The Kindness of Strangers

by Carol Hess on October 22, 2012

Every weekday morning, I start my day by working out in the local YMCA pool. I never in a million years thought I would get up at the ungodly hour of 5 am to do such a thing. I also never thought in a million years I would come to enjoy it so much.

Yes, I enjoy the exercise and how I feel afterward, both physically and emotionally. And I like getting to know my fellow pool people. But I think what I enjoy most is starting my day with so much kindness. There’s kindness everywhere at my local Y.

There’s the receptionist Crystal who knows everyone’s name and remembers to ask after ailing Aunt Susan.  There are the lifeguards, Kathy and Carl, who assist, in the most respectful and unobtrusive way, those who need help entering the pool safely.  And I can’t forget my fellow younger (as in under age 80) pool people like George and Lucy who patiently listen to our older members recounting lengthy medical histories and complicated family trees.  Finally, there are the old timers – Evelyn, Jean, Marie, Yvonne, Doris, Jackie — who have been coming to the Y for over 20 years and who graciously welcomed this newcomer into their midst.  Kindness is alive and well at 6 am at the Casco Bay YMCA.

My pool mornings are a good influence on me.  They are softening me, opening me up, changing me for the good.  I like to think I’m kind, but the truth is I haven’t always slowed down long enough to really connect with the people I run into in my daily life.  I’ve been polite, usually pleasant, but not always kind.

Kindness takes time.  We need to stop rushing around and get present to the moment, make an effort, be patient, remain aware.  All of this and more is demanded if we’re going to establish that particular heart-to-heart connection that characterizes kindness.

Maybe that’s why I see more kindness being shown by the very young or by the elderly.  Those of us who don’t fall into those categories are in too much of a hurry and living too much in anticipation of the future.  We can’t do that and stay present to the opportunity to give (or, for that matter, receive) kindness.

There’s another key component of kindness – empathy.  The very young among us haven’t yet learned to shut down their ability to put themselves in the other guy’s shoes.  That’s why one crying toddler soon turns into a room full of crying toddlers.

As for the elderly, they’ve had ample personal experience that life can be tough and that we all can use some kindness to help get us through.  Kindness requires a “there but for the grace of God go I” perspective — an identification with, not a comparison to.

I’m a little bit ashamed to admit it, but I used to think kindness was rather bland – right down there with niceness.  I didn’t value it highly as a characteristic in others or as a value in my own life.  But I’ve changed my mind.  Significantly.

I actually believe kindness is transformative.  It transforms the person who is on the receiving end, and it most definitely transforms the person on the giving end.  It opens the heart in a way nothing else does.  It’s a soul-to-soul recognition that we all have one very important thing in common – our humanity.  That recognition goes a long way to breaking through our self-imposed isolation from each other.

Kindness also carries an element of unconditional love in it.  No wonder it is so transformative.  Love, especially when it asks and expects nothing, is the most powerful agent for transformation there is.

It doesn’t seem to much matter whether I am the giver, receiver, or witness to kindness.  It moves me to tears most times.  It touches my heart in places that haven’t been touched before.  Each act of kindness is burned into my memory. Those days when the world feels too harsh and life too difficult, I play my kindness slideshow and am restored.

Some of my favorite kindness slides from my life –

  • The African man who spent all morning walking the streets of the European neighborhoods of Bujumbura, carrying little lost Per Hansen, until he finally found where the 2 year-old lived.
  • The woman in the hospital sitting next to her dying friend who interrupted her praying long enough to be sure I was all right when I regained consciousness after surgery.
  • My mother’s long-time hairdresser who was unfailingly sweet and patient with Mom when my mother’s dementia made communication next to impossible.
  • The young boy who took the shy little visitor to his home by the hand and showed her his ant farm and made silly faces until she smiled.

What about you?  What is the most memorable act of kindness you’ve ever witnessed or participated in?  Share it with us below.  Let’s make the world a kinder, gentler place.


by Carol Hess


Categories Carol's Musings, The Art of Star Polishing

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jennifer Boykin October 22, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Beyond lovely. I’m sharing it with everyone I know.


avatar Carol Hess October 22, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Thank you, Jen. I appreciate it.


avatar Staci Boden October 22, 2012 at 5:28 pm

Thank you, Carol, for reminding us about what’s important in life–kindness–and some ways we can embody it.

Some kind moments that have touched me deeply:
-my 3 year-old daughter (now 17) carrying ants in her little hands from our home to safety outside.
-my husband stopping everything to rescue a stray dog and bringing it to our local animal care & control (where it was found by relieved owners). He’s done that several times.
-when my daughter became seriously ill at 15, my then 12 year-old son changed his facebook profile picture to one with him and his older sister. He did this completely on his own and kept it up for months without saying why (because she wasn’t public about being sick on facebook).

As I write this, I’m realizing that a big part of kindness is taking action in some way. We all need to cultivate more kindness in our lives, so thank you for the inspiration.


avatar Carol Hess October 23, 2012 at 9:06 am

I love the kind moments you shared, Staci. And, yes, I came to the same conclusion — that kindness is active. It’s doing something. I wanted to talk about that in the post and forgot. So glad you brought our attention to this important component of kindness.


avatar Sarah October 23, 2012 at 10:23 am

What a great article and touching on so many beautiful points. In this day of cell phones and instant gratitification, it seems people think of little more than themselves, so isn’t it nice to take some chunks out our days and be especially kind to others. I loved your examples of generosity of spirit especially. What I have found is just a giving someone a great big smile can do a lot and in this way it acknowledges them.
Thank you.


avatar Carol Hess October 23, 2012 at 4:31 pm

You’re so right, Sarah — a big smile can be a very powerful act of kindness. And I love that you called kindness generosity of spirit because that is EXACTLY what it is. Thanks for adding to the conversation here at Star Polisher!


avatar Ellen Berg October 23, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Love this, Carol. I’ve found that the more love I put into the world, the more love comes my way, especially from myself. I didn’t used to trust the kindness of others…I was always suspicious and sure it either involved me becoming indebted to them in some way OR it was a self-serving way to build their image. (Jaded much?) So glad I’ve softened since then. :)


avatar Carol Hess October 24, 2012 at 12:40 pm

I’ve noticed too, Ellen, that the kinder I am with others, the kinder I am with myself, and vice versa. I used to be much more cynical and mistrusting than I am now. Some friends chide me for being so “naive,” but I would rather err on the side of naivete and softness. Sounds like you would too.


avatar Christine October 24, 2012 at 1:04 am

This was such a great reminder of how we can impact anothers life by practicing kindness “daily”. We never really know for sure how far reaching a kind act can be.
What a great example we can all be to the younger people in our lives by being kind. They are watching, whether we know it or not.
Wonderful message, thank you Carol!


avatar Carol Hess October 24, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Yes, Christine, I think a pebble thrown into the kindness pool has ripples we don’t even know about. Maybe that’s what makes it so special.


avatar Lynn Hess October 24, 2012 at 3:01 pm

I hadn’t ever thought about the difference between “everyday” kindness (being polite, nice, gentle) and the deeper, more active way you described it here. I guess I’ve always thought of myself as very kind because I’m pretty darn good at the first one. But I could certainly be more mindful about actually being kind in an invested and connected way. The first way is easier — the latter requires us to go out of our way (and sometimes — gasp! — even be inconvenienced or slowed down!). I’ll be thinking about this one for a while, Carol — thanks so much.


avatar Carol Hess October 25, 2012 at 11:01 am

Lynn, I think being “pretty darn good” at any type of kindness is — well — pretty darn good! :) Last night, I met a young woman with some significant medical challenges. We got talking about kindness, and she is appreciative of it but also yearns for “a deeper relationship.” I think she was referring to that invested, connected kindness that is difficult for all of us for a variety of reasons.


avatar Sarah | Holistic Hot Sauce October 24, 2012 at 6:00 pm

I’m thinking of the time I was dissolved in sobs at Salt Lake City airport when I realized, after being delayed overnight, I wasn’t going to make it back home in time to see my daughter in her starring role in The Wizard of Oz. I’d made the flight from NYC specifically for this. And the kindness in the eyes of the man who approached me to make sure I was okay. Was there anything he could do?

I realized with that same embarrassment that although I consider myself kind that I would rarely take the time to talk to a stranger crying at an airport. I would just assume there was nothing I could do. This made me realize that it’s just the fact that someone cares is doing something! (I made it in time for the play BTW)

Great reminder to slow down and pay attention! It matters.


avatar Carol Hess October 25, 2012 at 1:04 pm

I think you just hit the nail on the head, Sarah. The biggest power kindness carries with it is the message, “You matter.”


avatar Kathy from Bliss Habits October 25, 2012 at 9:49 am

This is so great. I was struck by the line “Kindness takes time.” I don’t often take that time. I am rush rush rushing around most days I barely have time for pleasant. Thank you for this. I plan to slow down today!


avatar Carol Hess October 25, 2012 at 1:06 pm

I think that’s why it’s “easier” for the very young and the older folks to be kind — they have the luxury of time (or they haven’t bought into the rushing lifestyle like the rest of us have!). Thanks for joining the conversation here at Star Polisher, Kathy. :)


avatar Kate October 27, 2012 at 12:05 am

Carol, great entry! I don’t think you need to edit it at all, or maybe you did before I got to it =) Your definition of kindness is broader than the one I was thinking of, more encompassing and more meaningful. And that’s a good thing. While I still believe that in some situations more than kindness is needed, the truth is, in everyday life kindness is the lubrication that makes the world goes round. I too appreciate those moments of recognition, especially when I’m in a store or something, of being recognized by others, a quick but genuine interaction, etc.

Moments of kindness I can remember

The single biggest one that I will forever remember is when I was in Bend, Oregon and desperately needed a ride to Eugene 2 hrs away – or else I’d have to fly to my mom’s in Montana and end my journey for independence once and for all. I (almost) had no one I could ask. I had no time. At 5 pm the day before my flight to Missoula was scheduled, I called a person I had met online but only talked to on the phone once. He lived about 20 minutes away. I met him through a friend of a friend. I explained the situation and asked him if he would possibly be able to drive me to Eugene. I didn’t expect a yes, I really didn’t.

He said yes.

That one simple act of kindness absolutely blew me away and completely changed the course of my life (my journey was able to continue to an eventual positive ending, instead of being stopped cold).

For that small but huge act of kindness – I mean , he didn’t have to, most people wouldn’t have – I will never forget him, and I will always be grateful.


avatar Carol Hess October 27, 2012 at 5:20 am

Hi, Kate! Welcome to the Star Polisher community. I’m so glad you stopped by. And I love your story about an act of kindness that quite literally changed your life. It reaffirms for me that kindness can be a very powerful agent for transformation.


avatar Gillian November 16, 2012 at 2:41 am

Hi Carol, Your article on kindness is lovely – gentle and very moving. I have been blessed by many acts of kindness in my life. But one that comes immediately to mind happened in a matter of moments and touched me deeply. I was sitting in line in the pharmacy waiting for a prescription. I am practically never sick but on this occasion I had the flu, desperately wanted to go home to bed to sleep and was feeling very, very alone. A lady in a sari caught my attention, looked directly at me and gave me the deepest, warmest, kindest smile. And in that moment I no longer felt alone, my heart was touched and tears came to my eyes. A human angel lifted my spirits and went on her way. Gillian.


avatar Carol Hess November 16, 2012 at 10:27 am

It was my turn to have tears come to my eyes, Gillian, when I read your lovely story of kindness from a stranger. Thank you for sharing it with us.


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