Tell a friend  

Press Room
People are Saying
Look Inside the Book
About the Author
Workshops and Talks
Book Reviews
Hot Topics
Order Book
Contact Us



A Short Course in Kindness
An Interview with Margot Silk Forrest

Mount Shasta Magazine Vol 4 Issue 1  Spring 2003

by Nancy Marie

N.M. I loved your new book, A Short Course of Kindness. In fact, I was so moved by it that I wanted to buy 2,000 copies and mail them out to politicians, educators and people in the social services. In that moment I could clearly see how different life would be if more people based their decisions on love and compassion, not profits.

M.S.F That's exactly what the book is saying. If a single act of kindness can change someone's entire life -- and we all know it can -- why can't thousands of acts of kindness change the world. We tend to think of the world as such a big entity that it would take a cataclysmic event to change it. But what is the world if it's not simply 6.2 billion individuals breathing, talking, sleeping, eating, laughing, and making countless choices every day about how to act and react with others? Our desire to change the world is not the stuff of visions. It's an achievable goal. We can change the world because we are the world.

N.M. Can you give us a definition of kindness? I know you draw a sharp distinction between being kind and being nice.

M.S.F. Yes, I do. Kindness is the wise use of the heart. A purely heartfelt action won't necessary be a kind one -- it could be misguided or uninformed. It takes wisdom and heart to notice when someone needs our help and to see what kind of help they need. That word "use" is important, too. Kindness isn't kindness if it is not put to use. Action is required. Thinking kind thoughts is all well and good. It will calm and purify your mindstream. But at some point, we have to get up and act on our kind intentions.

Have you ever been through a devastating time in your life -- perhaps the death of a loved one or a very serious illness -- and afterwards you run into one of your friends whom you hadn't heard from during that time. He or she says to you, "Oh, it's so good to see you. I thought of you so often over the last several months." And you can tell by the expression in their eyes or their tone of voice that they really did think of you, they did care about how you were feeling. That's nice. But was it kind not to call or write or visit you? No.

N.M. I see what you mean. If that absent friend had even prayed or meditated for the other person's healing, they would have been acting with kindness, but all they did was think about them. They were nice but not kind.

M.S.F. Here's how I see it. Being "nice" is the same as being cooperative, agreeable, or pleasant. It really doesn't take much -- and it doesn't go all that far. It affects the surface of our lives. Kindness goes deep. It touches the heart. It is real and authentic, uninterested in appearances. It calls for us to act and grow, not just to behave ourselves and say the polite -- or worse yet, the expected -- thing.

What if no one was nice anymore? Would we miss it? Would we care if there was no icing on the cake if the cake itself was fabulously rich and satisfying? What if we took all that effort we use to "be nice" and spent it being kind instead? Nice is here today, gone tomorrow. Like a puddle in the driveway that evaporates when the sun comes out.

But kindness is a deep, healing rain. If it were to evaporate, something of true value would be gone -- we would miss it.

I think that's the point where we are now in our culture. Kindness is drying up at the source. Sure, there are puddles of niceness here and there. But no life-giving, thirst-slaking water is getting to our roots. We can't continue this way and expect that we'll have the strength to stand up to the coming winds of war, of environmental degradation, of hunger or ethnic cleansing. To put it bluntly, niceness won't save the world. Kindness just might.

N.M. Can you give us some suggestions on how to shift from being nice to being kind?

M.S.F. I think the way to do this is to shift our response when we see someone in need of help. Instead of asking ourselves what we can say to make them feel better, we ask ourselves what we can do to make a difference in their situation. Not that kindness can't be achieved by words alone -- it can, when the words actually do something, like show our heart to a stranger or acknowledge a situation that others are ignoring. But more often kindness includes action. It involves putting ourselves out there for the sake of the other person.

Think about these situations. You hear that a friend's father is in a nearby hospital in the final phase of a terminal illness. Want to be nice? Send a card. Even send flowers. Want to be kind? Ask yourself what would help your friend through this tough time. Does she need someone to drive the kids to the dance Saturday night? Does he need someone to talk to about how hard it is to see a beloved -- or detested -- father die? Would she appreciate your sitting with her father while she went home for a shower and a nap?

Here's another one. Let's say you hear that a neighbor who's a single parent just lost their job. Want to be nice? Call and ask how they are doing. Spend twenty minutes on the phone with them. Tell them about the time you lost your job and how everything turned out just fine. Want to be kind? Go to them. Sit with them. Listen, listen, listen. Occasionally ask questions. Draw them out. Maybe it takes an hour or two. Maybe more. Still, you sit and listen. You help the person master their experience in the telling of it. You do not talk about yourself unless it would genuinely help them. You are not there to simply comfort, but to be of service to your neighbor.

N.M. How did you come to write a book about kindness?

M.S.F. There are several reasons, some noble and some not! To start with, I had a childhood where people who knew better were very, very unkind to me. That unkindness took the form of sexual abuse by several different adults, both family members and strangers. Instead of making me grow up to be abusive, however, it acted as a sort of aversion therapy. I was "conditioned" out of being unkind. I knew what it felt like to be on the receiving end of cruelty.

Paradoxically, there was also a lot of love in my childhood. I think it's what kept me alive. I gravitated toward it, and grew up to be someone with a gift for offering love to others. I believe in every cell of my being that love is the most important thing in life. All the major religions teach this, whether they use the word "love" or not. I believe that we are meant to love each other. We are meant to be kind to each other. How can we survive otherwise? Here we are sailing through the chilly stratosphere on this comparatively tiny but hugely troubled planet. We need each other. There are too many challenges to face --and if we don't face them together, we're sunk.

The final reason I decided to write about kindness -- despite the warnings of my friends in the publishing world who said that I would never be able to sell a book on this topic unless I was "someone" -- is this: I have always been puzzled by kindness being in such short supply. It's so easy to do. It costs nothing. It hardly takes any time at all. And it feels so good. Why the heck aren't we grasping at any chance we get to be kind? Why aren't we elbowing each other out of the way to give a dollar to a homeless woman and say, "I can see you have a hard life. I wish you luck."

So, being mystified by this shortage, I decided to do an inquiry into kindness. What is it? What isn't it? What gets in the way of our being kind? For example, I am fascinated by people who think in terms of "us" and "them." It's so divisive. No doubt it has its roots in our tribal ancestors, but all it does for us now is get in the way of planetary survival. Can we see the borders of countries from outer space? Can we see areas of the globe colored bronze or white or black or olive to delineate where people of certain skin colors are welcome to live and where they are not. What nonsense! We don't have time for that kind of thinking anymore. Our earth is headed for trouble, and it's the kind of trouble that requires our hearts to solve, as well as our heads. That's what kindness is: the wise use of the heart.

N.M. I completely agree with the disposing of the "them" and the "us," although I think people use those terms as a form of protection. Since our culture does not encourage or support personal growth, many people feel the need to create an illusion of safety or superiority-- though in my opinion in order to be kind, you need to have an open heart. This in turn requires you to be current with yourself. You can't be holding onto old anger, resentment or fear.

I think stepping onto the "kindness" requires conscious awareness. The fear-based information that our lives are riddled with seems to perpetuate this unkind cycle. What I loved about your book is that it simply cut to the core of the issue. We need each other. We need to love each other. There is enough for everyone, we just need to come from our heart instead of fear or judgment

M.S.F. Yes, and there we are again, back at the wise use of the heart. Who ever acted wisely when they were afraid or angry? Intense emotions block our ability to listen to our inner guidance, to use our hard-earned wisdom.

N.M. In your book, I especially loved how you use stories to illustrate each point. Can you share a personal story of kindness and how this authentic action transformed your life?

M.S. F. Sure. This event happened in the mid-1990s in San Francisco. I'll tell you about it in the present tense, if I may, because that's the energy with which I recall it.

It is an April evening and I am walking with three friends toward the Herbst Theater where Barbara Kingsolver -- one of my favorite novelists -- is going to speak. As we make our way down Van Ness, we come upon a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk, his legs stretched out in front of him. His small spotted dog sits at attention by his side.

Automatically, I smile and walk over to the little dog. "Oh, aren't you adorable," I murmur, stroking his head. He looks up at me with chocolate brown eyes and wags his feathery tail. "What a nice dog!" I exclaim in the general direction of his owner. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I notice my friends waiting and go to rejoin them.

Ten yards farther along Van Ness, we come to a red light. As my friends and I wait for the walking green, I frown, thinking about the man and his dog. That dog was so dear, I think, I hope he gets enough to eat. I wonder where they sleep. Then a different voice in my head says, Did you notice that you smiled at the dog and not at the man?

Oh, but the dog was so cute! I silently protest. And there are so many homeless people in San Francisco. Besides, he probably sits there all the time. He just uses the dog as a marketing ploy. I hate marketing ploys.

At this point, I check the streetlight. I am ready to get moving, but it is still stubbornly red.

You smiled at the dog and not at the man, the voice says again. After a long silence, I admit it: I did. That's not right. You usually give homeless people some money. Why not him? He'd probably use it for booze. Do you know that for sure?

Well, look at him.

If he does spend it on booze, is that something you can control? No! Is it even any of your business what people do with the gifts you give them? I guess not…. In fact, he might buy hot soup or dog food. You don't really know what he'll do, do you? No Will you ever know for sure what he spends your dollar on? No.

So you could simply decide that he will spend it on hot soup. I could…. And then you'd feel good about having given him the money. Yes, of course. I want him to have some nourishing food. So it's up to you whether you feel like you got taken or not.

The voice is right. I am not behaving like the kind and generous person I think I am -- and really want to be. I unzip my purse and take out my wallet. One of my friends looks over, slightly alarmed. She lived in New York City for years and knows that you never ever open your purse at night on a dark city street.

I walk back to the man and his dog, bend down, and offer him two dollars. He reaches out and takes it. The skin of our hands touch. I look into his eyes. "Take care and good luck to you," I say. He looks back into my eyes. "Thank you," he says. We are making contact, human to human. Something real is happening, and I feel better. More like myself.

I return to my friends. The light is green now, and as we cross I realize that I gave this ragged homeless man something much more important than money. I gave him a reminder that we are both held in the same web of care and connection, a web that vibrates with love when we choose to be kind. And he gave me that very same gift.

All it required was that I stop letting my choices be dictated by my small-minded self, the part of me who thought she was going to get fooled, taken, ripped off. The voice of my higher self didn't accuse or argue with me about not giving money to the man. It simply presented me with the facts of what I had done. It created an opening and invited me in. My small, suspicious self -- which I seem to switch into every time I go into a big city -- had the choice to listen or not.

So much is about choice! That night, having chosen to listen to the voice of my soul, I found myself faced with yet another choice. Was my small, suspicious self the one I wanted to be making the decisions in my life? Did I want to live as if I were a victim waiting to happen? Or did I want to reach for something higher? Sometimes we forget how powerful choice is. On that dark street on that one night in San Francisco, I was not only able to choose what to do, I was able to choose how I felt about it. I had the power to decide that my gift would be used well. I had the power to walk away from that man (and his adorable little dog) "knowing" I had made a difference in his evening.

Was I fooling myself? If I was, does it matter? Not if I have chosen what I will take away from the experience: a sense of accomplishment at having taken right action. I have been interested in Buddhism for years, and at first I was surprised that "right action" doesn't mean correct action. It means action that's right for the values we want to live by. It's "right," as in meeting someone who's right for you.

N.M. What did you learn from that experience? How would you sum up the lesson?

I came to know myself better. I saw through my own "press release" -- the belief I held that I was a kind and generous person. I had to face the part of me whose heart went out to a dog but not a man. I had the chance to catch myself in the act. I didn't much like what I learned, but along with the learning came the opportunity to do things differently, to act in alignment with my soul. It changed everything. I have never looked at a homeless person as a rip-off artist again.

N.M. What are your hopes and goals for A Short Course in Kindness?

M.S.F. I hope it will stir people to think differently and act differently toward themselves and each other. I believe that a lot of the problems in our culture are optional. Road rage isn't a natural force, like hurricanes. It's optional! So are corporate greed and the sexual exploitation of children. So is hunger. There is enough food produced on this planet to feed all of us. There is no logical reason for anyone to go hungry. If kindness were a key value in our society, think how many things would change.

N.M. Can you speak to the vision behind your book?

M.S.F I see the possibility of a world where kindness is commonplace. Where only kind people are teaching our children. Where only kind people are broadcasting the news, holding office, and running Fortune 500 corporations. Think of it: What would our world look like then? Let's take it several steps further. What if only kind people were licensed to drive? What would your daily commute look like then? What if kindness was a requirement for voting? Who would get elected then? What if only kind people were permitted to staff government offices, run nursing homes, give sermons, or own pets? At the risk of sounding wacky, what if only kind men could have erections? What if only kind women were able to bear children? Think how different our world would be. It's nearly unimaginable.

N.M. It would be wonderful! Sign me up!

M.S.F. Glad to! There's an infinite amount of room on the list. And at some point, those of us in the world committed to kindness will reach the tipping point, and we will change the world.

N.M. Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

M.S.F. Just a reminder that kindness, like nearly all human behavior, is contagious. Kind acts -- as well as stories about kind acts we have seen, done, or been the recipient of -- have a way of replicating themselves. If all you do is tell one person about an act of kindness you read about in the book or -- better yet -- experienced in your own life, you will have set a positive force in motion. There's no knowing how far that story may travel, who it may influence. A single star in a vast and trackless sky can imprint itself on the retina of billions of human beings, if they are looking heavenward. Be that star.

Words to Heal the Wound

San Jose Mercury News, July 15 1992
By Donna Kato

She was abused for years, hid the horrors for decades. Now this survivor is facing the painful truth and helping others, too.

In the recurring dreams, her eyes would focus on a tiny corner of a half-hidden photograph.  But even in that small fragment, she would find a clue so familiar that she could envision the rest of the image.  And always, the big picture was upsetting in an ugly way.

It's the way Margot Silk Forrest describes how she came to remember the incestuous sexual abuse she suffered as a child.

Sidelining a career as a corporate writer for Hewlett-Packard, this one-time newspaper journalist redirected her energy and experience to a new publication.  Called "The Healing Woman," it addresses issues important to other women who, like herself, had endured years of childhood sexual abuse.  The mandate of the monthly newsletter is to provide positive and nourishing reading for those survivors of incest, says Forrest, who now lives in Moss Beach.

Although men--husbands, boyfriends, brothers, and fathers--might gain insight by reading "The Healing Woman," the material is geared to women.  Men who were abused as boys, says Forrest, suffer much of the same psychological and emotional pain as women, but they also harbor severe distress that stems from the societal expectation of male sexuality.  Although the mini-magazine can't be described as uplifting, it's not maudlin, either.  There are personal stories for and by recovering incest survivors--some using pen names--and family members.  There are reports on legal decisions.  There's a list of upcoming events and organizations, book reviews and poetry.  Forrest, who finances the publication with her savings and an inheritance, won't reveal circulation figures, saying she doesn't want her publication judged on the numbers, good or bad.  The newsletter fills a void in a healthy and constructive way, says Barbara Finn, a Menlo Park psychologist who gives it to many of her clients.  It helps break the silence that characterizes the shame felt by adults who were sexually abused as children, she adds.

"It's healing just by its presence," says Finn.  "The worst part is that the abuse was kept a secret for all their lives.  This shows them that they are not alone."  In fact, some studies indicate that as many as 30 percent of all women have been sexually molested by the time they are 18 years old. 

"It's a very gentle, beautiful publication that can be very empowering for a woman who has gone through such a trauma," adds Dorothy Ross, a longtime past coordinator for child abuse throughout the Santa Clara County Juvenile Probation Department.  "IT can be a lifeline for someone by showing them that they are not alone in their anguish."

Says Anita Montero, the associate publisher, who has worked in the field of child sexual abuse prevention for 17 years: "We see it as a supportive tool to aid in recovery.  We won't let it wallow in pity."

Forrest's memories of being victimized by her father and grandfather started coming two years ago, just after her 40th birthday.  There was a sense of immediate horror, then relief at finally finding the key that unlocked the secret of her chronic and severe depression.

Facing the fear

Her recollection of the abuse started with those photographic flashbacks, a frequent way adults begin to remember the nightmare they endured as children.

"It has everything to do with the nature of the trauma," she says.  "When children receive more than they can comprehend, they desensitize themselves.  They check out."

In most abuse-recall cases, psychologists have said that something--a person, an event, a smell, a location--triggers the memory.  For instance, in a famous court case, tried last year, Eileen Franklin-Lipaker's memories of abuse flooded back to her when she suddenly saw the physical resemblance between her young daughter and a childhood friend her father abused and murdered more than 20 year ago.

For Forrest, the prompt wasn't so clear-cut.  Yet there were obvious signs that all wasn't right with her mental state.  She was a workaholic, she said, who took great pride in her career.  Yet her personal life was a mess.

In an introductory piece in the premier May issue, she described herself as being "unsuccessful in love" and having a "range of habits that I seemed have no control over.  I drank two or three glasses of wine every night.  I ate ice cream or pastries when I was feeling low.  I pulled at my hair, sometimes until it fell out.  I bought more books than I'd ever have time to read, and I spent money on more clothes than I'd ever have time to wear. . . Nothing ever seemed to be enough to fill the aching hole, the emptiness inside me."

The past returns

In the decade before the revelation came to her, Forrest says she maintained some normalcy with therapy and daily doses of antidepressants.  But still, there were the unexplainable bouts of anxiety, most noticeably as a passenger in a car around 5:30 p.m. every day.

To celebrate her 40th birthday, she treated herself to a month-long vacation at a Zen retreat in France.  It was there, during long periods of meditation, that she began to hear what she describes as the silent screams deep in her gut.

"I came back and for three days, I felt wonderful," she says.  "Then on the fourth day, I went through the worst depression I've ever had."

It was soon after that trip that the eerie photographic dreams started cropping up in her subconscious.  

"All the details weren't there, but I was remembering enough to verify the truth I was facing," she says, her eyes welling with tears.  "In reliving the horror of the experiences, I felt a release at knowing the root of my depression and destructive behavior."

Coping, hoping

The fear she felt riding in a car was because it was where her grandfather molested her after picking her up from school.  And the unease that overcame her around 5:30 had to do with remember that her father, a prominent Philadelphia attorney, who died in 1980, always came home around that time each evening.

The emotional and psychological mending begins with appropriate counseling, she said, and getting to the point where you can disclose the abuse to family and friends.

"I had to tell friends to find out whether they would still care about me and so that I could finally tell the truth," Forrest explains.  She changed her name from Fuchs to Silk Forrest to further exorcise the name of her perpetrators.  Silk, because it was something beautiful that came from a lowly worm.  Forrest, because it was the name of a young, inquisitive boy she adored and a place where she found solace as a child.

"Ever since I was 6 years old, I knew I wanted to be a writer," says Forrest, whose newspaper career included a job as a news editor at the Mercury News in the mid-‘80s.  "But I have yet to find the language that can communicate the agony and heartbreak that describes the sexual abuse of children."

Listening to the unspeakable

When women tell friends and family members about their sexual abuse, the responses vary, says Margot Silk Forrest.  Some express anger and compassion, others blurt out something offensive.

She's collected some of the responses her readers have sent, including those that are deemed appropriate if and when someone tells you about having had such and experience:

The best

"What can I do as your friend to support you and help you get through this" (Said by a best friend)

"Do you want to take a walk with me?  What can I do for you to make you feel better? (Woman friend)

"How devastating to have what you thought was your childhood taken away and replaces with a nightmare." (A letter from a best friend referring to a survivor's newly recovered memories)

"Are you alright?  I will drive up there anytime to take care of you if you need me."  (A sister, who was also sexually abused.)

A gasp.  Followed by a hug. 

The worst

"Oh, the poor man!" (A woman friend referring to the survivor's sexually abusive father.)

"How do you know?  Can you prove it?  (A woman friend from high school.)

"Do you think these things happen to you because you're so attractive? (A boyfriend after listening to survivor's story of incest and rape)

"Can't you get on with this, with life?"

Complete silence, then the person changing the subject.

--Donna Kato


L.M. Press
phone 805-771-9522 • fax 805-435-1472