Many years ago someone who was on the periphery of my circle of friends was in distress, behaved badly and ended up in gaol for a short period. He wasn’t a close friend and along with many others I made jokes about the event. When he came out I wasn’t welcoming when he was back in the local. Sometime later I learned that some of my close friends, who were not close to him at all, had visited him inside and written to him. They were older than me and wiser and I learned a lot from that.
I think it was after about 10 years of headship that I decided that kindness was the most important quality of all. I shared that realisation with a life coach who sent me this poem:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Naomi Shihab Nye
Words Under the Words
Eighth Mountain Press, 1995
When I have been disappointed by my own behaviour or that of others I think it is because the behaviour is the result of fear. Children’s behaviour is at its worst when they are picking on someone but the reasons for doing so are almost always so it doesn’t happen to them. The crowd mentality and the peer group pressure really works on fear of being ‘left out’. That dread that children and young teenagers have of being different to everybody else. We are supposed to grow out of it but the evidence is that we don’t; instead the fear reappears in adults of somehow being tainted or blamed. The ‘group think’ is responsible for most of the evils in the world.
I have realised that most of us judge the behaviour of others by our own standards. I have often been horrified to hear the judgments people make of others and more often than not these tell us far more about the person making the judgement. My own teenagers often say to me “what makes you think I would do that?” And the truth is what makes me think that is that it is what I would have done at their age! “S/he is a glory hunter / power seeker / empire builder”. I hear that said so often about good people serving others and it saddens me. When we are the victims of misjudgements it is hard to say ‘that says more about them than it does about me’ and carry on regardless: it is far easier to return the misjudgements and become bitter.
We invent convoluted processes based on the worst judgements of how others behave. We all do it and to some extent we have to in order to ensure a lawful society, but when that mindset necessary for making laws and rules becomes our way of thinking about others we diminish ourselves. And it is very hard to avoid doing so. My lovely old Dad (a retired primary head) used to love talking to the children passing his gate to and from school, but for obvious reasons he had to stop. I once clipped a drunk staggering across the road at night with my car, and stopped and looked after him; he kept saying “you’re such a nice person to stop” which mystified me until I told my family and they explained! Why do so few of us get involved when we see someone in need?
Being judged as foolish, reckless and naïf; being made fun of for refusing the ‘group think’; being tainted and blamed for standing up for truth, and having bad motives ascribed to you dominates too much human behaviour. We see it in our own children and in the playground, but we do not recognise it enough in ourselves and in our workplaces.
Wisdom does not require age but it does require experience and reflection. There is nothing in allowing our behaviours to be dominated by fear and self-preservation that makes us fully human and alive; it is stultifying. For myself I like the words of Martin Luther King:
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.“
The Paradoxical Commandments
by Dr. Kent M. Keith
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.
People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.
© Copyright Kent M. Keith 1968, renewed 2001