“I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind.” ~Khalil Gibran
I recently travelled to Malaysia for a friend’s wedding where I spent four delicious days communing with wild monkeys and feasting on sticky rice. The people were kind and warm, the culture rich, the trip magical.
On my last day in Kuala Lumpur, I was headed out to buy souvenirs for family and friends when I stumbled across the most beautiful temple—filled with ornate gold and red statues, air thick with sweet-smelling smoke.
I wandered around, overcome with majesty, trying to breathe it all in. I was still under the temple’s spell when someone spoke to me.
“Your dress is ugly.”
I looked to my right where the voice had come from. A woman was sitting on a bench, not looking in my direction.
“Sorry?” I said, thinking I must have misheard. She waved me off.
I stood there for a moment, trying to decide on a course of action. She was American, the first and only other American I’d met during my trip.
Had she really just said my dress was ugly? It was a simple blue affair, uncomplicated and perfect for traveling. Maybe she said my dress was pretty, I thought. I must have misunderstood.
The hurt and confusion was rising to a crescendo in my head. But if I’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that we all have a choice of how we choose to respond to what we are given. I chose to engage.
“Did you just say my dress is ugly?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “I did.”
I took a deep breath and replied, calmly, “Why would you say that to me?”
“I’m entitled to my opinion,” she said. “Your dress is ugly; I can tell it’s not well made. Your purse is dirty. I am free to voice my thoughts and those are my thoughts about you.”
To say it felt like getting slapped in the face would be an understatement; it was more of a punch to the gut. My blood boiled, my heart raced, and still I kept my voice at an even keel.
“You are entitled to your own opinion,” I said. “But we also live in congress with other human beings. Why would you say something so aggressive and unkind?”
At which point she reiterated her insults. Her words sliced coolly into the way I looked and the clothes I wore. That’s when I said the one thing I regret saying.
“I wish there were fewer Americans like you traveling abroad,” I told her. “You give the rest of us a bad name.”
I turned and walked away, and she yelled one more barb at my back as I walked out of the temple. I didn’t turn around.
My hands were shaking as I walked down the street. I felt a strange knot of emotions in my chest: hurt, anger, fear.
I was irrationally terrified that I would run into her again, that she would be sitting in the seat next to me on my flight home and I would be subjected to seventeen hours of her cruelty, unable to escape.
But most of all I felt baffled. Why did this woman choose to attack me? Why had she said what she said?
I couldn’t call my boyfriend, who was back in our sunny home in California, or my best friend in DC—both of whom were sound asleep halfway across the world. So I was left to process what had happened on my own, in a foreign country, without my normal triumvirate of “healthy coping mechanisms”: yoga, conversation, tea.
And here’s what it all came down to: kindness.
I had just read the wonderful convocation address given by George Saunders to the Syracuse class of 2013. George talks about something he calls a “failure of kindness,” and those three words were very much on my mind.
Yes, you could say I had suffered from a failure of kindness. But what I realized was that I, too, had been unkind.
I wish I hadn’t said what I said to her. That came from a place of being wounded, of feeling the need to fight back. I wish I had said: “I hope the people you meet are kind.”
Because I do hope that for her. I hope that she is bathed in loving-kindness, that she is inundated with so much that she cannot help but share it with the world.
While it’s true that kindness engenders kindness, the lack of it can be a powerful teacher.
For my remaining hours in Kuala Lumpur, I was abundantly kind to everyone I met. I complimented a girl on her joyful spirit, told shop owners how beautiful their merchandise was, smiled widely and genuinely. I made a point to be kind to these warm, generous people who had so kindly shared their country with me.
And every time I was shown kindness, no matter how small, I felt immeasurably grateful.
That woman gave me a great gift. She reminded me that we all have a choice to be kind, and we are presented with that choice many times a day.
Say a kind word to someone you don’t know.
It doesn’t have to be an eloquent oration—a simple compliment can make someone’s day. If you like a man’s tie or a woman’s necklace, tell them so. And if you are struck by someone’s personality or spirit, thank them for it.
Write a note to someone you appreciate.
Tell a co-worker, family member, or friend what you appreciate about them. Don’t hold back. These are the sorts of gifts people treasure, often keeping that little slip of paper (or Facebook post) for many years to come.
Tip someone who doesn’t normally get tips.
This was easy in Malaysia, where tipping is rare—one young woman was so happy she went dancing down the hall. Tipping can be a great way to show people you are grateful for their service. I still remember the night I gave $10 to a tired young man at a Taco Bell drive-thru. His eyes lit up like fireflies.
We’ve all committed failures of kindness when we are hurt, angry, or tired. But each of us holds within us the power to achieve triumphs of kindness every day.
Photo by Robert Vitulano