Strengthening the Kindness Muscle

I was watching a funny little show on TV the other day, called Sunday Morning. Jane Pauley is the host who brings together a series of common interest stories each week. One of them caught my eye this time and brought back an important memory of my early years at McGill studying for a BScN.

The story was about kindness and its importance in a world where there is an increasingly dangerous cultural and political climate focusing largely on our differences not our commonalities as humans. The story proposed that strengthening our kindness tendencies was a possible antidote. Kindness, they said was much more than niceness because it implies action in the service of another.

They went on to highlight people with a full-time commitment to kindness, which was described as a fierce tool for change. They talked about the importance of listening to others, being curious about them and learning from their lived realities. It is about understanding that “it’s not what I need, but it’s asking what can I give to help another.”

The program highlighted the work of a medical doctor who was told to put away his medical bag and stethoscope as he began to work with people on the streets. It was life-changing, he said, and highlighted the fact that being homeless means not only being poor and largely unseen but about feeling very lonely. No one says their name, he said. He talked about a foot care program that the clinic instituted. Soaking feet was the best thing that ever happened to me, he said, it’s where I learned most of the foundations for the care we provide.

At that moment I had a powerful memory that took me back to 1986 and a course with Professor Margaret Hooten in the McGill BScN program about the Foundations of Nursing where we met weekly at a shelter for Jewish Seniors. There was always a number of people, mostly men, for whom this was the highlight of their week – someone to listen to them and care about the pain in their feet.

We provided foot care and we heard their stories. Our assignment for that week was to write up the story we were told in such a way as to recognize the humanity – and the reality of that individual’s life. Looking back, I realize it was all about being with the whole person, really hearing their story, and feeling the compassion that one person can provide to another. It was being kind, generous, caring. Being at someone’s feet, said the doctor on Sunday Morning, shifts the power structure; you are compelled to look the person in the eyes; neither person can ignore or be ignored. It is a very personal and humbling experience, one that is not to be forgotten.

I am reminded by the narrator that kindness is a power we all have. We have to decide to use it whenever the opportunity arises so that the muscle is strengthened and it is always available to us – and to the world.