Posted by Roger Mallett Posted on 30 March 2024

The Renaissance of Our Hearts

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.

Naomi Shihab Nye

It was one of those days.

Nothing catastrophic happened but it seemed that, if a little thing could go wrong, it did. The morning that began with a symphony of micro-disasters — stepping into a deceptively deep puddle and forgetting to put grounds in the Moka pot — culminated in a comical exit from the local grocer. One too many bags in one hand and an exasperated toddler in the other, just as I was getting a grip on my chaotic entourage, one of the bags gave way to a tumble of bruised bananas, runaway limes, and an upside-down carton of half-cracked eggs. Threads unraveling, whits end, all that.

And then, a little thing happened.

A woman entering the store corralled my battered limes, looked me in the eye, smiled at my daughter, and said, “I remember those days.” It wasn’t much but, also, it was everything. It wasn’t just the help that mattered, though I surely needed it. She injected a little connection, a little humanity into my moment of chaos. In her one small act of kindness, she created space for something sacred. Like a handshake, moving aside to let someone pass, or saying “Bless you” when a stranger sneezes, these microscopic interactions are often considered meaningless and expendable. But, once they are gone, something palpable is lost.

Early on in the pandemic, I remember people trying to hold onto normal interactions despite the restrictions. They would say “Have a nice day” at a distance or smile knowing their mouths couldn’t be seen but hoping the creases around the eye would divulge their intent. But, gradually, those things started to disappear. We couldn’t see faces so why bother giving them expressions? We weren’t supposed to touch so how could we hold a door without becoming negligent?

And then common phrases like “Thank you” and “Enjoy your coffee” gradually slipped away altogether. Slowly, these niceties are being resurrected but I feel a concertedness to them. We have to think hard, to remember how to do them. Fake it until you make it, maybe. Or maybe we aren’t sure they matter, or aren’t sure how they will be received. Will our offerings be rejected? If they are, will we be able to take it? We have, in general, landed ourselves in an empathy deficit and it’s not clear what payment could put us back in the black.

As an introvert, an Enneagram 4, and a philosopher, I am not the first person to lead with gestures and physical contact. I can be a bit standoffish, preferring to observe human nature from the sidelines…or from a passably comfortable park bench. But I do notice when these things are gone. And I wonder how their absence has changed us over the last few years.

There’s no doubt that the world in which we live is a broken one. And it’s hard to be a whole person in a broken place. We’ve undergone a radical polarization, the greatest cost of which is a loss of humanity. It’s not just that we see the other as wrong or misguided, or that our disagreements are deep and entrenched, but we no longer seem to see the other as a being human like us, as deserving of kindness, or needing it.

Read More – The Renaissance of Our Hearts

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