Margaret Helen Parkinson:
The novelist Henry James is reported to have said,
"Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind."
Everyone wants to be treated kindly and most of us consider ourselves to be kind people. However, how much real kindness do we see in our daily lives? Do we recognize it when we see it? What are the human characteristics that communicate kindness? What are the characteristics in ourselves that we recognize as kindness? What behaviours, when directed toward us, do we experience as being kind? The answers to these questions may not be as simple as they first appear.
At one time in my life I was given the name 'Daya' - a Sanskrit term meaning "compassion". Being called by such a name was a daily reminder to live up to its meaning. Compassion, and its synonyms kindness, helpfulness, assistance, caring, mercy, support have been part of my contemplation for as long as I can remember and I continue to wrestle with an ever deepening understanding of its intricate nature. It seems to me, that life is only effective if one can be kind, and kindness is not necessarily an automatic response.
Years ago, as a nursing student, I read an admonition that has stayed with me over the years.
"if you are in ecstasy, exalted like Saint Peter and Saint Paul, or whatever example you may wish to take, and you hear that the sick are in need of warm soup or any other assistance, I here give you council: leave your meditation immediately and come down to earth and warm the soup." (Author unknown.)
I understand the point of this advice and I certainly agree that we should put complexities aside when someone needs straightforward aid. The issue is dichotomous, however, and we should not assume that by "warming the soup" we are always being helpful. What if the hungry person likes cold soup or would prefer to heat it independently and only wants help in lifting the pot? Wouldn't it be a good idea to have found these things out before rushing to the stove?
I was fortunate to be raised by a very compassionate mother. Many people loved her for her kindness and sought her counsel. More often than not, when I arrived home from school of an afternoon, I found Mum sitting at her kitchen table, having a cup of tea with a neighbour and talking through a problem. From her I learned that kindness is a first priority and that it does not always mean doing something. Helping might be listening to someone, taking them seriously and holding their confidences. Helping might mean a warm hug, a friendly smile or remembering someone' s name. Helping might be a telephone call, a card in the mail or an invitation to tea. And, the strange thing is, for some people in some circumstances any one of these things might be frankly unhelpful. How can we tell the difference?
My mother's kindness was diverse in its expression. While she did not rush in to "make things better", when action was called for she acted. What impresses me was that she knew when to act and when to stay still. For example, on the night that our next-door-neighbour, Mr. Bailey, (name changed) beat up his wife, Mrs. Bailey, Mum managed to quickly get Mrs. Bailey into our house and lock the door. She called the police, put ice packs on Mrs. Bailey' s bruises and refused to respond to a drunken Mr. Bailey banging on the door. Mum took charge. When the police officers came, she handed over her responsibilities, made sure Mrs. Bailey had somewhere safe to spend the night and went on with her life as if nothing had happened.
Mum was kind and involved but activities and people never destroyed her own peace of mind. People knew they could get what they needed from her without strings attached. She knew how to help in ways that encouraged freedom and independence. I think she understood that helping occurs when the people consider themselves to have been helped. These are my words however, and I am sure Mum did not think in such terms. She would be surprised and perhaps even amused by a discussion such as this. She was a practical person, not an academic. Her life had brought her wisdom, she understood the needs of others and responded.
While a thoughtful life teaches us that as we help others we help ourselves, a wise person knows that this is a happy accident rather than a primary motivator of behaviour. When we find ourselves "getting high" from our own "good works" we need to be careful that we are not becoming busy bodies who do more for others than they want. We need to wonder if we are poking our noses in where they do not belong. We need to ask ourselves if our actions are truly for the other's benefit or if we are just seeking good feelings for ourselves. This is not an easy question to answer because motivations are always mixed and human interactions are often complex. However, if we do not at least consider such questions our so-called helpfulness may make others feel smothered and inadequate and they may resent us for it. Sometimes we may make others over-dependent and lower their sense of self-competency. This is not helpful in the long term. All that happens is that we feel superior and grand - the great kind one who knows better than others what they need for themselves, and those we tried to help are left no better off then they were before.
The most helpful action may not be the most obvious. It may not be the best approach to leap in with a solution to a problem the minute it is expressed. Genuine helpfulness is whatever creates an environment in which we and others grow stronger and make individual decisions about what to do next. A helpful approach may be listening and asking the other what they would like us to do, if anything. We may make suggestions but leave any decision making to the other person. Action is not always equivalent to helping. An exception may be in emergency situations such as when Mrs. Bailey needed temporary safe haven. In such a situation one might take control for a limited period of time. Even then, however, it is important to be alert to the first second that the person can take over for themselves and at that instant begin to step back.
Of course, I don't know the definitive answers to these questions. I do know that my ideas about what is helpful have changed over the years and I expect such growth to continue. I will be suspicious of myself if I ever think I have the complete answer. What I perhaps do know is that to be truly helpful one has to be both personally involved and unburdensome to the other. To be a helpful person we must offer ourselves as whole people while not loading a vulnerable person with the details of our own need. A juggling act that is so important to master! We must be willing to reveal something of ourselves to others. A one-dimensional, plastic person is not much comfort to anyone. It is only when someone perceives us as a whole person, with strengths and weaknesses, that they can trust us as a helper.
Over the years I have developed a free flowing "Top Ten"
list that helps me keep my head above water in my interactions with
others. Ideas on the list change from time to time and the
order of the list shuffles around. Sometimes I have more than
ten reminders - sometimes less. Here' s how it
stands at the moment.
|1.||Share myself in genuine ways while respecting the boundaries of others.|
|2.||Become as whole and healthy as possible - physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually - so that I have something to give when giving is called for.|
|3.||Take appropriate care of my own needs so that I do not burden others with my self at times of their vulnerability. This includes asking for help and support when I need it.|
|4.||Think about my actions and try to understand my real motivations while recognizing that motives are usually mixed.|
|5.||Listen, listen, listen when someone talks. Listen to what is said and what is not said but do not make assumptions about what someone means or wants.|
|6.||Do not lecture others, my truth may not be their truth. Do not give advice unless it is asked for or without asking if the other wants to hear it. If advice is asked for and given do not be offended if advice is not taken.|
|7.||If someone says "no", believe they mean "no" . If someone says "yes", believe they mean "yes".|
|8.||Walk softly on the earth, interfering as little as possible.|
|9.||Constantly question my own understanding knowing that wisdom is never complete.|
|10.||Above all, remember the golden rule, think deeply about how I want to be treated and treat others according to the same principles.|
The Buddhist Bodhisattva, Kuan Yin, is one of my favorite symbols of the Divine. She weeps tears of compassion for the whole world and she promises to keep returning until all suffering is ended. Why not become a living incarnation of Kuan Yin and ease suffering with mature compassion?