My tone can often take a harshness that I do not intend. About a month ago I was teaching a class to new social service providers who would be serving those with developmental disabilities. Toward the end of the class, I was talking about the attributes people would need to be successful in this type of environment. I was making a point about being there for others. In the course of my words I said this was important not only in the lives of those we serve, but in our own lives. I went on to say if someone in your life had no time for you to be done with them, that good people have to deal with enough; they do not need those who ignore them in their lives. (I know I would never make it as a marriage counselor.)
What I was hoping to do was point out if you are the type of person who could not be there for others that Misericordia (where I work and was teaching the class) did not need you. I did not want to sound personally indicting, so I used the language I did. No matter, it came off harsh to some. As I thought of it, they have a point.
Where I was wrong was in too quickly equating “those who have no time for others” with an undesirable trait. Though I did not say this or even mean it, it could be inferred in my words.
As I thought on it, I came to turn this argument back on myself approaching it not from a point of negativity, but a positive one. The next time I speak to this class, I will use that angle. Rather than speak of an attribute not to have, I will speak of the rare and beautiful attribute we should have. That attribute is what the ancient Hebrews called hesed, that thing which is often translated as loving-kindness.
When I think of this trait, I think it must certainly be a thing of strong character. It cannot be learned nor can we wish it into existence. It is just the trait of certain people. Where I work we can only use “certain people.” It is not so much that those without it are undesirable; it is that to be fully involved in the lives of others requires such a trait. It is the best trait of those I work with and those who have the best lives.
This led me to reflect on this “loving-kindness” and what it is and is not. I make the following observations:
- It is not all inclusive: No one has time for everybody. If everyone is good to just a few people then everyone in the world will have somebody to be good to them. It is the case that not everyone could work where I do because they already have enough they must do this thing for. It may also be the case they are just plain callous, in which case their life is too degraded to be authentic on any level anyway. And none of us really dictate where our heart is. Either you love or want to serve another person or you don’t. The best advice here is go to those places and find those people you can do the thing for.
- It comes from a place of joy: I know someone who, after being at Misericordia for years, returns to work part-time even though she has a lot of obligations elsewhere as well as the talent to make more somewhere else. Her take is “how can I not be here.” Truth is when you come to the place of kindness, it does do as much for you as you do for it. If your heart is with a person or place, you will know it and kindness will come naturally.
- It is not false concern: We all do it on occasion, but you can only fake empathy and compassion so much. If your kindness comes from some sort of obligation rather than in a natural state, just don’t bother with it. Being ignored is a horrible feeling; far worse is finding out that someone pays attention to you because they feel like they have to.
- It is not always easy: Taking a chance on others is difficult work. The more invested you get in the life of another, the more they will depend on you. This will make them self-absorbed and coquettish. They will decide it is okay to be vulnerable with you and need you. The Little Prince is an analogy that makes sense here. He had a flower he thought was unique in all the world, but his care made her stop thinking of herself as invincible and she became needy. He tired of this and left her to travel to distant planets. He eventually came to Earth and found out she was not so unique after all, at least on the outside. He also found out that as difficult as his flower was, he also needed her.
- You will need others. You may even love them: Kind people do not expect reciprocity, but they do receive it. I can’t really speak to this. If you’ve experienced it, you know it already.
I know the next time I speak to this class I would like to let them know those things. My time will be limited and dictated by regulation, but I really think those are the most important things I could say. It also works not only for my workplace, but for life in general. I came to Misericordia without much in the way of expectation. I tired of an environment where I could not be kind and came to the place with a kindness the likes of which I could never have imagined. That is also life. In the most authentic living we will need others and they will need us. We will love others and they will love us and it will be with a force not imagined. We either have it in us to be in that place or we don’t. In any case it is best to know the thing when we see it, to know that when we see correctly, we see with the heart.