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February 16, 2014

THE OFF SEASON: So what does kindness look like?

There is an argument going on near my window sill. As I sit down to clack away at what will be a story about kindness, a squirrel and four blue jays bicker over a pile of birdseed I have left as charity.

I am not sure who will win out, but my money is on the jays, if anything, for their persistence and general orneriness.  

To have such acrimony in play as I write for what just happens to be “Random Acts of Kindness Day” is, I suppose, appropriate.

We read of wars and rumors of wars, of depravation and crime and meanness, every day in this newspaper, yet often we can also find stories on those very same pages about some deed of mercy or selflessness that, I hope, keeps a flame of kindness kindled in all of us.  

In recent weeks, a local organization called SPPRAK (Special People Performing Random Acts of Kindness) has been promoting February as “Community Kindness Month,” while Arts Illiana sponsored an art exhibit that asks, “What Does Kindness Look Like?” Despite the tag-team match playing out at my frontyard maple tree that serves as a poor example, I want to try to answer that question.

I would like to think that I am a kind man, although in my line of work as a teacher, I am sure that I am often perceived as far from it.

My wife, my children, and every friend I have, to me, are kind people, giving and loving and considerate of others and the planet on which we trod. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had many people in my life who have been willing to lend a hand, even a shoulder, when I’ve needed it; friends who have called in tough times, lent when I was embarrassed to ask, given when they knew I couldn’t pay it back. Above everything else, then, I think kindness looks like most of the people I’ve known, their smiles and laughs, their calloused hands and worn boots, their infinite goodwill toward stray animals and needy neighbors.

When I think of kindness, I remember the way my wife and I were raised. Neither of us had upbringings in wealth or privilege, but we certainly saw our parents and our grandparents as they gave of their time and money and labor to help others. My mom must have made an acre of pie crust in the name of charity and friendship, mended and made enough clothes to fill a department store, too. She did laundry for and lent an understanding ear to people she knew who needed it, and she believed that politeness and kindness were a way of living, not just an avenue to get what she wanted.

Kindness looks like my grandmother’s diary, too. It is worn and old, undoubtedly purchased in a local dime store, and last written in by my aunt in the spring of 1971 when my grandmother could no longer hold a pen; she was just 60. In contrast to most of what I read in “social media” outlets — our electronic equivalent to diaries these days — there is no self-glorification in it. Each day for years, she recorded the day’s weather, then wrote a few paragraphs about what she’d accomplished. I am amazed by it, and cherish it.

There is hardly a day that went by in my grandmother’s life when she wasn’t doing something for her family or her church. It is almost dizzying to count the quilts she’d made, the meals she’d cooked, the gifts she’d bought, the floors she’d mopped, and the curtains she’d hung. Her days were filled with work, and much of it was in service to other people, people she prayed for and visited and worried over. Her face, a soft round Dutch face, is what kindness looks like to me.    

Just a few months ago, it would have been hard to have missed the national news story about a 12-year-old Lakeland, Fla., girl who killed herself, allegedly after she had been bullied by more than a dozen other girls.  

Rebecca Sedgewick, just a few days shy of her 13th birthday, climbed a tower at an abandoned concrete plant and jumped. Many of the text messages she had received from classmates at her former middle school were pinpointed as a probable reason. What had apparently once been a “boyfriend problem” had become fights and suspensions, and even an attempt by Rebecca to cut her wrists. The cyber-bullying continued, even after she left her school for another. Police also found evidence that she had been searching online for ways to kill herself. One thing that Rebecca’s mother, Tricia Norman, told a television news reporter sent a chill down my spine. “Where does this hatred come from?” she asked. “Who is teaching these kids to hate?”

When I read her words, I remember thinking, “Who had ever taught those children about kindness?”

When my mother was in the hospital on the last day of her life, I watched as a nurse came into her room. Dutifully, she checked the monotonously beeping monitor, saw to it that my mom had a full water pitcher, and almost as a reflex, gently pulled a wayward blanket across a foot that no one else had noticed was uncovered. It was a simple gesture, an act of kindness that couldn’t possibly be repaid. It was, as Henry Clay said, one of those “Courtesies of a small and trivial character … which strike deepest in the grateful and appreciating heart.”

That is what kindness looks like.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his website at www.mikeluns to learn more about his books.

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