by RENEE SKUDRA
On a difficult day, albeit a resplendently beautiful fall one, with autumn colors shooting their vibrant and riotous tones into the world, I felt an overwhelming sense of despair. The landlord had raised our rent almost $500/month, my Toyota had gotten smashed in a cryptic hit-and-run by an elderly woman with a beehive hairdo, the bathroom sink had decided to get stopped up once again with the bathtub joining it in unsurprising housing disharmony, and my first cousin had declared that she would never speak to me again because I didn’t empathize with her 110 degree South Florida weather. I suddenly thought about comic Robin Williams’ comment that “everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”
I was part of that metric. I picked up my phone and called one of the smartest people I know – a former science professor who had been a mentor for many years. I asked if he had a solution to obviate a tidal wave of grief and anxiety and, at that very moment, I recalled a therapist friend telling me “ask for help if you need it. Don’t delay.” I couldn’t dial quickly enough.
The advice that my teacher gave me was literally heart-stopping. “Stop focusing on yourself and lift others up. Be that rising tide that lifts all boats and stop thinking about how you’re sinking yourself.” I suddenly felt ashamed of the pity party I was so adept at throwing myself. As serendipity would have it, I had been reading one of my favorite authors – the Victorian novelist Henry James – and was almost finished with his magnum opus “The Ambassadors.” That was despite interminable interruptions from complaining family members, the Medicare Supplement people who phoned three times every day, the dog who insisted on invariably walking every hour and two successive power outages which bathed my home in darkness for 13 solid hour intervals. There, on a bookmark, was something I had written weeks ago that James had 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 mentioned this to my professor friend who agreed with the writer and reiterated powerful words about shifting the focus on self to that of others.
I needed that push or, as some would say, the epiphany of Earth-shattering insight to change my ways. Dolly Parton had a part in that, too – her saying “if people don’t have a smile, give them yours.” I spent the next 24 hours beaming at folks, handing out compliments (but heartfelt ones), driving up to Duke Energy and Spectrum trucks and telling the employees “thank you for your service.” I let shoppers in the market go ahead of me, paid for someone’s Starbucks latte and insisted that an apparently unhappy-that-he-couldn’t-find-parking person take the space directly in front of the Carolina Theater (even though it meant I had to walk three blocks from the only other place I located on a busy Saturday night. Even that was okay because my physician told me “you need to exercise”). Suddenly, the narrative became, thank you for the opportunity to do some walking because I needed to do that for my health.
I was finally on a psychological roll. My professor friend sent me an email: “Be an encourager. Give people treats. You know the way you give your Bichon Frise treats, just give people the equivalent in the form of psychologically supportive and empathic treats.” The minute I started to run and open doors for others, hand out hugs, do errands for neighbors who were medically frail and housebound, my life literally changed. I am here to testify that wonderful things happen when you circulate acts of kindness – they are magnifiers for other events.
An act of kindness sends out proverbial ripples which continue to multiply. The Swedish blogger (Henrik) that I followed had advice that buoyed me up – let other people shine, go the extra mile, be a ray of sunshine even on your darkest day. The simplicity of the advice I had been given changed the architecture of my life. Shortly thereafter, I happened upon an article by Jim Dodson, a local writer, who mentioned in an article – “The Kindness of Strangers” – that his father had told him “If you are nothing else in life, being kind will take you to wonderful places.” The funny thing about spreading kindness was that my depression dissipated. Exchanging a lens of despair for one of throwing light rays at others, gave me a way of navigating a new life which leaned strongly in the direction of hope. It wasn’t even very hard to pick up the phone and call the cousin who had kicked me to the curb. When she answered the phone, I said “I know you aren’t ever going to talk to me again, but at least know that I love you a bushel and a peck.” In one fell swoop, the pre-existing acrimony dissolved.
When I put out a huge swatch of wild bird seed for the local denizens (birds, chipmunks, squirrels), a passerby remarked “do you really need to do that?” I said, very simply, it seems like the right thing to do, to be kind if one is able. As the poet Wallace Stevens averred, “I go by going.” Kindness is something I plan on doing, and I’m grateful to be its vehicle whenever the opportunity presents.