“Kindness can be learned, but you must teach it.” — Anonymous
“We don’t want to do it this year.” So said my two daughters a few weeks ago, referring to our annual exchange of gifts for the 43+ souls that annually gather at our house on Christmas Eve. “We want to do something more meaningful than spend on material things,” they finished. My heart filled with pride. That’s how I was taught too.
Two things were certain on Christmas when I was young girl. The first sure thing is that we would have to anxiously wait at the front kitchen window for my dad to come home after working all night driving trains in the bitter cold. My mom insisted that he be there to share in the gift opening. It was the longest few hours of my young life. Every Christmas morning the five of us kept watch for the next set of car headlights coming down the snow-covered road, hoping it was dad. One by one, cars would slowly pass by our house and our hopes were dashed until finally our father would drive up the roadway, exhausted but thrilled to be with his family. When dad’s car door finally opened and shut, mom lined up her five children from the youngest to the oldest and guided us to the Christmas tree, with dad in tow. It was a ritual to postpone a child’s joy and anticipation, and it was an authentic act of kindness to ensure that both parents enjoyed what they both deserved to share.
The other sure thing on Christmas was a visit to Mrs. Robinson’s, an elderly and blind widow who lived with her “spinster” daughter, an exceptionally tall and thin woman with sunken brown eyes and skin that seemed to drape from her chin to her collarbone. It was a humble brick house that had a distinct and unfamiliar smell — the smell of old people, I thought. Funny how certain smells trigger vivid memories. My siblings and I would sit quietly on the tattered sofa while my parents visited with the Robinsons. Every visit, we were offered red and white ribbon hard candy, the same candy we were offered the year prior. Even the candy tasted like the smell of the house.
Visiting the Robinsons was my least favorite thing about Christmas, or so I then believed. Mrs. Robinson had befriended mom and my two older brothers while my dad served in the Navy during World War II. It was a trying time for mom, left behind with two little sons to care for with very sporadic letters from dad, constantly wondering about his safety as he fought in the Pacific. As a young kid, I failed to understand why mom wanted to spend a slice of Christmas Day with the Robinsons. But each time we left that house, I knew what kindness felt like.
It is undisputed that human brains manage emotions and actions. Our brain takes the input we receive from others, processes the information and tells us how to emotionally respond. Our actions become the response. In essence, the brain is in charge of kindness. Our brain learns best about kindness when it feels kindness.
That brings me back to the here and now, to Christmas 2017. Our family will visit Columbus Community Center this week, at the urging of two wonderful daughters who understand the power of kindness and the responsibility to teach kindness to their own children. It won’t be our first Christmas visit there, or our last. Columbus Community Center is filled with joyful people with severe and moderate disabilities and dedicated employees who care for them, provide activities for them and find meaningful employment for them. It is an alluring and inspiring place.
Kindness seems innate among those with intellectual challenges. This week my family will again be the benefactors of their joy as we make colorful Christmas cards with cotton ball snowmen and sing along with the boisterous voices of the inhabitants of Columbus Community Center. They will again remind us, and teach us, what kindness feels like.
On my bed stand sits a stitched plaque, placed there because I need the constant reminder. It says, “What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness.” It’s a good reminder for all of us, and particularly important this time of year.
Patricia W. Jones is CEO of the Women's Leadership Institute, a 501(c)3 based at the Salt Lake Chamber. She was a co-founder and former president of Dan Jones & Associates. She served in both the Utah House and Senate for a total of 14 years, holding leadership positions 12 of those 14 years. She was elected minority leader of the Senate in 2008, the first woman of either party elected to lead a caucus in the Utah Legislature.