matters.
More to come…
NOTE: I have always found that kindness and gratitude are linked. Those who practice one tend to also practice the other. If you are interested in exploring further, here are other More to Come posts examining kindness and gratitude that you may find of interest.
- Be there (December 7, 2020)
- Making time for gratitude (December 28, 2020)
- The discipline of gratitude (January 4, 2021)