Consideration, compassion, kindness, and empathy. I have been reflecting on these emotions and their related acts for quite some time as I view our divided world with such trepidation. Zeroing in on my little world, on a daily basis, I see the erosion of these increasingly important qualities.
I used to think that if everyone were just plain "nice," then life would be better for all of us. But then, I started thinking that someone could do something nice but not really be a nice person. I used to believe that when people acted nicely, then they were just that. Nice. But not always. Someone can be nice and still not be considerate, compassionate, kind, and empathic.
I’ll never forget an interaction I experienced as a new faculty member at the college where I taught for almost 30 years. Jerry was a nice guy, at least to me. He would always say hello as we passed in the corridor. As a new instructor, I needed such minimal positive acknowledgment from colleagues to get me through those early days.
Jerry answered my many teaching-related questions as we taught the same class level. So, it was only natural for me to refer my overflow students to his class section, which met at the same time as mine in the morning. My class was closed, but the printout suggested that Jerry’s class had several openings for new students to enroll that first week of the semester.
“He’s nice,” I told the students based on my interactions with him.
Later that day, I ran into Jerry, who seemed annoyed and perplexed as he asked why I had sent some students to his class. I told him the truth. My class was closed, and it was not only protocol to refer students to any open class, but I told him I knew he was nice. His question to me after my explanation really took my breath away. “What makes you think I’m nice?” When he asked me this question, he was very serious; there were no smiles.
There it was. I had misread who Jerry really was! He said hello to me, he answered my questions, and he smiled at me. I deduced that he was indeed a nice guy, but he really wasn’t and told me as much. He didn’t want any more students in his class. In fact, he liked to weed out the ones already there, as he didn’t want so many papers to grade as the semester continued. “Don’t send students to my class,” he commanded as he walked away.
So, compassion, kindness, and empathy far outweigh someone who just smiles and "looks nice." I felt bad for the students I couldn’t enroll in my class, but I was already seven students overenrolled. I wanted to take them all, but there were no more chairs. I knew what it was like to be turned away by a professor who refused to take more students in his course even when I needed that class to graduate. “Find another class,” he barked. I knew I could never do that to a student in my own classroom, no matter how many extra papers I had to grade.
At least three times a week, a dog parent in my neighborhood allows his/her giant pup (I assume his size for obvious reasons) to poop on my lawn. No consideration or compassion was given, and certainly no kindness for a fellow dog owner. If this pup's parents really thought about what was involved with another person picking up after their dog, they wouldn’t be so selfish as to leave "the surprise" for me to clean up. I have my own dog, and I bring poop bags with me on every walk, and I always pick up after Molly. I wouldn’t consider leaving anything for another person. Simple kindness.
I have a large order on the conveyor belt at the market. I see the man behind me holding his premade sandwich and bottle of coke.
“Do you want to go ahead of me in line?”
He looks incredulously at me, not quite believing my question to him. “Really?” he responds. “Oh, thank you. I’m on my lunch break and don’t have much time, and this is the only line right now.”
“Of course,” I add. He smiles and walks to my side, up to the check stand. He thanks me profusely again.
Why wouldn’t I offer to let him go in front of me? Processing his order took all of two minutes. What were those minutes going to do for me? I know what it’s like to have a limited lunchtime with the clock ticking for my return to work. Consideration, compassion, empathy. So simple yet so important.
We have a lot of construction going on in our neighborhood, and at least twice a year, it seems, a nail gets embedded in one of my car tires, forcing me to repair or replace my tire. As a result, when I walk, I am always on the lookout for stray nails that might be lying in the street. I am forever picking them up, hoping to prevent another unaware driver from suffering the same tire fate as I have experienced countless times. Just simple kindness that takes such little time.
When I was a young parent with three sons five and a half years apart, I didn’t have the good fortune of a lot of help from grandparents. My dear sister-in-law Marilyn was the only family member who offered to fly down from San Francisco to Los Angeles to babysit the boys while we went away on a rare vacation. Once, we took a cruise for a week, and once, we flew to Hawaii. What a gift she gave us!
I always dreamed that when I had grandchildren, I would provide as much loving babysitting as I physically could for my own children, knowing that I would have wanted and needed the same as a young mom. I continue to provide such devoted care to my four grandchildren whenever I can and whenever I am needed. It is one of my greatest joys to know that I can spend time with the little ones and also help their parents, who need time away, with minimum worry.
Life in our world today is challenging and, at times, overwhelming. It takes so little to be kind, considerate, and understanding of others. My actions of kindness and compassion are not for brownie points but rather for the understanding that these are the qualities and small but essential actions that add joy to my own life. Whenever I can help another, I know my day has improved.