The real test is being kind to unkind people.
I saw this quote on a friend’s Facebook wall and it spoke to me. I believe that it is difficult for any of us to demonstrate courtesy and compassion to someone who is unlikeable in the way in which they treat others. As I considered the idea of being kind to unkind people I thought of a man who lived near my family when I was about six or seven years old. His house was across the street from ours, situated on the corner of the block. The location was such that people constantly passed in front of his home which he meticulously kept in a lovely state. He was particularly proud of his grass which adorned his lawn like a thick green carpet. He was continually fertilizing, trimming, and watering. It appeared to be more than just a hobby. It was an obsession, and his efforts paid off because there was no yard as beautiful as his.
There were many children who lived nearby. Virtually every residence was filled with boisterous and happy kids, but the man had only his wife. For reasons that seemed strange to me they had no offspring, and so the man focused hours and hours of attention on his gardening. Because he was unaccustomed to the habits of youngsters he seemed almost afraid of us as we ran up and down laughing and being a bit louder than we probably should have been. He glared at us whenever we passed his way, and woe be unto us if we took the liberty of trodding on his grass. He would howl dire warnings, yelling and screaming that we should never again desecrate his yard with our dirty feet. We received his message with a combination of fear and loathing, thinking him to be a vile creature. We literally hated him, but were also so scared that we took to walking in the street to get past his place rather than tempting the fates by staying on the sidewalk.
I remember complaining to my mother one day, vowing that my friends and I would find a way to show him what it felt like to be treated so badly. I spoke of our loathing for our neighbor, feeling totally justified in my assessment of the situation. My mom listened patiently and then suggested that perhaps the man had reasons for his behavior that we did not know. She urged me not to be unkind but rather to simply be respectful of his wishes, and to be as friendly and kind as I might have been had he been more pleasant.
It was a difficult assignment and I was unable to convince my friends to join me in overlooking the angry threats that he had hurled at us. I was on my own and it was admittedly a frightening place to be, but I slowly began to be neighborly each time I saw the surly guy. I would wave, smile and shout a hello. I would gingerly walk along the sidewalk making it very clear that I was doing my best to be careful. When he was working on the landscaping I complimented his efforts and told him how nice it felt to live across from such a beautiful expanse. Once I even offered to help, knowing that I would no doubt be turned down.
As time passed the man’s demeanor began to change. He would exchange greetings with me and ask me how I was doing. He began to bring vegetables from his backyard garden to our home when he would talk with my mother and tell her how lovely it was to watch the children in the neighborhood having so much fun. He revealed that he and his wife had been unable to have children, but had always hoped that a miracle would bring a child to them. He had been sad and angry that their prayers had been denied, and he had thrown his energies into creating a kind of garden of eden to make his wife happy.
I learned at that very young age that those who are unkind often have become so because of circumstances that overwhelm them. We never really know what someone is experiencing when they are mean and hateful. While their actions may be aimed at us, they are often symptomatic of some deep seated pain that they don’t know how to heal. They are angry at the world, and maybe even themselves. As their tempers increase, so too does their isolation become ever more intense. They create a vicious cycle that leaves them unloved and lonely. When those around them pay back their surliness with compassion, sometimes they begin to change.
Our society is enduring an era of meanness. We seem to equate anger with toughness. As with a playground brawl we have people trying to outdo one another with insults and even threats. There are those who answer what they see as injustice with rudeness and suggestions of violence. None of those things will do much more than raise the level of heated argument. It is only when we stay calm and offer peaceful resolutions to problems that we stand a chance of making positive changes.
Being kind to unkind people is very hard indeed. Our instinct is to follow the dictates of “an eye for an eye.” We would prefer turning our backs on such people, avoiding them at all cost. It is only when we at least attempt to follow our better natures that we can feel assured that we have done the right thing. If our efforts are spurned, or if the person only becomes worse we most certainly should simply walk away. Never, however, is it right to join in the fray. We only demean ourselves when we go down into the gutter with unpleasant people.
I’m genuinely hoping and praying that the current tendencies toward street fighting among rivals will be a phase that has soon passed. It does little to solve problems and we certainly have our share of those. We can pat ourselves on the back for spending most of our days being kind to people who return the favor, but we should be especially proud whenever we are able to be caring to someone who has been disagreeable to us. We never change minds or personalities with viciousness. That only leads to schisms and sometimes even wars. Our best bet is to smile and reach out a hand of understanding and warmth. Most people will respond and we may learn something new and important in the process.