“Three things in human life are important.
The first is to be kind.
The second is to be kind.
And the third is to be kind.”
– Henry James, novelist (1843-1916)
Kindness seems to most of us to be the weak sister in our pantheon of virtues. Love. Forgiveness. Truth. Wisdom. Justice. Mercy. And, um… kindness? And so I also thought it was. Kindness seemed to be little more than an optional nicety of social behavior, a way to grease the wheels of relationships and add some pleasantness to our days. I assumed the kindest people must be wealthy folks throwing off their excess dollars; or else they were elderly ladies, knitting socks for the poor and feeding stray cats.
Then this week I witnessed the most stunning act of kindness I have seen in my life. You may be aware that I am an attorney who advises closely-held businesses, some of which have been part of my life for decades. I love what I do and the people so much that I think it’s likely that I never will retire! So a woman in her forties came to me with a very vexing problem. She had invested a quarter of a million dollars in loans to a friend’s business because she believed in his products, never realizing that he was someone who had great ideas but little business sense. Other people had made the same mistake, and by the time she raised this issue to me the business owner was out of options and facing bankruptcy. She was angry, distracted, feeling used and betrayed, and trying to find a way to get some of her money back so she could move on with her life.
Over forty years of working with the owners of more than five hundred businesses, I have learned a thing or two about business realities. When I investigated this situation, it was obvious that the business’s problems were all the result of an inexperienced owner’s rookie mistakes; and sadly, it was beyond repair. It needed a cash infusion right away, and no one was going to lend it more money. My client was the biggest lender. Her best option seemed to me to be just to foreclose on its assets, pay some debts that were senior to hers, and shut it down. And she was angry enough to do that! She didn’t start out wealthy, but over twenty years of working in tech she had managed to save close to a million dollars. And now she was about to lose a quarter of her whole net worth.
We talked it through. She made her decision. She had the power and the right to put a dying business out of its misery while it still possessed some saleable assets, and she set off last Tuesday morning to personally deliver a notice that she already had told the owner was coming.
I didn’t learn until the end of that day what had happened. Her business-inept friend had been somewhat distraught, but I had prepared her to deal with that. She was planning to give him some personal help, and he had options. He was going to be fine. What she hadn’t expected had been the amazing loyalty of employees who in booming Austin very likely could have found better jobs within days. I’m not privy to how the details went down, but instead of giving a crippled business the kill-shot that might have earned her back perhaps a third of what she had lent, my client had decided by the time she called me not only to forgive every cent of her loan, but also to pay off the rest of the debt, to the tune of another quarter of a million dollars. Not so much for the owner’s sake, but for the sake of employees she barely knew who loved the owner and believed in his dream, she had decided to sign away half of her savings so she could give that business a new beginning. Perhaps even more surprisingly, in the few days since she made that decision she has become ever more at peace with it.
My first phone reaction to her news was shock. To which her immediate response was, “It’s just paper.”
“It’s just paper.” What is important is people! And she earned that paper once. She figures she can earn it again, but unless she steps up right away there are a dozen people who have invested five years of their lives in a dream that is about to die.
Until now, I have never thought much about kindness. I did write about it two years ago, and that post is even more relevant now so please read it as a grounding for our discussion of my client’s gift. And we ought to talk about that gift! She didn’t ask for stock or a contingent note, just in case the business might take off. No credit on the website. And no credit here, either: when I told her I wanted to write about this, she insisted that I change identifying details. For businesses to fail is a fact of life. More than half of them fail within their first five years. So, why did she save this one? And why was she willing to do it at such a great cost to herself?
Her act feels to me to be something like choosing to adopt a damaged child. You’ve got a beautiful family and a wonderful life! Why complicate and impair your life forevermore? I recall years ago reading about a family that had adopted a child who had been deprived of oxygen at birth, and had been abandoned by her birth-parents while she was still in neonatal intensive care. A couple with two children in the primary grades had read about that baby when she was two years old, by which time she was responsive and becoming verbal although she was blind and nearly quadriplegic. The four of them had talked about it as a family. They had visited her in the facility where she lived. And they had decided together to adopt her. When the reporter telling their story a few years later had asked the mother why she had burdened her family this way for this child when there are so many other damaged children in care, the mother had said, ”This one we can save.”
“This one we can save.” I think that expresses my client’s impulse as well. We can’t heal the world! But we each can find something kind to do that otherwise will never be done.
And the very thought that anyone might give my client credit for her gift seems to horrify her. She doesn’t want to be thanked. Her attitude puts me in mind of someone who died more than a hundred years ago.
Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (MT 6:3-4). And a woman who died at least a century ago really took His advice to heart. Someone who had recently died and was communicating with his family through a deep-trance medium just after the turn of the twentieth century told them that he had just come from the biggest parade that any of his friends there had ever seen. It seemed that a woman newly arrived in the afterlife had taken Jesus at His literal word, and she had made a point of doing one anonymous kind thing for someone every day of her whole adult life. And if her kindness was discovered, then it didn’t count and she would quickly figure out and do something else. Parades are a big thing in the afterlife when someone arrives whose life has been well-lived, and apparently when this woman got home she was given a Macy’s-quality parade so impressive that it made it into a dusty old book that I then read in the nineteen-seventies.
Jesus also said, “And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (LK 6:34-36).
I think that many of us read that passage with two simultaneous thoughts. Of course, we hope on a theoretical level that in a pinch we really would lend while expecting nothing in return. Especially if we think Jesus might be watching! But at the same time, we see even making any kind of loan that we expect will be repaid in full to be a pretty big kindness. Just outright giving the money seems to be an unreasonable bridge too far.
But I guess my attitude on that has changed, now that I actually have seen it done. How little fuss she makes about this! She reminds me more and more of the family that found room in their hearts for a damaged child. Kindness is not a showy virtue. Instead, it’s a way of looking at someone else’s problem and really seeing it, and feeling sufficient compassion to then look within our hearts to see whether that problem might be one that we can solve.
And in the past few days I have been unexpectedly seeing kindnesses everywhere. A friend whose parents have recently died and left one aunt as the last in his family of her generation decided last weekend on impulse to spend an afternoon with her and take her out to dinner. Someone with a small plane flew to pick up someone’s lost dog that turned up three states away. A teenager with a friend whose father died last year has been working with her friend to earn money so they can give her two younger siblings their usual gifts from Santa. There is so much kindness now, all around! Is it possible that it always has been going on, and I just never noticed it?
And speaking of kindness, I have just begun a ten-day business trip, so for the next two weeks I will have no time for blogging. But I’ll try! Maybe poetry? Maybe recipes? Who knows? But I’ll write something. And whatever it might turn out to be, I hope that as you read it, you will be kind.
“We become great on the backs of those who have loved us into being,
through small, simple acts of everyday kindness.”
– Kute Blackson, author of The Magic of Surrender – Finding the Courage to Let Go (2021)