Small Things

May 31, 2014

Since he moved there in November I have visited my dad in the rest home every week, usually on Sunday afternoons. As my mom and I sit there with him, or wheel him down the hallway to the dining room, we notice the staff going about their tasks. The youngest staff are teenagers whose job is to slip in and out of rooms, refilling the residents’ plastic water cups at regular intervals. The older teens, their hair smushed unfortunately in hairnets, set the tables in the dining rooms and hoist trays out of the industrial-size fridge or cart them up and down elevators. Then there are the men and women in their twenties who are Certified Nursing Assistants, working this job as a step toward something else. They do the hands-on work, helping residents with “transfers” from bed to chair or with “ADLs” (activities of daily living) like dressing and washing. Where my dad lives, many of the staff are middle-aged women with various levels of certification who have worked there for twenty years or more. They may have gotten the job originally to help put their kids through Christian schools, but they stayed on because they enjoy the work.

What impresses me most about these people is their kindness. Regular Midwestern niceness is not enough in a nursing home; you need something stronger, tougher, more enduring—kindness. The residents are so weak and vulnerable. The man in the bed next to dad’s is rarely even conscious. He sleeps, a frail, skeletal figure, lingering in a twilight between this world and the next. The staff show kindness in dressing and undressing him every day, bringing him out to the hall for a change of scene, pulling his blankets over him when they place him back in bed. My dad is much more with-it, but he weighs two hundred pounds. Strong male aids maneuver him onto the toilet. Strong female aids heft him from his chair to the wheelchair with the help of a sturdy strap around his middle. They use kind words; they gently untwist his waistband and pull down his sweater in that brief moment when he’s standing on his weak legs, so that he’s comfortable when he sits back down. These people do simple tasks repeatedly, and I suppose they sometimes feel bored or exasperated or annoyed like anyone else in the workplace, but they have made mercy and kindness their profession. I am grateful for them.

I encounter other people’s kindnesses every day, but I realize I live in a relatively unchallenging cultural context. Midwesterners—generally speaking, caveat as you like—are kind people. After all, we get through winters together. We enjoy wide lawns and country roads and space between us, so we don’t need to get quite so annoyed at one another. We allow each other to go first at intersections. When I walk my dog, drivers pulled up to a stop sign motion me to cross. We snowblow each other’s sidewalks in the winter. We hold doors open, regardless of age, gender, or color of skin.

It’s easy to dismiss these simple civic acts as “niceness” or “being polite,” roll our eyes cynically and point out that no one gets credit for being “nice” in a context of abundance and security. I disagree. The alternatives—rudeness, disregard, unkindness—are readily available options any time, anywhere. They are fervently modeled, in fact, in our public discourse, our “news” shows, comments sections on the internet sites, entertainments full of violence and vulgarity. And in the crueler terrain of poverty and distress where unjust systems play out in real streets and neighborhoods. The person asking for money at the busy intersection holds a sign that reads “Seeking human kindness.” I believe him. So are we all.

We need kindness. It is a stay against the forces that drive toward dystopia. There is absolutely no kindness left in the world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and that is the horror of it. In the recent movie Noah, we are invited to imagine an ancient world in which all kindness has run dry. In each of these stories, the protagonists strike back at darkness with the only tools they have left: simple acts of kindness.

Kindness may seem a weak virtue, hardly suited for battling the forces of darkness. For that battle, it’s true, one needs bigger artillery as well: courage, peacemaking, sacrifice, love, justice built into the architecture of larger systems. I do notice, however, that kindness is one of the fruits of the Spirit. It seems to be on God’s list. The Greek word, chrestotes, has connotations of moral goodness, an internal disposition expressed in outward benevolence and gentleness. Several other places in the New Testament use the word chrestotes to describe the nature of God. God is kind. Perhaps this is why Jesus considered our small acts important: the mercies shown to the “least of these” in Matthew 25, the “cup of cold water” given in his name in Matthew 10. If kindness is about small things, then God cares about small things. Love is patient and kind.

In English, kindness is etymologically related to “kin.” Kindness requires empathy, a sense that we are connected to others. It requires that we recall our own times of vulnerability and powerlessness. Can we practice kindness if we have never been in pain ourselves? Or if we refuse to remember that pain?

When we are hurting, weak, vulnerable, that’s when we need kindness most, and when unkindness hurts the most. On those days, when people are nasty, pitiless, aggressive, indifferent, cruel, we remember the sting forever. But that vulnerable moment holds all it receives, so that we also remember the gentle word, the thoughtful act, the precious gift of one person saying to another: I see you, and I even see your pain.

I remember a doctor’s office receptionist I encountered two summers ago when my mother and father were both ill at once, and I was trying to navigate for the first time the bewildering world of elder care. She had taken our check-out papers before on previous visits, and I had not been especially impressed with her warmth, but on this particular day, she looked at me and apparently read the fear and bewilderment on my face. She paused, looked me in the eye, and said, “You’re doing a great job for your mom and dad.” She knew what I needed to hear, and she chose to be kind.

Probably we all do and say unkind things, thoughtlessly, never knowing the sting we have caused. But I want to be more and more a person who remembers—just in time, maybe—that we are kin, that we all need kindness, and that if I say or do a kind thing, I contribute another tiny stay against the darkness.

Small things with great love, recommended Mother Teresa. I can only muster a little love, but maybe the love part doesn’t come from me. Maybe the great love comes from a God who, in divine kindness, values the small things.

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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