By Jeeni Criscenzo
Thoughts while enjoying the super moon during the lunar eclipse of Sept. 27, 2015
… our mammalian and hominid evolution have crafted a species—us—with remarkable tendencies toward kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the classic tasks of evolution—survival, gene replication and smooth functioning groups.
—Dacher Keltner, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory
Although raised Roman Catholic and indoctrinated with 12 years of Catechism classes in parochial school, I decided, even before graduating high school that neither Catholicism nor any religion, was for me. When the Sisters of Charity taught that faith is a gift, I responded that I didn’t get the gift and didn’t want it. Long before I was “expelled” from the church for marrying a second time, I had decided that I could be a good person without following rules written by men who “believed” the earth was flat.
So as I followed the coverage of Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States, I kept in mind that he was the leader of a faith that will not relinquish power to women to make their own medical decisions or to give them access to leadership as priests, bishops or the papacy.
Then I heard the Pope speak to the science deniers in Congress about humanity’s impact on climate change and the evils of unchecked capitalism, and I was so jubilant that someone these legislators might listen to, was finally speaking the truth, that I put aside thoughts that this same pope was representing an entity that was responsible for centuries of abuse, brutality and oppression, that predates and promotes capitalism.
With growing respect, I watched the videos and news clips of the Pope welcoming a determined little girl who had broken past security with a letter begging compassion for her undocumented parents. I saw the photos of him holding a man with a horrible skin deformity. I noticed the softening in the faces of young prisoners while this great man washed their feet. I saw these remarkable acts of kindness and that part of my brain that was cautioning me to distrust, grew quiet. That is the power of kindness.
Today, I brought the Japanese exchange student who is staying in our home, to the Cricket store to get a phone. What should have been a 20 minute favor extended to almost 3 hours …
We do not have to be perfect to be kind. Anyone, no matter what their past, can act with kindness, and in doing so, not only reshape the mold of who they were, but also reshape the future of the recipients of their kindness and by extension, the future of our everyone and our planet.
Imagine that power! Imagine if, somewhere in the miserable life that produced the wretched person named Donald Trump, someone had treated him with genuine kindness. Not the “suck up to this creep because he can do something for me” that motivates any nice thing anyone does for this sad man, but a genuine act of kindness that would have made him feel valued, the way those young criminals must have felt when the leader of the Roman Catholic Church washed their feet! Perhaps there would be a very different person, saying very different things, using his power and wealth in very different ways… in kindness.
Every day we are given opportunities to be friendly, generous and considerate – to look at someone who might be making us feel frustrated or furious, and to respond to their deep need for kindness. Today, I brought the Japanese exchange student who is staying in our home, to the Cricket store to get a phone. What should have been a 20 minute favor extended to almost 3 hours as he tried to decide, with a very limited vocabulary, whether to buy a $700 iPhone or a $30 LG for the 3 months he will be here in the U.S.
As the minutes wore on and my knee started to throb from standing for too long, and I thought of all the things I needed to get done, and I felt resentful that we needed to host this over-protected, privileged young man in our home so we can pay our rent, while he could spend hours contemplating a totally unnecessary $700 purchase… I forced myself to see him as a child-man whose mother had thrust him to the mercy of the kindness of strangers. I could be that kind stranger. I had that option. Or would that make me gullible, being used by both the student and his mother?
I thought about all of the people who have been kind to me in my life for no reason except that they had that opportunity to be kind. Far from being gullible, these people had modeled strength in their kindness and made the world a better place.
The clerk who was helping him at the store was remarkably patient. She explained that if he was here for less than 6 months he would not be able to unlock the phone to use it in Japan. It would be useless. She explained this several times while our student typed words into his Casio translator. She connected his iPod to wi-fi so he could text his mother.
She waited. I waited… and I thought about the Pope. I thought about other people who exemplify kindness: Jimmy Carter, Dolores Huerta, the women I have befriended with Women Occupy and the friends who helped me when I was fighting breast cancer and visited me when I was in the nursing home after breaking my leg. I thought about all of the people who have been kind to me in my life for no reason except that they had that opportunity to be kind.
Far from being gullible, these people had modeled strength in their kindness and made the world a better place. And so, I decided to be kind to this young man. After he bought his phone (the cheap one), I put my number in it so he could call me if he got lost. I showed him how to use the ATM even though he had to re-insert his card six times, and explained why he shouldn’t count his money in front of other people. Then I brought him to the barber shop and drew a map so he could find his way back to our house.
As I watched the brilliant white light of the full moon cup the lower left edge of the blood moon as the shadow of the earth slipped away, it seemed a perfect analogy of the opportunity we have to replace the darkness that seems to envelop everything around us these days.
It wasn’t easy. I’m not a patient person. This is going to be a long 3 months and I really hope our student guest learns enough English, so he’ll stop telling me “I want salad tonight,” and instead asks, “Can we have salad tonight?”
Who knows what my small ripple of kindness will do in the larger scheme of things? Who knows if this young man will one day act with kindness, because he has experienced kindness, and it will change the future for all of us for the better?
As I watched the brilliant white light of the full moon cup the lower left edge of the blood moon as the shadow of the earth slipped away, it seemed a perfect analogy of the opportunity we have to replace the darkness that seems to envelop everything around us these days. Perhaps the example of the Pope proves that the lies and anger and mean spiritedness that gives everything a bitter taste, that bleeds our spirit and leaves us feeling defeated, is not invincible. Like the white garment worn by this humble man who embraces the hurt and powerless with kindness, the light grew and grew on the moon until the darkness was completely gone.
I toasted the eclipse with my husband and a couple of friends, and went to bed certain we will get through what lies ahead, with the kindness of strangers.
John Lawrence says
The Pope has reoriented the Church in the right direction. His priorities are the best ones. Some things that people don’t like will not change, but the priority of concern for climate change and helping the poor should rightfully take precedence over ordaining women priests. I’m not Catholic, but I love this Pope.
Martha Sullivan says
I don’t think it needs to be a choice. I can appreciate the forward-thinking that Pope Francis embraces without letting go of the goal of equality for all.
So who is forcing the Pope to “choose” between equality of gay people and equality of women?
Priests get retirement pension; nuns do not.
“All of us, or none.”
Jeeni I always need reminders to take that step back and think before I respond to others’ ego, meanness and overly judgmental ill-informed nastiness. To not pass misery on but to make life better. It’s so hard for me but because I have your words in my ear, I am encouraged to try harder. Thanks.
Martha Sullivan says
Ms. Criscenzo, Mr. Lawrence:
How do you feel about the pope with the news that the “determined little girl who had broken past security” was staged and that he met in secret with Kim Davis?
Jeeni Criscenzo says
Michael, I think we need to question EVERYTHING posted on the internet and lazily reported by the media as fact. Whose agenda is being served? What truth is being obscured by this distraction? This is why I am delighted to write for San Diego Free Press, where I can write about what I want. And I take my responsibility to tell the truth very seriously. Even though this is not a paying gig, I do my homework, as do the other amazing contributors. Sometimes that means waiting awhile to see how things play out – such as the Davis/Pope story. Looks like her version was highly exaggerated. Meanwhile, Pope Francis’ examples of acts kindness were still models of kindness, whether or not they were staged. We so need the contrast to the meanspiritedness exemplified by too many media darlings.
Mandy Barre says
I am sick of hearing about the Pope. Sure he might be a personable guy- but he’s very, very, very privileged and has the ability for good public speakership. Until the Vatican Bank disgorges some of its billions and the Church changes its doctrine against gays, women and everyone else it doesn’t agree with, I have no use for that brand of ‘faith’.
Having said that, Jeeni, patience is an acquired skill. Keep working at it. You did good!
John Lawrence says
Actually, regarding gays, the Pope said, “Who am I to judge?” Privileged? He rides in a Fiat, doesn’t live in the Pope’s residence, but in a small apartment and wears old people’s shoes not the red ones other Popes wore.
Mandy Barre says
Yes, a free car, free insurance, free security, free food and board, free clothing, free computer, free everything. Get real.
Yes, kindness is a much needed value in US culture. I would also include kindness to those we love and respect, as well as those we don’t, in addition to strangers:)
Funny enough, the people living in the two poorest states give the most to charitable actions (MI, AL) than the richest states (CN, NJ, CA), when you look at their income.
I would not have the patience to wait 3 hrs…
Diane Levy says
The wonder of nature and value of kindness so beautifully expressed. Thank you!