Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Power of Kindness

Sometimes a random word of kindness is all that’s necessary to transform someone’s entire existence, and it’s so little cost to us. There’s a wonderful story I heard several years ago. The teller, we’ll call him John, claimed that it was true. John had just come from a self-help seminar in which the instructor had recommended that the participants find something good to say to everyone they meet. Walking down the street, John encountered a homeless man, dirty, dejected, slumped, and dressed in rags. He asked for loose change, and John obliged him. Then, remembering his instructor’s advice, he sought something nice to say to the beggar, but all he could notice that wasn’t hideous were the man’s socks. They were red and appeared cleaner than the rest of his outfit. John looked the man in the eye, said “Nice socks!” smiled, and walked on.

A couple weeks later, John was walking down the same street, and he saw the same man. But this time, he wasn’t begging. He wasn’t dirty. He wasn’t slumped. And, he wasn’t dressed in rags. He recognized John at once and walked briskly towards him, smiling, with moisture in his eyes. He shook John’s hand vigorously and told him the following story. “For the last few years, my life has been very hard. I fell on bad times. I lost my wife, my family, my job, and my home. I began to drink and lost all sense of pride. Eventually, I sank as low as I could go. The day you saw me, I had decided to kill myself. I’d already gotten a gun and was going to use it on myself that afternoon. I’d reasoned that my life didn’t matter and that nobody would miss me. I was certain that there wasn’t another human being who even noticed me as a person. When you stopped to speak with me, you looked kind. You looked right at me, as if I really mattered. Then, you complimented my socks. They were new and the only thing in which I took any pride. Your words and your kindness made me think that perhaps there was more hope to be had than I realized. Perhaps I did matter. Perhaps I was noticeable. I resolved that day to turn over a new leaf. I got cleaned up. I found nice clothes at the Salvation Army. I stopped drinking. I went to an AA meeting, and I even started looking for a job. I want to thank you…for giving me my life back.”

Then, he hugged John, looked him deeply in the eye and walked away, leaving John in a state of shock, his eyes filled with tears and with a stronger appreciation than ever of the power of a kind word.

How often are we given the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life and fail to realize the power we possess? How often do we take our words for granted, unaware of their life-changing capabilities? How often do we opt for being curt or dismissive, when it would take no more effort to be empowering and loving? I hope that you, like me, are moved by this story and that you’ll now make the effort to say words of kindness and encouragement…on the chance that they will change someone’s life.

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