Looking Past the Smile: The Art of Kindness

February 13, 2019

If you liked last week’s blog, “An Issue With Blood”, stay tuned! There will be more short stories to come.  As for this week, I hope you are encouraged by this offering from my personal experience.

I was recently “counseled” by a manager who supervised one of my interactions with a patient and I was accused of being “too kind”.  He went on to explain why I need to be critical and point out patients’ flaws and mistakes to them, in an effort to correct them.  I nodded and said I would take that “into consideration,” but I won’t.  God help me.  I hope I never do.  I learned the value of kindness a long time ago.  There is no such thing as being “too kind.”

It’s been almost twenty years since this happened, but sometimes, it still stings like it was yesterday.  My, then, husband abandoned me and our one year old daughter.  Unbeknownst to me, he had not been paying the rent, and we were evicted.  Several days prior to being evicted, he disappeared, and our infant child and I had nowhere to go.

A friend helped me get into a homeless shelter, so we wouldn’t have to sleep in our car.  I suddenly found myself in the close company of drug addicts, prostitutes and the mentally disabled.  I remember on the first night, I locked the two of us in a room and cried hysterically.  Several of the other ladies in the shelter talked to me through the door.  The urged me to come out and told me I would be okay. All I could do was cry.

Finally, one of the ladies said, “Well, at least come out so the baby can eat.” She knew exactly how to get me to open the door.  My daughter and I were hungry and tired from the day’s ordeal.  It would be my first dinner with a table full of strangers.

They were kind and warm.  I’m not referring to the volunteers or staff.   I mean the other residents in the shelter.  Don’t get me wrong, the volunteers were nice, but many of the other homeless mothers, like me, were kind.  There is a difference.

When we are nice to someone, we are pleasant, agreeable… respectful.  To be kind is much harder and requires more sacrifice.  Kindness, as defined by Webster’s 1828 Dictionary:

Disposed to do good to others, and to make them happy by granting their requests, supplying their wants or assisting them in distress; having tenderness or goodness of nature.

To do good for others… To help in distress…

The other women in the shelter were kind to me.  They saw my distress and came to my aid.  They let me cry, never probing into my background, until I was ready to talk.  They told me who to avoid and showed me how the system worked.  They checked on me, often, but gave me space when I needed it.

The volunteers were nice but distant.  They smiled in my face and spoke in patronizingly pleasant tones.  They whispered things like: “Beggars can’t be choosers” behind our backs.  They gave us money to shop for essential items but, then, openly applauded themselves for being so gracious toward those “poor unfortunate souls.” (Yes, I totally sang that in my “Ursula” from The Little Mermaid voice).

It was demeaning to buy personal items, like sanitary napkins and underwear, and have them review each purchase and act impressed with our ability to shop independently.  I felt like a pet who’d finally understood a new command.

I vividly recall one instance where no amount of niceness could undo the unkindness shown.

One of the things I needed to do, upon becoming homeless, was apply for emergency food stamps and welfare.  It was a complicated system to navigate, but I finally was able to score an appointment at the welfare office.  “Appointment time: 8 AM” the letter said.  “Late applicants must reschedule.” I didn’t know my way around downtown very well, but the ladies told me how to get there.  My car was on less than a fourth of a gallon, but that was enough to make it there and back.  I didn’t have money for bus fare, and the shelter did not provide transportation to appointments.

I arrived fifteen minutes early.  The waiting room had a huge clock above the help window, and the walls were institutional green.  There was a line of ten to twelve people at the check-in counter, and I was nervous I’d be considered late if the line moved too slowly.  With my child on my hip, diaper bag on one shoulder and purse on the other, I stood as the line inched along.  I made it to the window with no time to spare.

The receptionist took down my name and told me to wait in the lobby until my name was called.  I took a seat in the corner and waited.

And waited…

And waited…

My daughter was tired, cranky and needed a diaper change.  The lobby was completely packed with only one bathroom. Around 10 AM, I went up to the receptionist and inquired how much longer.  She never even looked up at me and simply instructed me to sit down and wait for my name to be called.

After a while, I noticed they were going in alphabetical order.  At the time, my last name started with a “P”. Not good. I leaned over to the person next to me and asked what time they were supposed to be there.  “8 AM,” they said.   Other people began to speak up.

“Me too.”

“Yeah, me too.”

I realized it was a cattle call, of sorts.  They told everyone to be here at the same time, and, then, they called each person by the order in which they chose.  It was hours before I would hear my name.  The chairs were hard and packed close together.  The lobby was hot and had a, rightfully so, hostile vibe.

And the icing on the cake?

At 12 noon, they stopped calling names, closed all the windows and left for lunch.  I remember them laughing and joking as they walked past us to get something at the downtown eateries.  There was nothing to eat in the lobby.  Even if there was a vending machine, I couldn’t afford anything, anyway.

Finally, after over five hours of waiting, my name was called.  Tired and hungry, I gathered all my bags, held my (thankfully) sleeping infant and walked to the back.  The room was full of waist high cubicles, talking people and ringing phones.  I was led to the desk and told to sit down.  A few minutes later, one of the ladies, I saw going to lunch an hour or two earlier, sat across from me.  She asked to see my official documents and inquired about why I was there.

I told her I needed to apply for emergency food stamps and a welfare check. Although I probably sounded calm and collected, inside I was humiliated and afraid. She told me to fill out a form.  I did.  I left the address portion blank. I didn’t know what to write.

She shoved it back at me and said, “Put your address down.”

I stared down at the paper and quietly admitted “I don’t have one.”

She looked at me with a ‘yeah right’ expression and shouted back at me “You don’t have one?! What do you mean you don’t have one?!?! Where are you living now? Huh?”

The phones seemed to stop ringing, people were staring at me, and it was dead silent.  At least it was to me.

I quietly responded, “I’m in a homeless shelter.  I can give you that address, but I’m not sure of the zip code.”

“You’re in a what?!” she bellowed.

I had to say it louder. “I’m in a homeless shelter.” I felt like I had to scream it to the whole world.

The look on her face changed. It was softer and it a bit more concerned. The lady mumbled “Oh, Lord. I didn’t know. I’m sorry. Let me…”

She started opening and closing drawers as if she were looking for something.  She finally found the right drawer and pulled out a stack of tickets.  She popped off the rubber band and placed several bus passes on her desk.

Then, wordlessly, she got up and hurried away.  She came back with several booklets of food stamps and gave them to me along with the bus passes.  She went on to enroll me for assistance, and, from that point on, the interview was quick and smooth.

Her harshness inadvertently taught me the value of kindness.  She taught me to never judge a book by its cover and to be mindful of the people I encounter. My clothes were clean.  My daughter looked healthy.  I had car keys in my hand.  I bet she thought I was doing just fine.

It’s amazing the things a smile can hide.

So, now, as an occupational therapist, I encounter people who are, potentially, in the worst moments of their lives.  I could tell you story after tragic story of people whose lives were forever changed in an instant.  Strokes.  Car accidents.  A bad fall.  A fire.  Cancer.

They may smile when they see me, but I focus on seeing past the smile and assist them in their time of distress.  I try my best to be good to them and to help them navigate their new lives, just like the ladies in the shelter helped me.

Kindness involves empathy and sacrifice.  It goes beyond the niceties of surnames and social norms.  In fact, it often calls on us to go against the norms and challenges us to forfeit our own comforts, for the sake of others. It forces us to see each other as equals and worthy of the same considerations we afford ourselves.  It demands we get involved and not just look away.

It was kindness that drove the Samaritan to help the dying man on the side of the road.  It was kindness that compelled those who carried the paralytic up to the roof and lowered him down to Jesus, so he could be healed.  It was kindness that lifted me out of poverty and pain, not pleasantries.

As I said earlier, there is no such thing as being “too kind”.  Kindness is life giving. I don’t always succeed at it, but I pray I don’t ever get to the point of intentionally refusing to show kindness.  #BeKind

As always, thank you for reading.  If you like what you read, be sure to sign up and receive the blog entries via email.  No spam.  Ever.


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