The Kindness Project
Ever since Tiffany contacted me about her kindness project and asked that I participate I have been reflecting on what kindness is. And is not. The first thing, it seems to me, is that kindness comes from inside – that acts of kindness are products of a state of kindness and that first and foremost one must cultivate that. The second is that kindness is not something that comes with the expectation of reciprocity – I’ll give you something and then get something back. That is a problem with charity, the easy good feeling itself undercuts the kindness. I think real acts of kindness are not so easy to execute.
I’ll give you an example. A week ago I went to visit an old colleague, also a writer, who is now in a nursing home. Another writer friend who accompanied me remembered that he liked mincemeat pies, so we had lots of fun planning to bake him a mince meat pie. I looked in the Joy of Cooking for an original recipe and found one that made twenty pies and started with two pounds of ground beef or better yet, an ox heart. We didn't do that one, but we did find a not-easy-to-locate jar of mince meat and made the pie and visited our friend.
An act of kindness you say? Maybe. Or an act of guilt. Or voyeurism. Nursing homes are not pleasant places to visit and it was deeply distressing to see my old friend, an accomplished professional and long time aspiring novelist, curled up in a fetal position on his bed in a room with no adornment but a bust of Abraham Lincoln. No books, no pictures on the wall, no color in the room. Nevertheless, he was glad to see us. At least I think he was. He was gracious even though I’m not sure he remembered who we were.
But did I want to go back? No. Making the pie was more fun than the visit. I knew with sinking heart that real kindness meant a huge leap of commitment—to visit my friend often. No one off visit and I was done. So the next time I went (Monday March 18 with Tiffany kicking me in the rear) I went alone, with potted yellow tulips. My friend was eating breakfast in the day room. When he saw the flowers he said, “They’re beautiful.” I sat down next to him and we had a lovely twenty minute conversation. I asked if I could help him make his room more pleasant – say, a bright colored blanket. “That would be nice,” he said. Then I asked about going out for a ride once a week. “Mmm.” I could see the eagerness on his face.
So now I am in the land of real kindness. We still don’t have a lot to talk about but on the drive home I realized we both come from Detroit. And my next novel is set in Detroit at a time when he was a young man. So he can tell me about Detroit in his youth. And not feel like those drives are charity. And I can get something unexpected back. A gift.