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Column: May real kindness lead to real justice

  • Steve Nelson

  • Kansas City Star illustration -- Hector Casanova

For the Valley News
Published: 3/21/2020 10:30:13 PM
Modified: 3/21/2020 10:30:11 PM

Amid the barrage of devastating reports of the health and economic consequences of COVID-19 there are glimmers of hope. The Valley News and the town of Strafford’s Facebook page offer such glimmers. Here, stuck in social isolation in Colorado, the same small lights are appearing in our community. Hundreds of people are offering to help neighbors whom they never met. In Strafford, as I’m sure is true in other Upper Valley communities, local networks of communication, transportation and services are arising spontaneously — like fireflies blinking in the dark night.

Years ago, the writer Anne Herbert scribbled “Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty” on a placemat. It became a book and a small movement spawning bumper stickers, a charitable foundation and a few random acts of kindness around the world.

I quarrel with this. First, no act of beauty is senseless. But that could be another column. I quarrel more with the invitation to “random” acts of kindness.

Kindness should not be random. It should be intentional, ubiquitous, organized, prolific, persistent and unconditional. I suppose Herbert meant well, but “random kindness” is a bit too close to “1,000 points of light,” a political concept that made America a crueler country. When George Herbert Walker Bush (is there something in the Herbert name?) gushed about 1,000 points of light, he conflated charity and justice. He, like so many others, praised charity while directly opposing those aspects of the social contract that should render charity obsolete. Since 1980, give or take, there has been a concerted effort to convince Americans that charity will heal the wounds that injustice has inflicted. It cannot. Only justice can cure injustice.

Acts of kindness should not be random events as we stride through our important lives and every now and then pause to toss out a handful of rose petals. Charity too often allows people to feel good at the same time that they are supporting policies and practices that do far more damage than their small acts of generosity can ever repair. At the same time that Bush was waxing eloquent about 1,000 points of light, our government was administering death by 1,000 cuts. And it has only gotten worse.

Kindness is not charity. Charity can be impersonal — writing a check or riding your bike on a lovely summer day to raise funds for a cure. Kindness is speaking to a homeless person on the street, recognizing her dignity and humanity. Kindness is treating your restaurant servers as though they are your sons and daughters. Kindness is stopping to ask if someone needs help. Kindness is smiling at every person you pass on the sidewalk. Kindness is listening patiently. Kindness is stopping by to see that your older neighbors are safe. Kindness is knowing what it feels like to be lonely and offering yourself to fill another’s emptiness.

Practicing kindness is like the Stanislavski approach to acting. He asked actors not to represent something, but to experience things in order to activate subconscious psychological mechanisms, thus living the motives and actions of the character.

Both acts of kindness and the Stanislavski method nurture empathy — the human capacity to experience what others experience.

We all wonder how the world will change when the light at the end of this bleak tunnel grows closer and our lives approach “normal.” I know that we will, at least for a while, understand that all the world’s people are interdependent — at least from a health point of view. We will doubtless take the risk of another pandemic more seriously.

Many wonder whether panic, greed and civil unrest might result from COVID-19 and the inevitable, looming recession. I believe that kindness and compassion will triumph in our civic life, however daunting the challenges ahead. For every person bumping ahead to get the last roll of toilet paper in the grocery store, there were 10 others yielding and smiling in the solidarity of scarcity. Many of us expressed gratitude to the clerks, stockers and others who work for low wages at elevated risk with invariably good cheer, at least at our local store.

My greatest hope is not for pandemic readiness or economic recovery in the months after the virus fades away.

It is that today’s kind acts grow from fireflies blinking in the darkness to a bright beam throughout the country, exposing the injustice that festers in America’s shadows. When you practice kindness you cannot see poverty as a character flaw. You cannot confuse homelessness with laziness or view asylum seekers as criminals. You will see the checkout person at your store as a person of courage and dignity who deserves a living wage and guaranteed health care.

Today’s notes of kindness can be an overture to tomorrow’s justice. If we are intentionally, persistently and authentically kind, then broader justice is the opera.

When we seek to be kind to everyone we meet, we will wish kindness for everyone we will never meet.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at

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