Endless Echoes of Kindness

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak but their echoes are truly endless.”–Mother 

Teresa

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It is Saturday morning, and I was once more at Ritter Park for my weekly run.  Arriving a bit later in the morning than originally planned, the sun had burned off most of the fog, and the temperature was beginning to rise.  Early morning exercisers were chatting and/or packing up vehicles in the parking lot as late morning exercisers began disembarking from their vehicles.  It reminded me of shift changes from long ago when I once worked at a fast food restaurant. 

Sweat came easily in the August heat, and my breathing quickly became more rapid. I felt my pace slowing–although, to be perfectly honest, I don’t run particularly fast on any given day. My desire to be here at an earlier time added further negativity to my mindset. Nonetheless, in spite of part of my mind urging me to quit, I continued on towards the goal I had set for myself at the onset.

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Prior to driving to the park, my day had not begun auspiciously.  A glass framed picture had randomly fallen off the wall, crashed onto the kitchen floor, taking with it a glass candle from the counter below it.  I was upset because the picture contained one of my favorite quotes, had been framed, and given to me by one of my sisters.  The clean-up took quite a bit of time, only to be followed by another larger item uncontrollably breaking in our main bathroom, sending me into a temporary river of uncontrolled tears as I wondered what else could go wrong.

Ahead on the path, I observed a man walking three dogs. Two of the three pooches were  incredibly large–I am not certain of the breed, perhaps Great Danes.  The other dog was tiny, made even smaller looking by its companions. Drawing closer to the dog walker, he kindly stepped off the crushed pebbled path with his dogs, and I wished him a “Good Morning.”

“Good morning to you.  I hope you have a great jog.”

His words were like magic beans as I felt my energy suddenly seem to grow.  I could have a great jog–no matter the pace.  Plus, given my slower stride, I had more time to take in the trees with their whispered leaf secrets, listen to the creek alongside the path gurgling its story of travels, and I had enough breath to pay forward encouragement to others.  Ultimately, the stranger’s moment of kindness positively impacted the rest of my slow, but steady run, and I was able to run the length of my modest distance goal.

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“As much as we need a prosperous economy, we also need a prosperity of kindness and decency.”–Caroline Kennedy

Sitting down a bit later for a bite to eat, I fired up my laptop and opened up a news app.  Scanning through one depressing headline after another, I began to notice the positive vibes from the morning run beginning to wane.  It seemed like the entire world, including our own country, could benefit from more acts of kindness and generosity–which made me curious.  Were there any tangible benefits of kindness?  I clicked off the disheartening news feed and began my research.

According to the Mayo Clinic, as well as several other leading research hospitals, kindness increases your levels of energy and instantly boosts your mood–so that effect of that man’s words weren’t my imagination.  Offering simple gestures of kindness increases one’s self-esteem, sense of empathy, and compassion.  Kindness has been shown to increase life span.  Furthermore, kindness decreases blood pressure, but increases levels of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone.  

In the brain, kindness decreases cortisol, a stress-inducing hormone, but increases serotonin and dopamine which in turn improves your sense of well-being and feelings of satisfaction.  Acting or receiving kindness also enhances endorphins, the brain’s natural painkillers.  Practicing kindness also reduces stress, anxiety, depression, and boosts the immune system.  I was already feeling better just reading about kindness as opposed to how I felt reading the news.

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“Kindness costs nothing.” Irish proverb

Psychologists and sociologists also note that kindness is contagious.  It has a ripple effect.  In fact, studies indicate that if you receive a kind word, gesture, or act, you are more than likely to pay it forward to another person as I found myself doing at Ritter–offering words of encouragement to other runners and walkers with whom I encountered.  In a world in which social media continuously hawks wares of the latest, greatest, and always pricey health supplement, here’s one, tried and true, scientifically supported method that will not empty your bank account: kindness.

I am but one small voice in a world filled with thunderous voices and even louder, enticing distractions. Answers to global, national, and local problems, I do not have.  What I do have is the ability to act kindly.  If each person reading my words offered one or two acts of kindness every day to others with whom they encounter, and they in turn did the same, then they did the same . . . .  Like ripples traveling down the Ohio River in the wake of one boat, what an effect those acts of kindness might have.

Take more time to notice when people smile; speak kind words; open the door for you; allow you to enter a crowded lane of traffic on a backed-up commute route; or, simply offer to help you. Notice, and pay those actions forward.  Rather than feeding your soul with the negative loop of blaring headlines with the motto, “if it bleeds, it leads,” and the frenetic diversions of screens, focus instead on the precept, “if it’s kind, it’s aligned”–aligned with health, wellness, positivity, and most of all peace–for you and the recipient. 

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Sun Kissed Stranger

“I cannot do all the good that the world needs.  But the world needs all the good that I can do.”–Jana Stanfield

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I was walking into a local coffee shop as I typically do nearly every Saturday morning.  It was one of those delightful early spring mornings overflowing with abundant sunshine that enlivened the brisk air.  New green grass stretched through the manicured town patches after its long winter hibernation while newly formed flowering buds and blossoms bobbed and bobbled to the rhythm of the breeze.  

Inhaling, I slowed my typical hasty pace and felt a smile forming in response to all the sensory overload.  Absorbing the glow of my surroundings, I noticed a few people, in spite of the morning chill, sitting on benches, faces tilted towards the luminescence.  Visages, unknown to me, radiating with the joy of appreciation after dreary days of darkness.

On the right side sat a young woman most likely around the age of my daughter–early to mid twenties.  Short, flaxen hair, tucked neatly behind her ears, her face wiped clean of any makeup except for lipstick, the shade of spring tulips.  Tall and curvy, she wore a lavender spaghetti strap shirt that struck me as a bit underdressed for the morning crispness, but what did I know–I am nearly always cold. Chin thrust high, eyes shut, a close-lipped smile across her face.  She seemed happy, content, and at ease.  How lovely, I thought, as I walked past her and on into the coffee shop.

It was only when I walked out of the coffee shop that I noticed what lay at the youthful feet of the woman.  There was an overstuffed worn backpack with a rather faded and worn water bottle inserted into one side of the bag that she heaved it upward in one practiced swoop.  Then, with much effort, she picked up another bag and what appeared to be some sort of walking stick.

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“Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.”–Camille Pissarro

Was she a hiker?  Maybe, but she was wearing a spaghetti strap shirt, which didn’t strike me as hiking apparel for this time of year.  Besides, if she was a hiker, why would she be in-town?  I tried to put the pieces together and kept coming up short.  As I neared my car, I looked across the street, and I watched her begin to amble away from the community patio, moving westward, the opposite direction of where I would be traveling. Her shuffle and bent back stabbed at my heart.  Then, as I took one last glance at her, with the sun on her bare shoulders, she paused, straightened her posture, tucked stray strands of hair behind her ears, threw back her shoulders, and determinedly continued moving on.

 Who was she?  What was her story?  Where was she headed?  Why was she walking around with a backpack, much less alone?  Was she okay?  Did she have family and friends who loved her?  On and on my mind spun with the worry of a mother.  

Then, it occurred to me that I hadn’t truly seen her entire circumstance until she was walking away, and yet I did nothing.  I could have bought her a cup of coffee, a breakfast sandwich, a bottle of water, a piece of fruit, or something, yet I took no action.  Why hadn’t I been more observant?  Why hadn’t I taken time to check on her?  I felt an onslaught of self-criticism and disappointment.

My imagination was certainly getting the best of me.  There could have been numerous valid reasons for her carrying such a heavy load.  She could have been traveling solo, visiting random places off the beaten path.  Perhaps she was a university student heading home for the weekend, but why would she have a walking stick?  Maybe she was training to hike a big trail, such as the Appalachian Trail.  On the flip side, however, there were as many unfortunate circumstances that could have caused her to be so overburdened. I could not then, and still haven’t, been able to shake this young woman’s image.

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“Love calls us to look upon anyone and say: You are a part of me I do not yet know.”–Valarie Kaur

Since that encounter, I have often thought about this unknown female.  I have asked myself repeatedly why I didn’t pay closer attention upon first seeing her as well as wonder why I can’t forget her image. What lesson was I to glean from this chance sighting?  Then I read an essay in which the author’s main point seemed to say that it is the very people about whom we wonder that fosters our capacity for compassion, empathy, greater understanding, and sometimes even prompts us to take action for others for whom we see as different within our community and/or the world.  She (the author) suggested that by “seeing others as part of us we do not yet know,” we can begin to stop the cycle of separateness.

While the author’s vision was/is highly aspirational, it nonetheless was/is a catalyst for personal reflection.  Reflecting upon my own actions, I’d like to think I am open-minded and compassionate; however, there are still multiple ways in which I have failed to see others as part of me, to share another’s pain, grief, or dared to understand their seemingly self-absorptions.  In fact, some of my most vociferous and worst behaviors often occur while driving.  However, I have also been known to be guilty of a condescending look, a sarcastic thought, or even in my ability to look the other way.  While I can soften the blow and claim that I am a human being, having a human moment, it doesn’t make my actions in those moments any better, and it also doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t work on eliminating, or at the very least, reducing them.

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“Perspective is the way we see things when we look at them from a certain distance and it allows us to appreciate their true value.”–Rafael E. Pino

My lesson to learn, at least as I presently reflect upon it, is a reminder of what I know to be true as an educator.  Every person starts as a child of someone–a symbol of hope and promise for the future.  Each child is part of a family, whether known or not, a being of a community, and a citizen of the world–the same as which we all began.  While I will never know the story of the unknown young lady, she is a part of the same humanity as me.

If the human collective could be thought of as one large web, my life would only be one of the hydrogen or oxygen atoms forming a drop of dew on one strand glistening in the early morning light alongside all of the other droplets.  If each orb of dew were a family, each uncrossed part of strand were a community, the full length of each individual strand would be a county, and the entire web would be the world, the resiliency of the web’s ability to support all of  dew drops on the strands, as well as to sustain life, depends on the integrity of each strand.  The strength of the web’s silk depends upon the bonding of various atoms to form the proteins forming the web in the first place.  If one part of the web is damaged, it must quickly be rebuilt, or the entire web will cease to exist.  To take this analogy one step further, those atoms making up the dew drops at the top of the web may perceive the green tips of grass, while those at the bottom may only discern the brown of dirt–and yet, no matter their view of the world, they all belong to the same web.

I pray that my thoughts and actions more regularly reflect the fact that every person is part of the same web of life as me.  When my brain deems someone as “another,” may I begin to habitually remember with each encounter that they are part of me that I may not yet know, and their existence matters.  I would do well to see the world from their position on the web. While it is overwhelming to think of repairing the entire web of the world, I can begin to repair, foster, and reshape my thinking and interactions within my own communities. I may not be perfect in my efforts, as the story of the young woman illustrates, but with each shortcoming, I can likewise use it as a reminder to try again.

As seen on Instagram at MyLife ( Formally Stop, Breathe, Think)

It Only Takes a Spark: Words Ignite

“Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.”–Samuel Johnson

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Many of my recollections are beginning to take on a dream-like quality, such as the time I was home with Madelyn, our daughter, who was a toddler at the time.  Maddie was sick with a virus.  Continuously, I trotted Maddie to the bathroom, so she could throw up or upstairs to change her diaper.  It seemed impossible that a human so small could continuously produce so much vomit and repeatedly fill diapers.

Things had calmed momentarily, and we were cuddled up together on the couch, when I could feel her stomach begin its heavings.  On instinct, I began my rapid try-not-to-jar-her trot, but still boot-scoot-hurry to the bathroom, so Maddie could once more throw up.  Unfortunately, I could tell there was no stopping the oncoming rush of fluid.  I halted at the kitchen sink, the closest receptacle I could think of, and held her tiny, shaking body there, as she retched into the sink.  (Not the most sanitary choice, I know, but I chalk it up to sleep deprivation.)

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That’s when I felt the primal niggle.  My brain had noticed something important.  Glancing out the kitchen window, I saw flames spewing forth from the roof of our neighbor’s home.  Orange, red, blue, and yellow flames licked hungrily at the sky.  Black ashes rimmed with orange and red sparks soared toward our house.  I am sure if this had been a movie, the camera would have zoomed in on my widening eyes as the recognition of what was happening began to sink in.  

Fortunately, our neighbor’s were not harmed, their house, though damaged, was repairable, and our house was fine.  The sparks fell silently like dark, angry snowflakes, and without fuel, their brightly burning edges dwindled on the gray concrete on our driveway. 

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As a teenage girl, I loved the song, “Pass It On.”  

“It only takes a spark/ to get a fire going/ and soon all those around/ can warm up to its glowing/That’s how it is with God’s love . . .you want to pass it on.”–Kurt Kaiser

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Words are sparks.  Tiny, miniscule notations of black and white either written or unleashed as phonemes by the tongue, teeth, and lips of a speaker. Eyes or ears take in the message.  Brain receives the message, attaches it to the current mental scaffolding of the reader or listener, and the process of comprehension and interpretation begins.  Input, analysis, and potentially, output.  Information computed, more sparks formed, knowledge is available to pass on.

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Words can be exhilarating.  Finding just the right words increases one’s ability to express a more precise and exact message.  Communication, I would argue, can be down right intoxicating.  Babies can spend countless moments babbling for pure pleasure. Once babies  grasp a few words, however, and realize that those few intonations can command the attention of another human, they want more.  Like a fire blazing in the hearth, the flames of linguistic command demand more fuel in their desire to communicate and exert some measure of control.

The birthplace of Pearl S. Buck, Hillsboro, WV.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the birthplace of Pearl S. Buck.  The site itself was closed, but as I stood along the old homestead’s fence line, I imagined Pearl as a baby within those walls.  As I understand it, Buck and her family lived in that home for only a few months.  Nonetheless, my inner narrator could envision her mom singing to her as diapers were changed, and I could hear the voices of both parents talking to baby Pearl throughout the day.  Her parents could not have known that one day Pearl would become a prolific writer, winning both a Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Peace Prize for the way her writing promoted empathy, compassion, and understanding. They were simply passing on to their daughter the power of communication, and through their ultimate missionary work, modeling beneficial ways words can be used.

Like the floating sparks of the long ago house fire, ashes can soar fiery red, greedily seeking fuel for which to consume, or they can burn down into a pile of harmless ash.  In fact, an accumulation of ash, such as that left over from burning wood in a hearth, can be used as fertilizer for plants as it is full of lime, potassium, and other trace minerals that promote plant production.  Likewise is the potential for the messages we speak and write–fuel for the fire or fertilizer for nourishment.

Tweet. News. Memo. Email. Instagram. Facebook. Snapchat. Tik Tok. Rumors. Innuendo. Gossip. Reporting. Posting. Blog. Website. Novel. Novella. Fiction. Nonfiction.  The list goes on.  Big words. Little words. Powerful words. Meaningless words. Hurtful. Helpful. Salacious. Compassionate. Implication. Understanding. There is no end in the ways in which words can be conveyed.  

All of us contain a divine, expressive spark, a creative candle intended to light our path and that of our fellows.”–Julia Cameron

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It’s not only the words, but the intent behind those words that has power.  The heart of the message; the heart of the speaker; the heart of the writer; the heart of the listener.  We were all Divinely created from a Source I still struggle to understand; but I can tell you this, Dear Reader.  The more I understand about the amazing, resilient human body and its magnificent potentiality, the more I believe, with all my heart, that we were each lovingly created for a Divinely designed purpose.  Those purposes are unique as each individual, but all of us have the same potential as Pearl S. Buck.  It all comes down to our hearts.

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.  And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.–James 3:17-18

Wildflowers peacefully swaying in the WV breeze.

While we may not all possess the ability to win prizes as Buck once did, we can all pray and focus on increasing what Christians call, the fruits of the spirit, that all major religions likewise focus: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  With these as kindling within the heart, we can be lit from within.  Our words, both written and spoken, can then be used to either light the way for others, warming them with the glow of thoughtfulness, or used as a tool for harm–burning bridges that otherwise could have been crossed through effective and empathetic communication.

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I am reminded of the 15 or so years in which I taught Kindergarten aged students.  At the time, the practice was for the parents of soon-to-be-entering-school kindergartners to attend an orientation meeting.  During this meeting, each Kindergarten educator discussed with parents the classroom policies and procedures and addressed any concerns shared by parents. At some point during this meeting, we talked with the parents about the importance of their word choice and attitude towards beginning school.

We explained the power of possessing a positive, enthusiastic disposition towards this major childhood milestone by displaying an aren’t-you-a-big-kid-now attitude, rather than sharing sad tales of I-can’t-believe-my-baby-is-going-to-leave-me.  Parents were reminded that their child tended to mimic the parents’ perspective. As with most forms of communication, it is not only the word choice that creates influence, but also the intent behind those words that is often passed on.

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As I write these words, I am challenging myself as well as you, Dear Reader, to kindle those fruits of the spirit, so that our words may be more reflective of those ideals.  I fear that without sensitive hearts, we will all suffer the rapid burn of uncontrolled tongues or dashing fingers and thumbs across keyboards. 

 As the saying goes, “be the change you wish to see in the world.”  And, while my individual words may never win any literary recognition or publication, I pray to improve so that my writing, my social accounts, and my day-to-day interactions reflect more of a positive light.

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Fertilizer or fire.  Peace or Agitation.  Forgiveness or resentment.  Upliftment or downtrodden.  Written or spoken, our words matter. 

With human’s ability to create fire, darkness was shaken, and life was Divinely elevated, but at the flames’ edge remains the darkness.  

May our words pass on light, warmth, and illuminate a path out of darkness. 

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