A story from my last year in academia: It's the first week of term, students wrangling to get into my over-enrolled classes. After a long day, I receive a phone call from my sister: "Dad's in the hospital. They think he had a stroke." I start sobbing. Jackie quickly replies, "Joy, he's okay. The doctors are doing more tests, but it's probably a mini-stroke. He's okay." The rest of the evening, I process and wait. Before bed, I talk to Dad for a long while. He tells me he's fine, answers my questions, and even sounds happy. I feel reassured though still shaken. (Later, we learn it was bell's-palsy of the 7th optic nerve, not a stroke. How quickly things change. A reminder of the preciousness of life.)
The next morning, I'm exhausted and raw. There's a light knock on my office door. I feel irritable, anticipating yet another student who must get into my class. The student enters and I feel armor encompassing me. She asks if there's space in my course. I firmly say "no." She lingers. I begrudgingly ask about her situation, which she explains in detail. I maintain that the class is full. Then something shifts: I really look at her. I see her as a person, and I see the protection around my heart. I know my class is the best choice for her, and though I feel over-burdened, this isn't her fault. So I invite her in. As she fills out a note card about herself, I take a bathroom break.
In the bathroom stall, I quietly cry. I'm tender and vulnerable, but this armor around my heart isn't helpful. It separates me from myself and others. And it separates me from kindness. So I return to my office and apologize to the student. I tell her about my night. I tell her I'm tired and not my best self. She smiles and says, "It's okay. I really appreciate you letting me in the class."
This was an awakening moment: I saw the importance of kindness. First I saw how kindness gets lost when I armor my heart; how it gets lost in busyness and urgency. Then I saw my path back in: pause, notice, open, and be real. My act of kindness didn't just help this student, it helped me. It helped me return to myself and what I most value.
Now I regularly use kindness to shift my mood or maintain good spirits. These acts needn't be grand. They can be quite ordinary: holding the door for another, giving a genuine compliment, getting coffee for a colleague, smiling at a stranger, or sending well-wishes via postal mail. When I move from a place of kindness, I feel better. I feel more open and connected. And I'm available to accept kindness—to see the good in others.
I think kindness is powerful—more powerful than greed and anger. Whether we give or receive kindness, we benefit. Kindness flows in both directions; it connects us. When we feel overwhelmed, not sure how to navigate this uncertain life, we can take one small step: Be kind. Be kind to ourselves, friends, and strangers. Because kindness changes the world in small yet powerful ways.