By Kathy Berken
What does it feel like when you are told to “be nice”? To me, acting nice feels inauthentic and forced, usually a response to something that offended someone. Niceness can be a mask to show how good we can be, but that mask often wears thin and doesn’t make us feel any better.
Kindness, on the other hand, is a powerful virtue requiring commitment, intention and an exercise of the heart.
In a “CBS Sunday Morning” segment from Dec. 20 — “Promoting the Power of Kindness,” correspondent Mo Rocca interviews the directors of the documentary, “The Antidote” (Amazon Prime), and two people in the film who embody kindness in their work.
Sherry McIntyre is a high school World Religions teacher in Modesto, California, whose teaches that the Golden Rule is a common thread to “promote understanding by drawing connections among the world’s major religions.” At the heart of this, is that “they all ask us to treat each other with kindness.” When Rocca suggests she is “secretly teaching about kindness,” McIntyre smiles and nods, “Yes, I am.”
Directors Kahane Cooperman and John Hoffman made the documentary because they saw an increasingly cultural and political climate tending to divide us and erode our common decency. “Our democracy might truly be in danger,” Hoffman says, and kindness is the antidote to the eating away of civility, hence the film’s title.
“But what exactly does kindness mean?” Rocca asks. It implies action, says Cooperman, more so than nice, something Hoffman says would never provide enough substance to make a film. There’s more to kindness than just random acts, Rocca suggests. “It takes a full-time commitment.” “Further, it’s a fierce tool and a weapon for change,” Cooperman added.
That commitment is played out in real life by De’amon Harges, an Indianapolis community organizer affiliated with a local Methodist church. Known as “The Roving Listener,” Harges asks residents in his neighborhood not what they need, but what they can give. “What gifts do you have and how can we celebrate them?” is a question that encourages people to think of helping others, which, in turn, lifts them up. He discovered 45 gardeners in a four-block radius around his house, something he would never have known if he didn’t just ask. Rocca calls him “a talent scout of the soul,” to which Harges responded with a smile: “I like to ‘kidnap’ people to fall in love with each other.”
A by-product of his “kidnapping” is a bicycle fix-it shop run by young people. Bikes are donated, and Harges’ team teaches them not only mechanical skills, but also marketing and communication, to provide training for future employment. The repaired bikes are donated to people in need, the fruit of kindness and of listening and asking people to share their talents.
Kindness is a stance, Harges notes, and it’s also a practice. “It’s hard to be kind sometimes.” But he does it anyway because it pays off.
“The Antidote” also features Dr. Jim O’Connell, a volunteer physician who listens to and tends to the needs of the homeless. In his early years when he was asked to wash the feet of homeless people, he learned that “soaking the feet of the homeless reverses the power structure. You’re at the feet of the person and they are in charge.” The symbolism of that lets people open up, he added. When Rocca asked him what we should do when we encounter a homeless person on the street O’Connell said, “The most important thing is to look the person in the eye, and acknowledge them. Not ignoring them is really, really powerful.”
“It’s a power we all have,” Rocca notes. “We all just need to decide to use it.”
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton from 1999-2009.)