Five PM on Friday before my birthday party finds me seated in my car departing Rockford, Illinois. I turn right on South Alpine, then left on US 20, then right on Interstate 39. I’m now locked in for my 90-minute drive back to Naperville, back to home.
My iPhone automatically connects to the car’s Bluetooth audio system. I hit the quick dial button on my Flex and dial up my sister, Carol. I often talk to Carol on my long drive home from Rockford.
Carol has favorite subjects that typically center on politics and food plans. However, in a 90-minute drive, there is always time for other topics. On this Friday we talk about kids, various weekend plans, and my upcoming 65th birthday party. Curiously, she brings up a memory from 60 years ago. What makes this memory unique is that it doesn’t represent a milestone or major event. Instead, it is a simple memory that generally would be lost to time. Making this recollection even more surprising is the fact that it is also a memory that I distinctly remember. It is the memory of my sister’s slumber party.
I travel back to the late 1950s. Back to my Southwest Side Chicago home. The old bungalow desperately in need of repair, the one with broken furniture and worn carpeting. My sister is having a slumber party with several of her girlfriends from college. The house is cleaned to the best of its ability; snacks are at the ready, clean sheets are on the beds. I am there as a five-year-old boy, and I serve as a diversion for the 20-year-old guests. We are playing hide-and-seek in the house. I laugh with one of them as she finds me hiding behind a shirt in a tiny closet. The next day I hear my sister recounting the get-together to my mother. She tells her how this guest commented on what a kind little boy I was. I find the description of me upsetting. Even at the age of 5, I know that my family prizes intelligence above all. In my child’s mind, I wished that Carol’s friend reported that I was smart, not kind.
Kindness didn’t seem like much of a prized quality; it was just who I was. Why wouldn’t I be kind? Everyone can be kind; this attribute didn’t make me unique at all. Being smart, that would make me special. Being smart would make my father more interested in me. Kindness felt like a weakness. A person who could be taken advantage. Someone who was not tough. Another one of my defects. I couldn’t imagine my father putting his arm around my shoulders as he announced to our neighbors, “I’m so proud of Michael, he is so kind.”
Fast forward to late 2017 and my impending retirement from private practice. My office staff had contacted my referral sources and my patients and asked them to write a memory about me. My referral sources commented about my diagnostic skills and the quality of care that I delivered. Their overall theme was that I was smart.
However, my patients saw me in an entirely different light. Almost universally they commented on the fact that I listened to them, didn’t judge them, and was kind to them. Clearly, the most important qualities that I possessed for them. These were patients who I brought back from suicidal depression, severe psychosis, and life-disabling anxiety. Their comments were not about my expertise in psychopharmacology. This seemed irrelevant or at least expected. What was most important to them was that I was kind to them. A quality that was lacking in other relationships in their lives.
Fast forward to last week and to the gift that my wife gave me. She had also “commissioned” a memory book. This one created from my friends and relatives letters.
I am now back home from the party, and she presents me with my memory book. The first letter is from her. She recounts memories from the past. Our marriage, the birth of our kids, other events. Woven into her recollections is a theme. She notes how kind I am. I start to read the letters from my kids, and a similar tone is indicated. That theme carries through the other letters and cards in my memory book. The memories are different, but the description of kindness remains the same. As I read, I reflect on my kids. They are all brilliant, but they are also very kind. I am so proud that they are kind. I tear up and I fill with emotion.
Dear reader, I am fortunate to travel in circles of smart people. Smart people are interesting, they are quick thinking, and fun to talk to. I like intelligent people, and I enjoy being around them.
Some smart people do great things with their intelligence; some do nothing with their intelligence. Some smart people use their intelligence to help others; some use their intelligence to take advantage of others. Some intelligent people are kind, some intelligent people are mean and spiteful.
We can all strive to learn and grow, but you either have an innate intelligence, or you don’t. Kindness is universally accessible to all. It is entirely free and takes little effort. Being kind makes you feel good. Being kind makes others feel good. In a kind world everyone benefits. So why is it that people choose to be unkind? Why is it that we prize “reality” TV shows where we enjoy seeing others being humiliated or shamed? Why is it that we love to brag to others that we have more than they do when their envy contributes zero to our lives? Why is it that we choose to hurt when it would be just as easy to be caring and supportive?
For whatever reason, the people around me think I’m a kind person. Now at 65, I have come to understand the importance of what my sister’s friend told her 60 years earlier. Kindness does matter, its importance equals or exceeds intelligence. What would you prefer, a kind and loving parent/spouse/friend, or a brilliant but mean and spiteful one?
Dear reader, I would like to challenge you today to make an active effort to be kind to those you encounter. Kindness matters.