Everyday kindness is a great gift that makes poor copy. That’s because it’s not always easy to depict or measure outside the given situation in which it occurs. The nightly news will occasionally include a “feel good story,” in which, for example, the son or daughter of well-off parents donates their Christmas toys to Toys-For-Tots. This is a kindness gesture, not everyday kindness.
And sometimes we don’t know if our compassion or kindness had an affect because we don’t get feedback. You could see it as a goal to begin a happiness contagion without having any idea if you were successful.
The following story was a chapter in the early drafts of my autobiography Gathering My Life into Feathers that I later removed. I’d wanted to write about everyday kindness, or kindness as our default position – knowing full well that busy schedules, higher priorities, and personal difficulties could erode our kindness quotient. I had other examples from my life that I just couldn’t quantify or expand upon. How do you write about the shine in someone’s eyes and the appreciation of ongoing kindness, or a positive but subtle effect you have on someone over time? What do you write when you are “just” a good listener – saying little to nothing? So I wrote this chapter feeling there was at least a little story – then deleted it feeling there was too little story. Now I’m giving it a second chance.
When acupressure sandals first came out I thought they might be worth a try to ease my back pain. I saw them for sale in the health club that I belonged to, but they didn’t have my size. I was given the phone number of the person selling them, and called her. She had a mild speech impediment, and she needed to speak slowly and deliberately. I listened. The price she quoted was a little lower than what they were being sold for at the health club, and I agreed to purchase them for the quoted price.
We arranged to meet in front of the health club. She recognized me right off, deciding I must have been the person she spoke with over the phone. She called me over to her car, and I got in. We spoke about the sandals and she said she hoped they helped me, because they had helped both her and her husband. After listening to her short story, she gave me the sandals and I got out my wallet to pay. I handed her $25, the price we had agreed upon. She gave me back $10. Confused, I asked her if I had misunderstood our agreement.
“No, I’ve decided I want to give you these for cost. I so enjoyed talking to you on the telephone, and meeting you in person. This is my gift to you.” I protested. She definitely did not seem like type of person who had money to spare. I liked her. I wanted her to make a profit on the sale. But she insisted. Her dignity was at stake, so I relented.
Walking away, I was filled with the grace of our encounter. I knew I’d never see this woman again, but I recognized the gift she had given me. That gift was not the bargain she’d extended. Her gift was the love with which she extended the bargain, love that was as solid as the sandals in my hands. She had been deeply touched by me, by something I said, or the way that I said it. She wanted almost desperately to express it. Why?
I felt the warmth of her gift throughout the day. Still wondering what I’d said that moved her, I went over the contents of our only telephone conversation. To me, there was nothing extraordinary about the conversation; I had conversed as I usually did. And yet she had told me there was such kindness in my voice, so much compassion.
There is a Zen koan with which I have affection. “How do you greet a Zen master in the street.” On one level the koan is measuring our response to the Master outside the monastery walls, outside of our formal training. No matter what you say, he or she will see your words from the inside out. There’s no hiding how you actually feel. The koan is encouraging us to express our Zen, our inner knowing, even as we greet the Master casually in the street. On a secondary level is the idea, for me, that there is no way to know for sure whether the next stranger you meet casually in the street is a Zen master or an unrealized individual. I feel the koan is challenging me to anticipate that the next stranger might be a Zen master, or at least that they have Buddha nature, and that my greeting could be my answer to the koan.
Because you can’t be on guard all the time for every potential greeting of a master, how you interact with the world on a daily basis becomes the greeting. It was fulfilling to know that, on that day, without any forethought or special preparation, the greeting I provided the sandal woman came from my heart and touched her heart. There is sustenance in that.
By the way, the acupressure sandals that I had purchased from the sandal woman did not ease my back pain. But I liked wearing them, in part, as a symbol for walking the bright Self.
Postscript: As I’ve aged, mindfulness and empathy tell me that not everyone I meet is a Zen Master or someone expressing Buddha nature. Sometimes not even close. But it is possible to anticipate the potential. The question might become: “How do you greet the unaware person’s soul when you encounter them either randomly or by appointment?”