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.