Spread kindness, and its benefits might spread to you

Years ago I attended a professional development conference. It was held at a sprawling resort in the Catskill Mountains in New York that had seen much better days. The Homowack Hotel, once richly appointed, was reduced to keeping its carpet together with duct tape. It seemed clear that the dim lighting was not for romance but to hide the dirt and bugs. Meals were served by surly waiters and waitresses. At breakfast the first day, after grumpily being asked, “Whaddaya want?,” waiting too long for the wrong food to arrive and having the plate slammed unapologetically in front of me, I noticed the napkins that were at every place. Two words were emblazoned in red on each one – BE NICE.

At the time, I assumed the napkins were a reminder to the hotel staff they obviously needed. But now that I reflect on it, perhaps the napkins were for the guests. BE NICE to your server. She’s been working in this dump for 30 years making minimum wage. He’s been listening to people complain about the free-flowing food when he might have a bare cupboard at home. Her feet hurt. His back hurts. Surely they could use a kind word.

The notion of kindness is a cornerstone of many faiths and is present in many Jewish texts. It is not merely a nice thing to do – it is a mitzvah, a positive commandment. The Jewish daily morning liturgy begins with several paragraphs about acts of loving kindness. One from the Talmud compares tzedakah, roughly translated as charity, to deeds of loving kindness. “Deeds of loving kindness are superior to tzedakah in three respects. Tzedakah can be accomplished only with money; deeds of loving kindness can be accomplished through personal involvement as well as with money. Tzedakah can be given only to the poor; kindness can be done for both rich and poor. Tzedakah applies only to the living; kindness applies both to the living and the dead.” Indeed “true kindness” is the translation of the Hebrew phrase referring to acts done to prepare a dead body for burial. There can be no doubt that in this circumstance the person performing the deed is doing so with absolutely no expectation of any repayment.

Each of us is responsible for sharing kindness in our own communities. And so, a large number of campus organizations have declared November “Month of Kindness” at the University. The mission is simple – to bring kindness and civility to the forefront of the campus community. We agreed it would be wonderful to shine the spotlight on the wide range of kindnesses taking place on campus and in the process transform a culture of cynicism into a culture of compassion. Perhaps by focusing on kindness in November, we can make an impression that will last the rest of the year.

It has been overwhelming, but perhaps not surprising, how strong the reception to this idea has been on campus. In the wake of budget cuts, rising tuition, strikes, riots, the recent tragedy of the apartment fire, not to mention recent world affairs such as Sept. 11, 2001, and the war and its aftermath in Iraq, people recognize that kind acts have a healing quality. Stress is running high and it is fascinating to note that studies show acts of kindness can result in significant health benefits, both physical and mental, for both the receiver and giver.

The world has a lot of problems. And we are not going to solve them or make everyone healthy by holding a month of kindness. But we can surely brighten someone’s day by taking an extra 10 seconds to share a kind word. We all can strive to engage in respectful discourse that allows us to express our opinions without denigrating those of others. The college campus is a community of people from different backgrounds, experiences and cultures. Each of us can do our part to unite the campus by encouraging acts of kindness that create an environment filled with goodwill, tolerance, pluralism and openness.

Amy Olson is executive director of Hillel, the Jewish student center at the University. She welcomes comments at [email protected]