“She said, ‘I walked out of Auschwitz into life…I will never say anything that couldn’t stand as the last thing I ever say.” ~Benjamin Zander, Lessons from Auschwitz
Today, I will speak good words. It’s that simple, after all, isn’t it? I just decide I want to speak kindness into others’ lives, and it happens. What also happens is the person in the store waiting on me is busy talking to a buddy and seems to forget I’m the customer. The car in front of me doesn’t have a turn signal that works (I’m assuming, since it didn’t come on before that last turn). The company I called to get service for our appliance left me on hold for twelve minutes with really bad elevator music. Before you know it, my good intentions of speaking kindness have been challenged with unintended utterances.
People are watching, though, and how I treat the person waiting in line ahead of me, how I speak to the tired server who just had a party of five pay without leaving a tip, or how I speak to the child who wants to share the highlight of his day with me will matter. If it’s the last thing they hear or the last thing I say, let it be remembered kindly.
At my age, I am the oldest in many groups and the youngest in many others. I’m sometimes treated as the older lady and often as the kid, and I rarely feel that I’m treated unkindly. It wasn’t always that way, though. It has taken many years and lots of good counsel to teach me that I should expect kindness from other people, and I hope they expect it from me. There are still folks who think I need a thicker skin, but most people are pretty nice. I guess it’s the old adage that people are about as nice as you expect them to be. Today, I have no problem telling you if you are being unkind–to me or to someone else. There is no room for meanness in my life, and it’s one of the things that most upsets me: mean people.
In talking to people who are 70, 17, and many ages in between, I’ve come up with one certainty:
People (teachers, preachers, coaches, parents, neighbors, and strangers) need to spend a few minutes considering how they are treating young people and how they hope to be remembered.
It is the teachers like Mrs. Emmalou Huddleston, my first grade teacher, who are remembered for their kindness to every child. I never saw Mrs. Huddleston belittle a student, nor did I see Mrs. Welch, my eighth grade English teacher, do anything but encourage students in their studies. There were other teachers, however, who I remember just as clearly because of how they treated students unkindly, mockingly. Reading those descriptions, which kind of teacher or adult are you?
Because a child, a teenager, or an adult thinks differently, eats differently, or dresses differently does not mean they are less worthy of kindness. When I see a young person (or any other person), my first thought really is that I have an opportunity to impact their day and their life. Some of them drive me nuts, and I might be ashamed of my thinking at times, but I want to never be ashamed of my words or actions toward them. I want that for you, too.
With so much research to convince us that positive words spoken to others bring positive results for the speaker and the listener, there should be nothing keeping us from offering good, kind, and encouraging words to people–young or old. Yet, life gets in the middle of our day and redirects our best intentions. Before we know it, we’ve snapped at the salesperson, fumed at the slowpoke in front of us, or made fun of the person so different from ourselves simply because we’ve lost our focus on what matters.
We might not be walking away from Auschwitz, but we certainly are walking into life, and every day, in every encounter, we should ask ourselves Am I ok with this being the last thing I’ve spoken or they’ve heard? And every time we answer, No, we should take the time to fix it.
The young girl in your classroom who is neither popular nor pretty in your simple opinion has potential to be a most wonderful part of society. The president of the company who is thirty years your junior might be less experienced but more in touch with what you, as the customer, need. I might sit at the feet of those older than I to learn history, yet I want to be available and happy to share knowledge I possess that is somewhat foreign to them.
The life you treat with kindness today in your classroom, the student you treat as an individual full of potential, will be the life that enriches your own. The mechanic, the garbage man, the nail tech, the fireman, the nurse, or the teacher to whom you show respect today will be the person who walks away from your encounter certain that they are better for knowing you.
Walking away from an incident in which I spoke with unkindness, I was not unlike the woman from Auschwitz. I want to always be remembered for the kindness I showed, the encouragement I offered. I want that for me, and I want it for you.
Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. ~Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama