Practicing Kindness in a Harsh World

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In recent months, the Holy Spirit has shown me some things about kindness through two mostly isolated elderly people.

One, a friend from my family’s parish, has been confined to a nursing home of late. My father, in his capacity as a deacon, has been bringing her Communion on weekends, and my mother and I usually accompany him. Despite her physical ailments, this dear lady invariably greets us with smiles and concludes the visit with, “Thank you so very, very much for coming, and God bless you.”

Needless to say, hearing those words makes me feel good about having come. It also reminds me of the importance of being personally present to the lonely and suffering, of spending time with those whom the world has forgotten.

The second person was a homeless man whom I began to see on walks through our neighborhood, sitting on a bench with his bags or walking slowly with a cart. I began trying to talk to him, thinking that he must be lonely, and knowing the importance of being present to someone abandoned. He appeared glad enough for the company, though he quickly refused anything like an offer of help, and seemed reluctant to discuss his own life. From what he did say, I became increasingly sure that he was not quite in his right mind.

Then, one day, I came walking along as usual and saw the man sitting with his bags, hunched over a camera. I turned and approached, whereupon he jerked upright and exclaimed, “What’s wrong? Why are you here?”

Confused, I stammered, “I’m walking in the park, as usual.”

“All right, that’s great, take care,” he said abruptly, and went back to fiddling with his camera.

My homeless acquaintance had rejected my attempts to be kind. I had extended the same toward him that I had toward our friend in the nursing home—an attentive, caring presence—but with the opposite outcome. I will probably never know why, but for me, the episode shed a multifaceted light on the Christian practice of kindness.

The Suffering as Jesus’ Representatives

I had approached the old man with Christ’s famous words in mind: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40). This thought had helped to some extent. Thinking of what I would do for our Lord impelled me to overcome natural shyness of this strange old man and aversion to his awkward conversation. After all, if Jesus were alone and homeless, I would spend time with Him.

I soon learned, however, that the matter was more complex than this line of thought would suggest. I could not do for this man exactly what I would do for Jesus. My acquaintance deflected concern, refused offers of help, and eventually rebuffed friendly interest. Further attempts to help would do more harm than good.

It seems, then, that our Lord did not mean that we should necessarily do for the afflicted what we would do if they were literally Himself—not only because love sometimes involves giving instruction or correction, but because some people have a more limited capacity than others for receiving kindness. Rather, whatever kindness we do give them—even if they can’t benefit from it—He accepts as done to Him. The “least of these” are not literally Jesus, but in a way, they are His representatives.

Therefore, no efforts made in charity, even if they end in apparent failure, are wasted. A point may come at which we have to stop, but our attempts before that are not in vain, for Christ still accepts our offering. This is not, of course, to say that impulses of charity should not be guided and helped by prudence; indeed, part of love is careful consideration of what is truly best. However, when all such measures have been taken, if a sincere gesture made in good faith is still rejected, we should consider that we have done what God asks of us.

Experiencing that rejection may still cause pain, but at such times, we bear our pain together with Jesus. While on earth, He could do little in His own region, because His former neighbors would not believe in Him (Mark 6:1-6); and, as the saints tell us, He still grieves (insofar as God can be said to grieve) for souls who refuse His mercy.

The Courage of Kindness

Evidently, then, kindness means risking pain. By extending oneself, one’s heart, in any tangible way, one becomes vulnerable.

This vulnerability is on more than one front. Someone who cares may suffer when those whom he tries to help spurn him, as in my example of the homeless man. Admittedly I was only somewhat crestfallen, as our relationship was neither long nor deep; still, the episode can be taken as a small image of many unfortunate stories, some of which play out on much greater, more painful scales.

Charity can also bring on other kinds of pain. One may face hostility from others who, for one reason or another, object to one’s efforts. Furthermore, even without human opposition, one’s best intentions and most generous endeavors may end in frustration. My mother worked as a nurse before having children and remembers how painful it always was to lose a patient. Whatever the particular circumstances, to practice true charity means to give oneself and to care, which in turn means exposing oneself to suffering.

Because kindness means risk, it means having courage. This connection is probably seldom considered. Kindness, like meekness and courtesy, is often wrongly regarded as a soft, sentimental quality. It might be, as might any virtue if it never required any effort. The mantra of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella film, “Have courage and be kind,” may have something to teach us.

Perhaps no one has summed up the firm resolve needed to persist in labors of love so simply and precisely as St. Teresa of Calcutta, in her litany of “Anyway”:

If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.

If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway.

The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.

In the end, the saint shares the understanding that strengthened her: “For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.” How others receive our kindness or whether we are successful is not, in the end, our concern. All we need be concerned with is faithfully doing what God would have us do. Once we have given what we can, the results are beyond our control; we are only responsible for our love and fidelity, and our Lord will judge us only by those. Remembering this will help us have the courage to give.

Mother Teresa herself is a good example of the courage required for living with love. To follow her special call to serve the poor, she had to leave her original religious order, the Loreto Sisters, which she truly loved. The work she took up in the slums was exhausting and encountered some hostility in the early years. Throughout her missionary life, she never shrank from the demands of service, whether that meant trying to care for a filthy, near-dead person or speaking to political figures on behalf of the needy. Even as she came to be widely considered a living saint, some continued to criticize her (those who, e.g., supported abortion, argued that she cared for useless people, or felt that she should have focused her work on social justice issues). She might be called a “warrior of love.”

Most of us, as St. Teresa fully acknowledged, are not called to devote ourselves so entirely to serving the poor. Nevertheless, her exhortation to “give until it hurts” has countless applications for every person’s life. We all have opportunities to be kind and generous, and thus to be brave as well.

The “Banquet of Charity”

If we thought of kindness only in these terms, though, it might seem a rather bleak business. Yet we are called to love not only courageously, but joyfully as well; “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). How can we maintain our joy in giving, especially when giving so often hurts?

First of all, we should remember that this joy is not primarily an emotion; no one can feel a particular way all the time. Rather, it is an attitude. What we need is to practice kindness with a deliberate spirit of cheerfulness. Encouraging joyful feelings, if we are able, may make this easier, but the feelings are not required.

To return to the question, in order to maintain this joy, we need the power of God’s grace. Thus, we should pray to be able to give cheerfully. We can also seek out the thoughts that encourage us, of which there could be many. The following is but one proposition.

In another well-known Gospel passage, Jesus says, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14).

Presumably, our Lord does not mean that we should not extend favors to our relatives or friends, but that doing so is no credit to us since mere nature dictates that we do as much. As He says elsewhere, “If you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:46). What is meritorious is extending generosity to those who have no natural claim on it and from whom we can expect no repayment.

Nor are only literal feasts in question. St. Therese of Lisieux, in her Story of a Soul, applies the words thus to her own life as a Carmelite nun: “What banquet could a Carmelite offer her Sisters except a spiritual banquet of loving and joyful charity?” She goes on to describe a service she used to perform daily for an elderly, incapacitated nun, helping her get to supper. This poor invalid was very irritable and hard to please, but Therese served her with gentle attention and a warm smile.

The saint was certainly offering her companion a spiritual banquet of charity; and while the old nun did eventually come to appreciate this love, Therese had no reason to expect anything like repayment. In fact, she initially got no thanks at all, only complaints, in return for her service. The other nun, burdened by her infirmity and perhaps other things, could not manage more or readier gratitude.

It seems, then, that these are truly the “poor” and “maimed”—those who are too poor interiorly to give us any emotional repayment for our love, whether a sick nun, a homeless man, or . . . the list could go on forever. Blessed are we when we include them in our banquet of kindness, seeking not to be repaid but only to do what we are called to do, to give to Christ by giving to them. If we do so, then at the resurrection of the just, when all is made right, our most generous Lord will repay us Himself.

Warriors of Love

Remembering, then, Who has called us to give, may we be prudent, valiant and cheerful warriors of love. Whatever may happen, the good to be achieved is far greater—and more lasting—than the troubles we may face. Besides, each of us only ever sees a tiny fragment of the tremendous story we inhabit—how can we say that our efforts of kindness have not done good in God’s infinitely wise design?

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