-| Mundane Kindness |-
When you travel in local trains of Mumbai you are exposed to some interesting people. During my evening commute, I sit near a corner which allows me to look at the entire compartment. Usually I am pretty much ignored unless someone I know happens upon my little corner.
However, about a week ago now, I cannot remember exactly when, something memorable happened…memorable because it was different. It was the kind of thing, if you told me it would be memorable, I would wonder what you were getting at.
A lady smiled at me. And it was not the smile that says, “we have looked at each other and I am acknowledging this fact.” You know, that smile which is really no smile…where you pull in your lips and nod your head. There was nothing particularly sly about her smile. It contained no demand. And there was no reserve behind it. It lacked any pretension and seemed generous. And though I cannot understand why it was given, after thinking about this moment, kindness seems to be the only explanation I can come up with.
It was just a moment of kindness.
You may be thinking, “Why is this such a big deal?” Let me begin by pointing out, being smiled at, by strangers, is not unique in the Mumbai local trains. Maybe it is not a big deal. But it didn’t have the ‘feel’ of social convention.
I had no need for the smile. My week was going great. The year was about to end wonderfully on many notes. My family was and is full of smiles for me. We laugh and smile with each other throughout the day. There is no shortage of kindness expressed through smiles in our home. And the same is true among extended family. And friends. And when gathered with my office colleagues, over a meal or for the purpose of design discussions, smiles bound. So it is not as if I was sulking in my seat, laboring away in gloom and was refreshed by a moment of kindness, which was nothing more than mundane.
But let’s suppose I am someone else. Suppose I am someone else, sitting here when the smile leaps out of the life of kindness and lands on me. I have lost my job and I am laboring to scale the smooth, hard face of unemployment while feeding, clothing and sheltering a family. I am a day removed from getting the news I have cancer. Or I have just found out my child has leukemia. A parent has passed away. A friend has lied to me. I am alone. I have no one. Wandering this world, my interaction with others is limited to the goods and services I purchase.
If I were any of the above people, such a smile might be a flower in the desert. Or an oasis. Maybe we could call it “even a cup of cold water” for those thirsty for some kind, any kind of kindness. Any kindness at all will do. The significance of a cup of cold water will be hard to grasp for those who have never been thirsty. If you are in an air-conditioned building full of water fountains and water coolers, a cold cup of water will mean very little. Certainly appreciated when given but forgettable. It will seem ordinary, mundane even. The same goes for smiles.
Deep down, we do not really think this kind of kindness is important. As far as we are concerned, it will get no press before God or men. It’s the big stuff which looks excellent on spiritual resumés and it’s these we use to determine the authenticity of the faith of God’s people. The smaller acts of kindness? They not only do not show up but their absence is justified by the former. “I know he is a jackass and hard on the waitstaff at restaurants but he gives a lot of daan (donations)!” “Oh, well then.” Neither should negate the other. The small acts of everyday nor the noteworthy should make the other obsolete. Both are needed, sure. But one is mundane and therefore forgone. And forgotten. We forget the need. We forget the power. And we forget the words of Shri Krishna, who would commend the mundane kindness of a cup of cold water.
I imagine, most cannot see the significant moments of kindness because their lives are so full of the like. The very preponderance of it all crowds out any meaning therein. So we naturally see kindness in the newsworthy acts of philanthropy we either want to receive or be noted for. After all, no one notices the smile…it disappears in a wisp. Poof! It is gone. The cold water is no sooner enjoyed than forgotten in the desire for another. So we forgo these kinds of things altogether. They lack significance in a world we are always being told we can change. Kindness has no cataclysmic effect on the forces of evil in the name of justice. So we leave it off on our way to end injustice. In other words, we want to end war, hunger and poverty in our lifetime. But we do not posses the will to let someone merge in front of us in traffic. And do so with a smile.
In “a dry and weary land” a cup of cold water is the picture of kindness. Though small, the refreshment is needed, appreciated and not easily forgotten. This is hard because we are prone to define kindness by the largest possible measure. The plumb-line for what is kind is far removed from the stuff of smiles and cups of cold water. It exists in the form of checks and gifts, voluminous and weighty. And all the while, as we plan on laudable acts of kindness, there are moments of opportunity. Perhaps only a smile is possible. A holding of the door. An offer of assistance. That cup of cold water. All mundane, but every single one an opportunity for kindness to break in on a life just as the rays of the sun break in on a morning.