By Heidi Shott
After a number of years together, my husband and I determined that we are not meant to be opponents. We can’t play singles tennis; we can barely play ping-pong. We end up feeling bad whether we win or lose. So instead we ski and scuba dive together when we get the chance. There’s no winning or losing, just companionship and wonder. Recently I came to realize that my desire not to whip my husband also applies to my sons and almost everyone else.
I was wasting some time on a game of computer hearts. The game allows you to name the dealer as well as your opponents. For a few weeks I’d been dealing under the name of one of my sons who’d been fiddling around with my computer. But that evening I decided to re-christen myself dealer and name the three other players after my husband and our twin boys. After a few hands, I felt awfully sad. I can’t bear to beat my loved ones, even virtually.
So I thought about people I’d really like to cream. One name, a boss from early in my career, rose to mind immediately, but for the other two – I’m pleased to report – I had to dig down deep. I finally settled on a particularly difficult member of an organization I used to work for and a vindictive college dean about whom I will say nothing because my mother taught me not to say mean things about dead people.
Suddenly, playing computer hearts became exceedingly fun.
While I didn’t mind losing a hand to these three people, I began to take tremendous pleasure in beating them. I thought about what they had in common: one man, two women; two from Maine, one from Virginia; two professional contacts, one academic. What was it that allowed me to hold this antipathy all these years? Then I hit upon it: All three of these people had, at one time, made me feel very small and unworthy.
God has made us so vulnerable, particularly when we are young. An unkind word, a public humiliation, a thoughtless putdown can stay with us over the course of our lives. I have a friend who worked as a newspaper intern during a college summer. One day the paper’s popular columnist carelessly told him, “You can’t write.” It was a throwaway line, but my friend believed it for about 15 years until he took a job that required writing everyday. After awhile he realized he was a very good writer. It had never occurred to him to brush aside what the columnist had said.
On the other hand, those moments when we are singled out, praised and recognized can change the entire course of our lives. We become like spaniels, eager to please, full of good will and belief in all we are capable of.
Here’s a confession: I often think kind things about people, but seldom take the time to tell them. Last week, my sons and I went to a niece’s sixth grade Colonial history play. Though she and her family live nearby, in the busyness of daily life, we seldom connect. After the performance, she approached us to say she was delighted we had come. Will it matter that we attended? Who knows? But I think supporting her interests and cheering her successes over the years will matter a great deal, if we can keep it up.
Practicing the habit of kindness is my discipline this Lent – my plan is to take a moment to write one kind and encouraging note or email to someone who won’t expect it. It’s impossible to know when the stray compliment or the “well done” will indelibly mark someone’s life. As that anonymous 17th Century nun has often been quoted:
“Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places, and talents in unexpected people. And give me, O Lord, the grace to tell them so.”
The habit of kindness can be practiced in all of our worlds – among our families and friends, in our congregations, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods. It’s free, it’s Christ-like, and, unlike ping-pong, everybody wins.
Heidi Shott is Canon for Communications and Social Justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.