In a recent On Being broadcast on NPR, I heard a story about Howard Thurman’s grandmother. Howard Thurman was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement and was an influential theologian. He was a mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King and also one of the principle architects of nonviolent protests. His grandmother was a former slave who owned land in an area where there were also white people.
Apparently, Thurman’s grandmother had a neighbor, a white woman who apparently was unkind to all in her neighborhood and not just to Thurman’s grandmother. At one point, the neighbor began to gather chicken droppings from her chicken coop on a regular basis and dump them on the garden of Thurman’s grandmother. Rather than retaliate, his grandmother turned the chicken droppings into the soil each time they arrived. In time, her garden flourished because of all the natural fertilizer in the chicken droppings.
The neighbor woman eventually became quite ill and, because of her way of relating to people, no one was willing to visit her or help her. One day, Thurman’s grandmother went to visit the woman, taking her a large bouquet of flowers. The woman was surprised and delighted to receive the flowers and commented on how beautiful they were. Thurman’s grandmother said in response that the flowers were so beautiful because of all the neighbor’s contributions of fertilizer to her garden.
What moved Thurman’s grandmother to make this visit was her commitment to kindness. She was a religious woman who lived by her principles. Despite the fact that the actions of her neighbor that were intended to cause her hurt, Thurman’s grandmother didn’t let that stop her from practicing what she believed most deeply—to tend to her neighbor with kindness.
For this week’s practice, I invite you to focus again, as we have so many times in these practices, on small acts of kindness as part of your everyday life. Acts of kindness don’t need to be on a grand scale, nor do they even have to be noticed. The important thing is for this practice is what expressing kindness touches in you. This expression tends to open and nourish the heart. Moving through the world with an open heart is a quality of embodiment that nurtures a sense of connection, relatedness, and well-being. Your whole body-mind being is supported and nourished by the frequency, tone, and quality of kindness. What you give to others you also give to yourself.
What impressed me in the story of Howard Thurman’s grandmother was her willingness to express kindness to a woman who had been consistently unkind to her. She demonstrates the power of offering to others what we would like to receive. As you play with this practice, notice what it touches in you and how your relationship with kindness deepens, expands, or responds in some other way.
It can be hard to offer kindness to people with whom we vehemently disagree, and that’s what makes this kind of practice such a challenge for many of us. So, be sure to be gentle with yourself as you engage this week’s. Each moment offers a choice as to how you want to be, express, and act. Please be sure to bring self-acceptance into this practice if you discover that there are times when you just can’t bring yourself to respond kindly to someone or some situation. Also, please remember that a practice of kindness doesn’t mean not acting on things that need to be confronted, changed, and/or not accepted. Practicing kindness doesn’t mean having to agree.
As with all these practices, there’s no right way to do this one. Instead, it’s one more opportunity to notice how your way of being in, and moving through, your world affects your internal quality of life even as it impacts what is around you. Please remember to bring along curiosity as your constant companion and to pat gently on the head any judgments that may arise, allowing them to move on through without your having to do anything with or about them.