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This place matters

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Sermon: The Kindness Conspiracy

The Kindness Conspiracy

Hi. If we've not met, I'm Brigid Brockway, and I've been a member of this congregation about four years now; occasionally they let me speak, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to speak to you all today.
You know when I picked “kindness” as the topic for this message, I didn't really realize how cliched the idea seemed. I mean, kindness? Isn't that kind of basic? We learned this one in Kindergarten... isn't it time we moved on to something bigger? Well yes, kindness is a pretty elementary subject, but I've been thinking a lot about it, and I think kindness is just about the most powerful force for good in the world. Greater, maybe even than love, because kindness is love in action. Love is inert without kindness to bring it to life. Without love there is no kindness, and without kindness, there is no love.
As most of you know, I'm a logophile, or lover of words. So naturally, when I sat down to write this, the first thing I did was check out the etymology of the word kind. The word, which The Online Etymology Dictionary defines as “deliberately doing good to others,” comes from an Old English word meaning natural, native, or innate. I think that's appropriate. Imagine a world in which kindness is everybody's default state of being. I don't know if we're born innately kind. If you look at it from a primarily evolutionary perspective, humans are probably innately pretty violent. They say the law of surviving in the jungle is kill or be killed. Luckily, we don't live in the jungle. In our world, I think the best way to survive is to love as relentlessly as we can, and here's why I think that.
When I was a kid, my church's pastor father Lou Miola, said in a sermon that every action we take either builds up or tears down the kingdom of God on earth. He said, “Whenever you're deciding on an action, ask yourself: 'am I building the kingdom?'”
Unitarian Universalists don't talk a lot about gods or kingdoms, but let me put it another way. Everything we do creates the world in which we have to live. The world in which our loved ones live, the world in which our children will have to live. We never know how much, and we never know how far our actions will reach, but every single thing we do, every single action we take, changes the world; changes the course of history. Every day.
I would like to ask Bob to stand up please. Bob recently participated in an Out of the Darkness Community Walk to benefit the American Society of Suicide Prevention. Bob collected roughly 1,100 for the charity, even though his largest donation was only $50. The smallest was $1.
The amounts of money, the acts of kindness, were small. But all of those donations together, that thousand dollars, that money could be on its way to saving a life as we speak. Brendan McWalters is one individual who credits the Out of the Darkness walks with helping save his life. In a testimonial he gave at one of the walks he said that when he first attended a walk in 2005, he was very actively suicidal. He said when he heard people from the organization talk about how “we walked out of the darkness and into a solution … into a way where we didn't have to think that way anymore; I really knew that was what I really wanted in my life.” Thousands of people tell the same story about attending walks or seeing ads or billboards for Out of the Darkness and getting the hope they needed to carry on. Now, Out of the Darkness has the funding to reach a few more people, give a few more people hope: All because Bob decided to do something kind, and asked the people around him to do the same.
But giving money's not the only way to live kindness. In this economy, many of us are already giving as much money as we can afford to give, or maybe we can't afford to give at all. But that's okay because some of the best acts of kindness don't cost us a thing.
Last week, I visited the New Vision UCC church here in Canton. It's a great congregation. As Andy's always saying, they're pretty much Unitarians who really like Jesus. We had their pastor come and talk to us a couple of months back and near as I can tell, that congregation is just as kind and magnanimous as their pastor is. Now last week I met a woman, a member of the congregation who regularly donates something that doesn't cost her a cent. She takes plastic grocery bags, cuts them into strips, and knits them into blankets for the homeless. These blankets are lightweight, weatherproof, less prone than regular blankets to dirt and bed bugs, warm, and surprisingly pleasant to the touch. She makes them, and then other members of the congregation who go downtown to feed the hungry every Sunday hand the blankets out to homeless people there. She told me that she works on the blankets at night when she's just sitting around watching TV. The woman, just by sitting on her couch and playing with trash, might be saving somebody from freezing to death. Or maybe providing a little comfort to someone who doesn't have many comforts. Maybe giving hope to someone who was beginning to lose faith in a society that seems ever more determined to pretend he or she isn't there.
Okay, so but what if you don't have the time or crafty inclination to do something like that. Fear not. Great feats of kindness can be performed even more simply than that. So I used to work at a Caribou Coffee up in Cleveland. It was one of those work environments that was just really positive. For whatever reason, the staff and clientele just joined up to create a perfect storm of kindness, so that it was the sort of place that everybody – even the employees (even those of us who went in at 5am) – wanted to be. One day, a customer sent the staff this beautiful, eloquent letter that none of us expected. It was from this customer Fred* (or as we called him, dark roast in a travel mug). Fred was a really cool guy who came in after his overnight shift stocking the shelves at the Borders next door, and we liked him a lot. He was really smart, hilarious, really fun to discuss – and argue – literature with. Actually claimed Hemingway wasn't a misogynist, but I didn't hold it against him. Anyway, Fred had a reasonably severe case of cerebral palsy. He could walk, but required canes and had a pronounced hunch. His speech was slow and difficult to understand and his movements were often spastic. He was one of those people, though, who has a personality so much bigger than his disability that you barely notice it. Or so we thought. In his letter, he wrote about a life of pain, of disability. About living through surgeries and indignities and to add insult to injury, people treated him like a freak. People assumed he had cognitive impairments and so spoke to him as if he were a child. People stared, but pretended not to stare. Even when people were nice to him, he said, they weren't really seeing him, they were just doing a nice thing for this poor disabled person. But, he said in his letter, the staff at our coffee shop made him forget all that. He said that the time that he spent with us made him feel like he was experiencing what it was like to be everyone else, because that's how we treated him. Not like he was invisible, or stupid, or an inconvenience, or a pity, but like he was a real live human. Well after we were all done crying, we were kind of baffled. We all knew Fred and liked him a lot, but none of us remembered doing anything for him that would warrant such an outpouring. We were kind to him, sure, but we were kind to everybody. And I think the fact that we were kind to everybody was what made the real difference to him. If we'd been kind just to him, and not to everyone else, it would have been only because of his disability. We'd just have been more people in the long line of folks who put on a show of being nice to him out of pity.
The kind of kindness that existed inside that coffee shop? It didn't cost anybody anything. You memorize somebody's coffee order. You ask Small Cappuccino guy about his cat, you offer to carry Large Espresso Mom's cup to the table because she's got her hands full. In fact, it would have cost us a lot, in that environment, not to be kind. We had this really pleasant workplace and everybody got along really well. To throw a wrench in it by being a jerk, well that would be cutting off your nose to spite your face.
I don't know how that particular coffee shop got that way – it was like that when I found it. I suspect it was an intentional ploy by a couple of relentlessly pleasant staff members who were there when I started, but it kept on being that pleasant even after those staff members were gone. I guess once it got started, their whole kindness conspiracy just took on a life of its own.
When I was younger, one of my favorite passages from the bible was Romans 12:18-20.
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
I think about that now and I think Paul didn't have that quite right. Being kind to someone for the purpose of upsetting them isn't being kind at all. It's being fake. I don't want to live in a world where people are all nice on the outside but committing horrible acts of sadism on me in their heads. How about being kind to your enemy because you want to live in a world where people are kind to their enemies? How about being kind to people because you want to live in a world where you don't have any enemies? Hating people is hard work and little spots of meanness in our hearts tend to spread. Now there's a fine line between loving your enemy and laying down so that they can walk all over you. I was actually talking to my mom about this yesterday. My mom's about the friendliest lady in the world and probably hasn't had an enemy since she was ten. Of course there are people that drive her nuts. But she once told me her tip to dealing with those folks. She said you just have to put the blinders up.
Blinders are little leather flaps that are placed near a horse's eyes that keep the horse from being distracted by the things next to or behind her. Now “living with blinders on” is a metaphor some people use to describe a state of ignorance or foolishness, basically, to remain oblivious by ignoring important facts. But my mom never said to live with blinders on – just to put them on sometimes when you need help moving forward. Put them up to keep from looking back at the ways the person has wronged you. Put them up to keep from thinking of all the ways that person is harming you right now. That doesn't mean ignore the bad things about the person. It doesn't mean ignore potential dangers. It just means that sometimes a person or a relationship is so difficult, or a history you have with somebody so ugly, that your only option is to keep your eyes in front, focusing on how you can have a kind relationship of at least mutual respect from here on out. It might not work. Your enemy might never stop finding new ways to make your world less pleasant. But I think that if you're that focused on being kind, that relentless in your pursuit of positivity, you might be able to push the meanness to the periphery, keep yourself warm in the kindness of the bubble you've created, even if your enemy chooses to remain out in the cold. I don't know if it's always possible, but I can tell you this: my mom's got no enemies, so she's doing something right. I can tell you this too: she once told me that every time she has a tough decision to make, she thinks of Father Lou's sermon many years ago, and she asks herself “Am I building the kingdom?”

Previous Sermons:
Last Year's Thanksgiving (I've since been told that all my sources on Squanto's motivations were wrong, but hey. I'm a pontificator, not a professor).

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