In that giant movie theater in the sky, where I imagine I’ll be shown my entire life on the big screen someday, I hope to be in charge of the remote. There are certain moments I’ll want to pause, skip, or rewind. One experience I’ll want to replay was so obscure–so fleeting–that I nearly missed it, and didn’t even have the vocabulary to define it at the time it happened. Yet five decades later the memory still influences me.
In my ordinary elementary school class, was a slightly unusual girl. I couldn’t put my finger on what set her apart from the other kids. Carol Ann was smart, but awkward. She had no friends, and she avoided attention like the plague. One day in class she somehow drew attention in a negative way, and our usually gentle teacher spoke to her in a surprisingly sharp voice–reprimanding Carol Ann in front of the whole class. [Note: I am not faulting teachers for reprimanding students when it is warranted.]
I glanced at my quiet schoolmate, wondering how she would respond to the uncomfortable situation and was startled to see her raise her chin and deliberately turn away from the teacher–her body language sending an unmistakable “I don’t care” signal. I was seated at the exact angle to give me a clear view of her face when she turned, and for a split second I caught a startling glimpse of raw emotion. The look was gone as suddenly as it had appeared, but not the tears that shone in Carol Ann’s eyes.
The look on this young girl’s face triggered an epiphany in my heart, because I had seen that expression before in my mirror, and I sensed for the first time that other people experienced emotions as deep and important as mine. After that day in the classroom I made an effort to play with Carol Ann at recess and discovered that she was hungry for kindness.
It was years before I found the exact word to describe what I had witnessed: vulnerability. It was unguarded fear and mortification, and I sensed that Carol Ann was extremely fragile in that moment. This incident revealed to me that people have very tender feelings, even though we may attempt to hide them. In our most vulnerable moments, we are all hungry for kindness
I love this excerpt from the biblical description of a virtuous woman, “She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.” (Proverbs 31:26) What a beautiful thing is the law of kindness. How many souls it nourishes and heals. Kindness is close kin with courtesy, patience, unselfishness, and understanding. It is love in action. Kind words are a balm to those who live in a contentious household. Kindness looks an awful lot like mercy, like Jesus Christ.
A situation in my own back yard tugs at my heart, reminding me that our actions toward others can have long term consequences: On a stretch of I-70 between Utah and Colorado, a tiny lamb found its way onto the road and was nearly hit by a semi-truck. A driver who witnessed the near miss stopped to check on the lamb, searching the area for any sign of a sheep herd but finding none. Fearing the lamb would not survive if left alone, the rescuer took the baby to an animal-loving family who bottle fed him and named him Lucky. He was as sweet and friendly as a puppy.
Once Lucky was weaned, he came to live in my pasture along with several large goats who, unfortunately, bullied the poor little guy. I was especially frustrated that any time Lucky attempted to enter the red shed for shelter the goats butted him back out. Even in the worst winter storms, the poor sheep was denied entrance–always left huddled against the outside of the shed, alone.
Eventually, the goats were removed from the pasture and replaced by several new sheep, all of whom were smaller than Lucky. Finally, I thought, Lucky will be able to enjoy the shelter of the shed when we have a windstorm or a big snowfall. But I was wrong. Even though Lucky was now the largest sheep in the pasture, he would not even try to go into the shed. One day when my oldest daughter was visiting, she actually crawled inside the shed and tried to coax Lucky to join her, without success. The smaller sheep have never tried to keep him out–in fact, they’d probably welcome his warmth on a cold night–but to this day, no matter how miserable the weather, Lucky will not enter that shed.
Many a winter morning I have looked out the back door to check on Lucky, dismayed to see him covered with several inches of snow. It is heartbreaking to observe. I don’t claim to read the mind of this sheep, but I don’t know how else to explain it: Lucky still recalls the goats who bullied him and denied him shelter. The memories are so painful to him–even after the goats were relocated–that rather than risking rejection, he won’t even attempt to go in the shed, choosing instead to endure severe weather conditions without cover.
Rejection happens to animals, and it happens to people, and when we experience unkindness, judgment, or rejection repeatedly, we eventually avoid the source of those feelings in order to prevent further pain. The stories of Carol Ann and Lucky illustrate the sensitivity and vulnerability of both humans and creatures. Hearts are fragile, easily broken by careless words and actions. Practicing the law of kindness spreads a healing balm over wounds caused by thoughtlessness or cruelty.
How I regret the times, particularly as a teenager, when I used subtle sarcasm as a weapon or put someone else down in a misguided attempt to build myself up. Even as a mother of young children, when I should have been the mature one, too often I vented my frustrations with an impatience and intensity that my family did not deserve. It grieves me to think that my unkindness may have wounded them.
Remembering of the goats who repeatedly pushed Lucky out of the shelter, I am led to ask myself, Do I show kindness by practicing inclusion? Or do I welcome certain people into my circle of friends, while knowingly leaving some on the outside? This is a common practice among teens, who tend to be cliquish, but as adults who have likely experienced some level of unkindness or rejection, we ought to be more cognizant of those who feel left out. Christian writer Shannan Martin speaks of hospitality–which is really another word for inclusion: “Hospitality. It sounds kind of fancy, but its meaning is simple, bare-bones, pure, and entirely holy–you are invited. There is room for you here, next to me.” (1)
In the past year my heart has hurt over the cruelty I have witnessed on social media. Opinions and information about pandemic restrictions, racial tensions, political elections, mask mandates, and vaccines have been shared by countless people. I applaud those who have chosen a path of civility and restraint, even when comments on their carefully worded posts have been ugly and insulting–and many of those verbal arrows have come from those who claim to follow Jesus Christ. The recent plea of Sister Sharon Eubank is very timely, “Let’s not judge each other or let our words bite.” (2)
Showing kindness is Christianity 101. The Lord’s commandment to love our neighbor–and even our enemy–has never been rescinded. If we desire to improve our little corner of the world, we can start by recognizing that everyone is hungry for kindness. Perhaps now is a good time to examine our ourselves, to ask God to help us honestly identify where we stand on the kindness spectrum.
I conclude with Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin’s simple counsel:
“When we are filled with kindness, we are not judgmental…
“But,” you ask, “what if people are rude?”
“If they are obnoxious?”
“But what if they offend? Surely I must do something then?”
The answer is the same. Be kind. Love them…
Who can tell what far-reaching impact we can have if we are only kind?” (3)
- Shannan Martin, “The Ministry of Ordinary Places,” p. 80-81.
- Sister Sharon Eubank, “By Union of Feeling We Obtain Power with God,” October 2020 General Conference.
- Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, “The Virtue of Kindness,” April 2005 General Conference.