A Kinder, Gentler Union | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

A Kinder, Gentler Union


JFP Editor Donna Ladd

Five days before Christmas, I was on a bike at the gym, listening to news about the U.S. House of Representatives defying their speaker and going home instead of supporting his fiscal-cliff deal. But that's not what made me cry.

A reporter came on to explain what had happened. Among other things, he said, the walkout was a surprise because John Boehner's compromise was "sweetened" to help convince Republican House members. How? It would cut funding for "food stamps and meals-on-wheels," he explained.

I stopped pedaling, blinking in disbelief. Sure, we all know that many Republicans--including three of the four Mississippi congressmen--want to slash programs that help the poor. But to hear it put this way was a sobering reminder of the cruelty many of us elect to represent us. Sweet, my butt.

There's nothing new about the Republican hatred of food stamps, of course. As we detailed in our GOOD issue on poverty two weeks ago, so much mythology surrounds the poor in our nation. Essentially: They're lazy, and it's their fault. And picking on food stamps has long been a way to gather votes from people who don't bother to pay attention to who is poor and why (call them the 47-percenters).

But, meals-on-wheels!? That is exactly what it sounds like: People take food to hungry human beings who are too sick or too elderly to go scrounge it up for themselves. Or as its Wikipedia page begins: "Meals on Wheels are programs that deliver meals to individuals at home who are unable to purchase or prepare their own meals. ... Because they are housebound, many of the recipients are the elderly, and many of the volunteers are also elderly but able-bodied and able to drive wheeled vehicles, usually a van."

Let's break this down: Cuts to meals-on-wheels programs were inserted into a deal to help convince Republicans to go along with it. But they wouldn't because the deal would repeal the Bush tax cuts on folks who net (after taxes) more than a million a year.

I'm sorry: There is no word for this other than cruel. Who are these people?

Meantime, since the Newtown massacre, we're seeing all sorts of posts and ideas about spreading random acts of kindness and "paying it forward." Many of us are thinking about how we can be kinder to others, loved ones and strangers, in order to do our part to form a kinder, gentle union. In fact, I just witnessed an amazing outpouring on Facebook from around the nation to give two needy teen girls a good Christmas, including new iPads, with no need for recognition. (On the next page, you'll see a number of testimonials on random kindness.)

I love this RACK (Random Acts of Community Kindness) movement, as some people call it. I applaud each little effort to show someone else you care, regardless of who they are and choose to love, or how they worship (or don't). I believe strongly that Americans need to learn to be more kind to others and ourselves. And my own spiritual beliefs tell me that, no matter what we do about gun madness and mental illness (and we need to move on both), we won't be a gentler nation until each of us steps up and does more than we do now.

I also believe in the power of story. There's a post being shared on Facebook right now from a woman who was standing in line behind a stranger who couldn't afford all the baby formula she was trying to purchase. The woman watching put back her items--all trivial, she said--and bought the mother a supply of formula. She told her story without self-aggrandizement, I thought (as a writing teacher, I found it an inspiring, touching narrative).

But I saw people on Facebook belittling the woman, saying she was just looking for a pat on the back and attention. Reading that response didn't make me as mad and depressed as the meals-on-wheels sweetness, but it made me very sad the night I read it.

What possibly is the purpose of snarking about a woman telling her story of moving from greed and apathy to a higher ground of random kindness? Yes, she quoted the Bible to the woman, but it's not like much of the philanthropy in Mississippi and the nation isn't connected to some sort of ministry.

The point, as I responded, was that babies were getting formula. They were being fed. And her post might inspire some other people to help feed some more hungry babies. Maybe I'm becoming a softie, but that works for me on both fronts. (Besides, what is snark if not self-aggrandizing?)

I think what bothered me the most about these two encounters is that I haven't seen a single social media post from friends or strangers taking congressional Republicans to task for thinking that cuts to meals-on-wheels is sweet, but a woman who helps a mother and dares to tell the story gets harangued--and by people who do wonderful things in the community, to boot.

It feels a bit like the negative is going to cancel out the positive if we're not careful, leaving this RACK movement stuck in the mud. And we've got to make sure our kindness efforts go small and go large. Yes, paying for coffee for the person behind you at Cups can have a ripple effect that you can't imagine--I believe this big time--but shutting your eyes while elected officials pander to the rich and stick it to the poor is going to negate those actions, and then some.

We've got to do both. We need a new ethos of kindness, big and little, and it's something I vow to focus on in 2013.

But, you might ask wisely, how do you be kind to people who want to hurt the poor? How can you be kind to people who spread lies about our president (precisely, frankly, because he wants to help the poor)?

How can you be kind to folks who believe that the ability to have fun with very dangerous assault weapons is more important than saving a first-grader's life?

It's hard, and it's a huge challenge for me. I will say this: True kindness is never apathetic; it is compassionate but never blind. It is our responsibility to learn and spread facts and challenge those who lie to protect those who routinely attack or ignore or denigrate the weakest among us--often while masquerading as good Christians.

Buddhists believe in the concept of "idiot compassion." That is, it is not compassionate (and rather idiotic) to allow others to hurt you or others or, as Buddhist nun Pema Choedroen puts it, to enable "someone to keep being able to feed their violence and their aggression." Or, for that matter, someone who engages in poor behavior in the workplace, thus putting at risk their own career success.

That is, being kind is not the same thing as avoiding conflict and even confrontation. Think of your child: You confront their bad behavior because you love them dearly. Or someone you manage: You give feedback to help them succeed and give up sloppy work habits before they cost them dearly.

In essence: Being kind is not always easy. It requires a full menu of focus and efforts--from the tiny action to factchecking political rhetoric to sending home elected officials who find sweetness in pure cruelty.

I urge each of you to join me as I work to become more kind in 2013. It'll be fun--at least most of the time.

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