by Lillian Ireland
WORDS – spoken, written, sung, or even withheld – serve many purposes.
Words can lift, crush, empower or embitter. They can bridge and unite us. They can incite emotion and deepen or destroy a relationship. They can encourage and help give insight, or they can wreak havoc and divide.
Withholding words can also speak volumes. When withheld, this can confuse and cause anxiety, speak indifference, offer space for valued reflection or even tell a story.
Words are vital ways to communicate, yet are merely thoughts and emotions strung together.
Over the last few months our human pace has changed, with more time to feel the human heart beating. Through a confluence of trying factors, including global grief and quarantine fatigue, our emotions are no longer buried or pushed aside. Autopilot is off, distractions are reduced, and the rawness of suffering can be seen and felt no matter where we are. But, even with the turmoil and upheaval, there is also enormous courage and hope.
And, even though we have witnessed humanity at its worst, we are seeing glimmers of it at its best.
Several days ago, in Louisville, Kentucky, gut-level heroism was recorded then viewed by millions. After a lone patrol officer was surrounded by upset protesters filled with justifiable grief, pain and anger over George Floyd’s tragic murder and other historical racial injustices that continue in the US, in Canada and around the world, a lone man of colour stepped forward to protect and shield the officer. Another man immediately stepped forward and linked arms. Then another then another then another. They didn’t know each other, but they acted spontaneously. Five men showed bold kindness to a vulnerable stranger. Holding themselves and each other accountable by protecting the lone officer was their unspoken motivation. Why would they?
Darrin Lee Jr. said, “Once I saw the guy with the red mask step up, I said, “I gotta step up.” It was reactive, I just went.”
Doing the right thing under pressure is never easy. Yet science has shown that witnessing an altruistic act elevates our wellbeing and can change us for the better. The five selfless men shielding the lone officer, when the outcome could have been drastically different, showed a great example of prosocial behaviour. This positively influenced not only the bystanders, but the millions who later witnessed their self-sacrificing and courageous kindheartedness.
As well as acts of human heroism, there are countless documented stories of valor within different species and between species. The recent World Oceans Day reminded me of Nan Hauser, a marine biologist who stated in 2018 that a humpback whale saved her from a tiger shark attack in the waters near the Cook Islands. Nan told how the humpback nudged her out of harm’s way, then tucked her under its fin to move her away from the shark towards safety. Skeptics can argue her story but there are abundant documented accounts ranging from birds assisting each other to elephant altruism to different marine life coming to the aid of their own and various species.
Think of how you feel when you connect with different creatures, be it a tiny kitten purring on your lap or a dog hovering close by after a bad day or you see the first fluttering butterfly in spring or hear a migrating goose fly overhead, or hear the murmuring of a newborn animal.
It’s also known that trees, for their survival, are deeply interconnected and transfer water, nutrients and minerals through mycorrhizal networking. The interplay, dubbed the wood wide web describes their vital interactions.
Similarly, our survival is also profoundly dependent on communication, cooperation and community. Like the phenomenal interdependence of tree roots communing in the belly of the forests, we are interconnected. We need each other and we also need to do things better.
Countless emotions come to the forefront as we face systemic discrimination around the world. Memories can flood our minds as we witness it on our screens. Last night as I held my daughter who was filled with anguish, wondering if she too could ever be targeted, we recounted three personal accounts with police. One was her uncle, badly beaten by three officers in his own home during a mental health ‘wellness’ call. A second was an intervention in another community where he was given respect and care. Their trained staff working with a mental health crisis team helped restore his dignity. The third was a heart-wrenching takedown in front of her at a peaceful rally because a man with her same coloured skin spat after seeing a disabled woman pushed by police. A second officer was asked to participate in the takedown, but out of his conscience, he refused.
At this time in history, as we look at our own thoughts or acted-out biases, there is opportunity for change. Despair can immobilize but action can and does empower. I remember a simple phrase from my youth which has stayed with me for over five decades: think globally, act locally.
How can I show that I value another? What does it even mean to value another?
As the pandemic has proceeded over the last few months, I’ve intentionally made a point to acknowledge and show appreciation to at least one new person daily. One act a day.
Do I have to? No. Do I need to? No. Then why?
I can’t control many things, but I can work at controlling my actions and reactions and hope they may affect others positively during these difficult months. Time is non-renewable, so why not intentionally look for opportunities to offer kindness.
I recently shopped for materials for several home projects which were long overdue. Not really a DIY person, I was grateful for all the assistance the different staff provided in their various departments. As I was leaving the store, I asked the clerk whether she had continued to work over the last few months. She said she had and I warmly thanked her. She seemed unusually grateful for my simple words of appreciation. Through her mask, she stated that she and others had received harsh words and frustration from some irate customers, so she was thankful to hear kind words that day. I later called the store offering a few positive words to the manager, since I remembered four different people helped with information for my budding projects. The manager said customers don’t often call giving commendations, so appreciated the positive words and would relay them to the staff. When I saw the checkout clerk a week later, she beamed as she thanked me for acknowledging her to her manager. She had received special recognition for simply being kind.
Several weeks earlier, after a quick fill at a gas station, I called and spoke with the manager thanking her for her staff’s diligence and friendliness. I had noticed they were purposely trying to make a public difference to lift their customers’ spirits and had certainly brightened my day. In conversation, I was disheartened to hear that several of her young workers had also recently been harassed for unknown reasons.
I remembered our children in their teen years were occasionally bullied while working in their early jobs. My stepson, at age 17, had worked as a gas station attendant and on one occasion a customer, claiming to have a concealed weapon, proceeded to rob the station. We were later on our knees with tears and gratitude that he was not injured.
Fifty years earlier, as a teenager, I was waiting on tables in an understaffed highway café on the Trans-Canada highway in southern Alberta. I had been at my first job only a few weeks, then found myself running in circles trying to serve every customer that busy Saturday. The other waitress had called in sick, so I was alone except for the cook. The burden weighed heavily on my shoulders – taking orders, serving food and beverages to the correct customers, cleaning each table afterwards and managing the cash register. As my first job, this definitely taught me how to macro-manage!
At age 16, after spilling a little soup on a customer and filled with concern for the patron, embarrassment and shame, I wanted to run and hide, but knew I couldn’t. One customer recognized how stressed I was and later left a rather large tip. I was definitely surprised and, as a high school student saving for university, I was grateful. Yet, more importantly, she had written a few simple words of appreciation on a clean napkin and left it near her plate, knowing I’d see it as I cleaned her table. I was moved by her small extra act of generosity. She saw that I was trying my best under unusual and very challenging circumstances. She acknowledged and had empathy for my situation.
Instead of continuing to feel embarrassed, insecure and painfully inept, my self-esteem rose by her (in)significant action – a few kind words of praise and reassurance written on a napkin. I made it through the shift and took the folded napkin home with me. Those simple words of kindness meant far more than her tip. I don’t think I’ve ever faced such an intense work day since, but it paved the way for acknowledging public workers/public servants – folks who smile while trying to please, knowing they frequently fall short, but still give their best. A humble offering of heart-felt words can change one’s direction and can offer encouragement to keep carrying on.
In these days of unusual and unprecedented change and challenges, simple words of acknowledgement and respect can go a long way to lift a young teenager, a frustrated child, an overworked personal attendant, an exhausted nurse, a fatigued clerk, an overwrought parent, a downtrodden friend or spouse, a neighbour struggling with a new language, a grieving stranger, a newly-unemployed acquaintance, an elder sacrificing by honouring physical distancing, folks re-shelving products in a store, waste collectors, gas station attendants, a newspaper carrier, a person hunkered down sitting alone on the curb, a person marching with a placard, a radio announcer, a young student attempting new ways of learning, a teacher attempting new ways of teaching, a doctor advising over the phone, decision makers making extraordinary choices and countless others striving to be accountable.
As well as navigating their own personal frustrations and challenges through the pandemic, many are trying to do their best for those around them. The least we can do is heed the words of Dr. Bonnie Henry (BC’s Provincial Health Officer). Her message to British Columbians every day has focused on empathy and collective understanding more than restrictions and criticizing. She has frequently ended her media briefings with “This is our time to be kind….” Simple words in a specific word order promoting kindness first.
As humans, we generally excel with positive reinforcement more so than critical judgement.
I remember an elementary school initiative which changed the dynamics of our student population many years ago. It was called Catch Them Doing Good. Students and staff were to watch for positive behaviour in others. Then the behaviour was publicly acknowledged in the classroom. This was followed with quick reinforcement. A note was sent to the principal who then wrote a certificate of praise which was visibly placed on the wall outside the office. The observed behaviours included a student tying a younger student’s shoes, polite and respectful language used in a tough situation, offering a sandwich to a student without lunch, inviting/including a shy student into an activity, etc.
Their actions were not taken for granted; they were validated. The wall was quickly covered and the “kindness certificates” trailed down the hallway. The students’ positive acts which decorated the school walls changed the school atmosphere. Children wanted to be caught “doing good” and have their empathy-based social interactions acknowledged. In the lives of those five hundred students, acknowledging their caring actions became the cornerstone for change along the kindness continuum. Kindness begets kindness.
In 2001 Ward Clapham, a Sergeant in Canada’s third largest RCMP detachment, Richmond BC “believed that every breakthrough first required a break with the old paradigms, practices, and principles that tethered people and organizations to the status quo”
Ward began a program called Positive Tickets geared specifically for young people. Positive Tickets were issued with the same premise as Catch Them Doing Good, focusing on acknowledgement, connection and positive encouragement. Staff were trained to be proactive and see the youth with new eyes. The mindset had shifted from negative encounters to positive connections and affirmations. The Positive Tickets were issued as free admission passes for movies and recreation along with phone numbers for a youth crisis line, health clinic, foodbank, transit info, etc. Of course, transparency and accountability were necessary but, not surprisingly, Richmond’s youth-related service calls dropped significantly and long-term healthy relationships developed. Everyone benefited from this prosocial initiative which still continues, nearly two decades later.
It has been proven that thoughtful actions and words of empathy, respect and appreciation can change the direction of a child, a young teenager, a school, a neighbourhood, an organization and beyond.
Centuries ago, St. Francis of Assisi said, “A single sunbeam is enough to drive away many shadows.” I believe simple words of appreciation or bold acts of kindness can do the same today.