Sunday, November 23, 2008

A kind word

As children we all repeated a little chant: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me." We did so in an attempt to turn away hurtful things someone else had said to or about us. As we grew older, we learned that words not only could hurt us, they could devastate us. And some of us then learned to be careful of our own use of words and to protect ourselves from the words of others.

Odd, then, how we were never taught about the healing use of words as well as the hurtful ones. How we can say a small thing that will brighten and transform the life of another, in large ways or small ways, often without our even knowing that we have done so. We can say just the thing someone has needed to hear and bring joy where there had previously been pain. We can make both small and large contributions to someone else's self image merely by opening our mouths and saying a heartfelt kind word.

Many years ago, I was walking down a deserted hallway in a university building. A strange woman, whom I had never seen before, was walking towards me. We exchanged the usual acknowledgments of each others' existence and kept on walking. I have no recollection of my state of mind or mood, but in fairly short order, this woman was about to lift it in a way that I have never forgotten. She had just passed me when she stopped, turned back and said, "Has anyone ever told you? You have the most beautiful eyes." This unsolicited compliment from a total stranger did so much to improve that day for me that I remember the moment some 20 years later and, I'm sure, this nice woman has absolutely no memory of it at all. It was just one kind act in what was probably a long series of kind acts in her life.

On another more recent occasion, about 6 or 7 years ago, in re-living a very traumatic event in my life in a very public place, several people approached me with very kind words. But one very dear human said something to me that changed my life. I didn't know it at the time, but I had been holding my breath for 24 years waiting to hear precisely the words he said to me. I was in a bit of a shocked state, so I don't know if he ever realized what a gift he had given me, but it transformed my life and permanently lifted the power of something that had haunted me for many, many years. And I will be eternally grateful.

All too easily we internalize the negative, hurtful words and dismiss the kind ones as though they have less power. Recently, I have been collecting and savoring kind words from others. Usually, they come very unexpectedly and I've learned to reply with a genuine smile and a thank you rather than the expected self-deprecating denial. And then I hug the words to me to savor their warmth for a time. In the past two weeks alone, I've collected quite a few lovely adjectives said to me or about me to others, which cause me to smile and see myself a bit more as others do, a bit more clearly, more positively.

And I am trying to more consciously put those same good feelings back out to others. It is not difficult at all to give half a minute to a genuine compliment or insight to someone. It is so very simple to say, "I just love that you are always so X." "I think it is great when you do Y." "Do you know how wonderful you are?" Anything at all, so long as it is true and good, may be the very thing that someone else needs to hear to make their day or heal some pain. It costs us nothing to boost each other up. There is no need to be suspicious of the motives or intention of these words. And, just like those two people from my past, it may help someone in ways we may never ever realize.

I can't help but believe that if more of us engaged in spontaneous acts and words of kindness that all of us would be better off. I don't know if it would lead to world peace, but it might lead to a lot more inner peace, and it certainly wouldn't lead to more conflict. And it costs us nothing to try.

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