Bent on Kindness by Esther Nelson

Recently, with some fear and trepidation, I underwent spinal surgery.  When the surgeon visited me the day after my operation, he assured me that the procedure was a success, even though it will take several weeks to ascertain whether or not the surgery relieved my symptoms.  Healing from such a procedure takes time.

I have nothing but praise for the dozens of people responsible for my care during my six-day hospitalization.  Nurses, nursing care helpers, my surgeon along with the team in the operating suite, doctors-in-training, physical therapy workers, occupational therapy people, cleaning personnel, and the folks who regularly brought me healthy and delicious meals—all of them were respectful, empathetic, and kind.  And they were not kind just to me.  I overheard several hospital employees reply thoughtfully and considerately to a pugnacious patient in the room next to mine.

“Kindness” is one of those slippery words much like love, justice, truth, and peace.  What does kindness look like when applied to our interactions with others?  I recall my mother, tired and upset from witnessing her children fight with each other, quoting from the Bible, “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).  Am pretty sure she was in search of peace and quiet from the noisy clamor of her offspring.  At the time, my response was to take on the burden of guilt.  Not only had I disappointed my mother by not being kind to my siblings, I had disobeyed and, therefore, angered God.

Broadly speaking, acts of kindness flow from feeling empathy towards those who suffer.  As we attempt to assuage the suffering of others, we are in a real sense enhancing everybody’s quality of life since we are all connected with everything placed upon the earth.

I grew up inside a branch of Christianity that taught “total depravity,” meaning there is nothing intrinsically good about the human heart. “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked—who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).  So, human beings without supernatural intervention are incapable of behaving in kind and loving ways.  I’ve rejected the interpretation given to this text by those who declare that people (not working through the power of the Spirit—whatever that means) are unable to do “good” in the world.  So many people, not just kinfolk, friends, and those who claim to be “in the Spirit,” but those we call strangers treated me with decency, compassion, and kindness during my recent hospitalization when I so sorely needed it.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that, generally, women are bound by a definition of kindness that differs from one applied to men.  I’ve also come to understand that being kind to others requires one to possess a sense of self-worth.  For years, I felt as though I had no right to set personal boundaries as I interacted with people.  If someone expected (or wanted) something from me, I was duty-bound to acquiesce to their demands.  It was the “kind” thing to do.  I didn’t always give in to the demands people placed upon me, however, the resultant internal turmoil from not complying was hard to bear.  I was being (gasp!) unkind.  Better to efface myself and offer myself to the world as the proverbial doormat—something that was never expected of my brother.  He, after all, had leadership potential, and one of my jobs was to help insure his success by being “kind” to him.

While recuperating at my sister’s home, a relative overheard my phone conversation with a friend as I expressed how pleased I was with the compassionate treatment I had received in the hospital—one heavily funded by tax dollars.  When I ended my phone conversation, he said, “Well, you’d best enjoy that kindness while you can because when the government takes over our healthcare, you can kiss kindness good-bye.”  I don’t agree with him.  Our medical system is riddled with problems, to be sure, yet my recent experience showed me that our medical institutions are undergoing positive changes.  One change is a bent towards kindness—a collaborative effort on the part of medicine to actively involve a patient in their own care—very different from my own training as a nurse where the doctor always had the final word regarding a patient’s treatment, often drowning out a patient’s articulation of their specific needs.  By contrast, I was invited to be an active participant in my own healing.

It’s not news that we currently live in a time when many of our political policies have a decided bent towards unkindness.  Separating asylum-seeking families fleeing all manner of distress including poverty and violence, and then incarcerating them in facilities that are void of basic necessities is one such policy.

My recent experience in a government-funded hospital flies in the face of the experience of many would-be immigrants in government-funded facilities that dot the border with Mexico.  Having received kindness in the hospital from people under less than ideal circumstances, I need to ask why those in our government responsible for hammering out policies that shape the treatment asylum seekers receive do not infuse those policies with kindness.  Shouldn’t all of us—no matter who we are or what our circumstances—be treated with kindness?  Or is kindness (alleviation of suffering) something just given to those deemed worthy?

I don’t know what precipitated or how the positive changes towards patients in our medical institutions came to pass.  I never could have predicted such.  Perhaps it’s not outlandish at all then to look for positive changes from our political institutions, holding our elected officials and politicians to a standard of human decency that has them consider the welfare of the people they have promised to serve, working in tandem with them, not over them.

I’m daring to hope it’s possible.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

24 thoughts on “Bent on Kindness by Esther Nelson”

    1. That’s good to hear, Carol. I’m still reeling from the shock of kindness I received and continue to receive from the follow-up communication and visits regarding my care. Because I’m so steeped in Biblical text, I think of the parable in the N. T. regarding the wheat and the tares growing up together.

      “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”

      Kindness and unkindness live side by side in this world.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. So happy, Esther, to see your post today. Thanks for staying in touch with your friends at FAR, and your continued sharing here regards your profoundly, truly magical, wonderful, and adventurous journey.


  2. I worked in the U.S. health care system for nearly 40 years before retiring to live in Canada. I am a nurse-midwife, and our charge is to”listen to women”. We do that, and we give kind and compassionate care. My experience with physicians in the U.S. wasn’t always so good. In fact, my terrible experiences as a labor and delivery nurse actually compelled me to become a nurse-midwife. My medical care for the last nine years in Canada has been terrific! Every health care provider that I have encountered here has been caring and compassionate as well as being very good at what they do. The hospitals and clinics are not as fancy as in the U.S., but the care is excellent. I am very tired of hearing American politicians pan the health care system in Canada. Our costs are less and our outcomes are better, and that is a proven fact.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Wendy, for commenting. Much of the political rhetoric in the USA regarding health care functions to create fear about health care, attempting to keep those who profit in positions of power. Perhaps we are very slowly turning a corner.


  3. I loved this post – it was very uplifting – it reminded me of my relationship with my doctor here in Maine, who is, above all a KIND and compassionate man –

    I wish you a full recovery Esther.

    I know that I have been a doormat – and continue to be sometimes without realizing it – but given the choice – I choose kindness as a way of interacting with others, at least until they show me that I am wasting my time – and then I walk away.

    It has always seemed to me that it is EASIER to be kind than to demonstrate unkindness.

    I just had an experience with a woman who claimed to be my friend until I needed help and requested it before I gave her the next thing she wanted from me! I was aware that I trapped her with my request and was interested to see how this would play out. When this woman turned mean and pulled a power trip I was prepared, and simply walked away without engaging…

    So many women need to demonstrate their power over others… a bit dismaying that.


  4. I am so glad you met with kindness, Esther. I hope your surgery will prove to be an ongoing success. Thank you for your reflections on kindness and how women and men’s understanding and practice of it differ. How to be kind and also acknowledge boundaries and limits? Perhaps knowing when to say no can be a kindness to self and others, as much as a willingness to say yes. I was raised on the sermon on the mount, giving more than what is asked. But I think the desire to be kind has a source beyond any religion. The Dalai Lama says his religion is only useful in so far as it helps him to be kind. I have experienced kindness and compassion from very young children as well as from dogs and cats. Apparently trees and plants can also be kind to one another. Acts of kindness beget more kindness. I remember so many kindnesses from total strangers. I hope I have many opportunities to be kind to friends and strangers. Thank you for this post! Wishing you a thorough recovery.


    1. Thank you, Elizabeth, for commenting. I was especially struck with this: “But I think the desire to be kind has a source beyond any religion.” I agree. We (humans) are complex. It’s why “religion” can pull us in opposite directions–killing in the name of religion as well as loving in the name of religion. I like your reference to the Dalai Lama. Interesting that Buddhism begins its four noble truths with “Life is suffering” or out of kilter and a huge emphasis in Buddhism is compassion or alleviation of suffering. Nevertheless that ideology doesn’t always get center stage–the recent events in Mynamar as an example. Thank you, also, for your wishes for a thorough recovery. Am taking it day-by-day.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “By contrast, I was invited to be an active participant in my own healing.” I love this line, not only for what it shows about the medical system but also because of your own healing capabilities being engaged and encouraged.

    Love the kindness messages as well. Sometimes its hard to remember there is personal kindness in the era in which we live. I am glad you are on your way to healing and hope that it continues with abundant grace.

    Thank you for the post.


  6. Kindness on an equal footing cannot be easier, that to grant the life of another sentient being, just by changing what we eat to vegan, has to be the easiest way to personify the saying “Do your best and when you know better do that”.


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