Arts and Culture

Acts of Kindness

Faith & Thought

I have just come back from having lunch with some people who are in service professions. Knowing that I planned to write a column sometime today, I half-jokingly asked them what I should write about in the column. I was not planning to have a deep conversation but was merely curious about what they might say.

They said a great deal. Immediately they reacted very seriously. They agreed that I should write about simple acts of kindness, like saying “Thank you” and “Please.”

One person said that I should just write about gratitude. Every person had a comment to make. I was genuinely surprised by both their suggestions and their seriousness. My original question was asked half-jokingly, but very quickly I became serious.

Every person in a service profession whom I asked about people they serve saying “Please” or “Thank you” stressed that many people they serve neglect these common courtesies and that this omission was important to them.

The more I thought about their comments, the more important common courtesies seemed to me. Is this insensitivity to other persons’ feelings something new? Is this insensitivity increasing? If it is, why is it increasing?

Why are these small courtesies important? I believe because they are not small. These common courtesies change the atmosphere. They are implicit signs that someone is recognizing the dignity of another person.

At St. John’s University, whenever I walk through a door and there is someone behind me, I make sure I hold the door for that person. I do that even if the person is 15 yards behind me. When I do it, the person seems delighted and grateful.

When I hold the door and when the person responds, “Thank you,” we change simple acts into acts that carry a special meaning. The meaning is that the two of us are persons, and a person, whether a king or a janitor, is important.

Speaking this afternoon with people in service professions was something of an eye-opener for me. I believe it will help me to be more sensitive concerning the feelings of others. Perhaps the next time I hold a door for someone or someone holds a door for me, I will think of the conversation I had this afternoon.

As I have reported previously in this column, I don’t believe there are any small acts of love. The ultimate source of any act of love is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit Who is Love is trying to inspire us to be lovers. Obviously there is a sense in which holding a door for someone or saying “Please” or “Thank you” is not going to change the world.

I believe, however, that there is a sense in which it changes at least a portion of the world. We should never forget that. These actions can contribute to what Pope Francis has called a “Revolution of love.” Everyone has a role to play in cooperating with God in building God’s Kingdom.

While working on this column, I found a section of Ronald Rolheiser’s wonderful book “Wrestling with God” that says beautifully what I am trying to write about the mystery of persons. Rolheiser writes the following:

“Our grandiosity comes from the way God made us. We are made in the image and likeness of God. This is the most fundamental, dogmatic truth inside the Judeo-Christian understanding of the human person. However, it is not to be conceived simplistically, as some beautiful icon stamped inside our souls. Rather, it needs to be conceived in this way: God is fire, infinite fire, an energy that is relentlessly seeking to embrace and to infuse all of creation. And that fire is inside us, creating in us a feeling of godliness, an intuition that we too have divine energies, and a pressure to be singularly special and to achieve some form of greatness.”

I love the image of God as fire seeking to embrace all of creation, and I agree completely with Father Rolheiser that whatever our vocation is, we have some sense that we have divine energies and are pressured to be singularly special and to achieve some form of greatness.

Each of us has a role to play in building God’s Kingdom on earth. There are no unimportant people, no insignificant persons. Living in a consumer culture, we are constantly tempted to judge people by their possessions, fame or power. Every person is important and sacred because he or she is a person. There is no one who does not deserve a “Please” or a “Thank you.”

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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