Our everyday actions seem to make shallow, transitory changes in the universe like the ripples in a pond after you toss in a stone. That’s how it looks to the thrower. The pond may have a different point of view. On a number of occasions, strangers have stopped me on the street to ask, “Do you remember me?” I rarely do. It’s usually someone I saw in therapy some time ago. Consistently what people remember from therapy is not some blinding insight, sudden epiphany, or intellectual discovery. What people remember is that I was kind.
When I was at my lowest emotionally and physically during recovery from a bone marrow transplant I remember a cleaning lady in the hospital who went out of her way to be comforting and reassuring. At the time I could not stand on my own, or pay attention to anything as complicated as a half hour television program. I knew time was passing because my wife wore different clothing over time; medical staff came and went. The day and date written on a white board in the room changed. The sky got lighter or darker. I came to look forward to her mopping the floor.
After I was released from the hospital, I attended a cancer center every day. One day a nursing aide who saw me shivering brought me a warmed blanket. That day I had uncontrolled diarrhea. I had soiled the clothes I wore in and several patient gowns. I would have felt thirsty and hungry if my entire digestive tract didn’t rebel at the very idea of ingesting water and food. The medical staff discussed putting me back in the hospital. I did not want to go back. I had no particular interest in continuing to live in unrelenting misery either. But I felt her kindness and it was one of the reasons I wanted to keep living.
We seldom know the consequences of small acts of kindness.