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  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1     You Can Catch It in the Best of Company
  • Chapter 2     We Are Kin
  • Chapter 3     What Kindness Is--and Isn't
  • Chapter 4     The Enemies of Kindness
  • Chapter 5     It All Starts With Empathy
  • Chapter 6     Who Am I, Anyway?
  • Chapter 7     Where Courage Comes In
  • Chapter 8     We Act, Therefore We Are
  • Chapter 9     The Connection Between Kindness and Power
  • Chapter 10   Don't Forget to be Kind to Yourself
  • Chapter 11   God's Designated Driver
  • Chapter 12   Strategies and Tactics for the Kindness Revolution
  • Chapter 13   Changing the World
  • Index

A Short Course in Kindness by Margot Silk Forrest


The Connection Between Kindness and Power

"Understanding kindness means accepting our personal power. If you see your place in the universe, really see it, you will not be struck by your insignificance. Rather, you will be awed by your...power to build and contribute."

--Robert J. Furey, The Joy of Kindness


Gabrielle parks the Volvo on a side street in Berkeley, unloads the things she will need for class, and locks the door. She must walk three blocks to reach the meeting room where her students have gathered tonight. The air is chilly and the streets are damp from a day of welcome winter rain.

She is thinking about her garden, mostly dormant now, and whether she should move the upright rosemary to a sunnier spot, when her legs suddenly go out from under her and she lands on her back, her belongings flying.

Her heart is momentarily racing. It's no small thing to take a fall at night on an empty city street, especially when you are sixty. She feels defenseless lying there on the wet pavement.

From down the street, she hears the sound of running feet. Two men are coming toward her in the dark. Suddenly they are grabbing her by the arms.

"Are you okay?" asks one man.

"We saw you go down," says the other. "That was quite a fall."

As she is lifted to her feet, Gabrielle can just make out the men's faces. Their cheeks are unshaven and creased, their hair tangled, their clothes a mismatched jumble of ragged plaids and moth-eaten woolens. Her saviors are two Berkeley street people.

Kindness has the capacity to turn the powerless into the empowered. No matter how the two men who helped Gabrielle had felt about themselves the moment before they ran to her, we can be sure they stood taller afterward. They had come through for someone. They had helped someone in need. They had been kind. My guess is that they felt powerful. Not "powerful" as in wielding power. But "powerful" as in influential, capable, effective, energetic, able, and competent.

When I told my best friend I was writing a chapter about kindness as the ultimate path to power, there was a significant silence on her end of the line.

"No, not power as in forced marches or hostile takeovers," I hastened to add. "Not power over.  Power within."

Power has been so misused over the centuries, the word now has a negative connotation. Dictators are powerful. Corporations are powerful. The CIA is powerful. Big insurance companies are powerful. Nowadays, "power" pushes people around and they have no choice but to take it.

But power is simply a type of energy. It can be used for good or ill, just as a powerful car can be used to run someone down or race to the airport to deliver a transplant organ.

We have all seen the effect of the power of love in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. Prayer has power -- as do beauty, truth, and goodness. The stories in this book are filled with powerful people, like the gentle-hearted anesthesiologist, the mechanic's go-fer, the pregnant defender of lost wallets, the ragged men in Berkeley.

Doing the right thing in the face of the odds makes us feel our power. Whether our acts of kindness are quiet ones, like Katy offering her help to the young man in the hospital cafeteria, or fierce and passionate ones, like Marti fending off thieves, their legacy is a strong sense of personal power. This is the reward that comes when we live by our own best lights, as Quaker author Parker Palmer puts it.

Committing acts of kindness shows us the power that we have -- over ourselves and our choices, and over whether this world is a cruel or wondrous place to live. All of the people who benefited from the kind acts I've told you about got more than the practical help they were given.

Remember Holly's story of being slipped a sandwich in the deli when she was exhausted from caring for her mom? She said she felt like she'd been given a shot of adrenaline: "It carried me--I swear the molecules rearranged inside me." Later, looking back on that act of kindness, she said, "It passes in a breath, but you feel it forever." After Gabrielle told her students the story of the street people rescuing her, she said, "When I saw their faces, they fell into my heart."

The increased sense of power that comes from kindness doesn't necessarily depend on whether our kind acts have the effect we hope for. In fact, there will be times when we cannot know exactly what effect our actions have had. We will feel empowered all the same. I wouldn't have thought this was true until I talked to people who'd experienced it.

When I asked my friends for stories of kindness for this book, Ruiko told me about the time she was a sophomore at Penn State and worked in the library. She noticed that one of the other students who worked there was looking ill. He was pale and drawn, his body thinner. She asked him if he was sick. He said that he and his wife hated living in the area and he had stopped eating so they could save money to leave. Ruiko went home and thought this over. In the morning she brought the young man three sandwiches: egg salad, tuna fish, and peanut butter and jelly. "The next day," she told me, "his friend came up and said, 'John doesn't like mayonnaise. He threw the egg salad and tuna fish in the trash and ate the peanut butter.' "

Hearing this, I thought, well, that's not a story I would use in the book. But when I looked at Ruiko, she was smiling. She felt good about what she had done for John. Nothing had changed that.

Kindness calls for us to expand many of our capacities. In order to undo my thoughtlessness in smiling at the homeless man's dog but not at the man himself, for example, I had to see through my own "press release" -- and confess to what I saw. I had to recognize that I wasn't always the generous person I liked to think I was. I had to expand my capacity for self-examination and my tolerance for my own mistakes. By doing so, I discovered a wealth of power in me: the power to change my thoughts, the power to change my behavior, the power to reach out to someone I'd wronged, the power to treat my small-minded self with compassion.

I think kindness -- and personal power -- is all about choice. We choose whether to feel empathy for others or to allow anger, denial, or depression to block our capacity for caring. We choose whether to stop and be kind when the opportunity arises. We choose to do what's right despite what others may think or what our own small fears may be. We choose to implement our decision to be kind by taking action.

Never underestimate the power that comes with simply having a choice, nor the personal power we feel once we've decided what our choice will be. Viktor Frankl discovered this truth in Auschwitz. The camp inmates were beaten, starved, deprived of sleep, worked beyond endurance, humiliated, hated, and massacred. Yet, as Frankl tells us in Man's Search for Meaning, not even the desperately cruel conditions of a concentration camp could take away "the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way--." His conclusion is that "Fundamentally--any man can...decide what shall become of him -- mentally and spiritually."

There is no greater power than this, and this is the power that choosing kindness gives us.

Copyright 2003 by Margot Silk Forrest


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