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Why kindness matters

Sat., June 6, 2009

Kent Hoffman says support is key during trying times

Several months ago, Kent Hoffman, a 61-year-old Spokane psychotherapist, e-mailed The Spokesman-Review with the suggestion that the newspaper publish a front-page story every day about acts of kindness. He believed the stories would provide an antidote to the anguish people are feeling about current hardships, financial and otherwise.

Hoffman’s e-mail included insights into different ways of viewing the crisis, and his words sparked the idea for this monthly series that begins today.

In “Wise Words in Troubled Times,” Inland Northwest individuals will share their unique thoughts on surviving the current crisis. Here are some of Hoffman’s ideas, garnered in an interview and in several follow-up e-mails.

•Uncompromising reality is something we can’t wiggle out of. It can be a chronic illness, the breakup of a family, the loss of employment, alcoholism, a variety of things. Uncompromising reality is reality that won’t give. When we are faced with something we can’t change, regardless of our vain attempts, and we try to do it all alone, then we hit a wall.

•Sadly, the path we’ve been on in this materialistic society has been increasingly busy, increasingly financially oriented, competitively focused on getting more. We’ve got money channels, food channels, sports channels. We don’t have any what-do-I-do- when-the-“stuff”- hits-the-fan channels.

•Hard times throw us up against the inevitable hardship of life, and then we’re given a genuine option for change. Our John Wayne culture says “The best way, the honorable way, is to do it on your own.” On the surface it seems to work, but psychologically, the pain just gets shoved out of sight where it continues to fester. In a time of crisis, we can either choose to keep believing this tired and unproductive view of things, or we can make a conscious choice to try something that will support us as we face the pain directly.

•When you bring together uncompromising reality and an experience of the sacred, then you have the chance to experience what life is all about. When I use the term sacred, I mean shared vulnerability. If we are feeling vulnerable and alone, we tend to fall apart. But if we can share that vulnerability, we actually get stronger.

•Songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen speaks to how I think we need to approach any crisis: Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.

•There are people who know what I’m talking about. They belong to an Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous group, or they’ve found an MS or cancer support group or a regular gathering for those helping loved ones with Alzheimer’s. They’re facing a horrible “crack” in things, and they’re reaching out for the help.

•The people who will do the best in this economic crisis are those who seek out support from other people. I saw a story recently on people in Sacramento who are living in a camp for homeless people. They weren’t homeless six months ago. These are middle-class families who are cooking together, sharing this experience. Some of them were saying as horrible as this is, I am finding a sense of community I never knew possible.

•The writer Henry James once said something I’ve never forgotten: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” Kindness seems to be the practical face of the sacred.

•At Crosswalk, I work with street-dependent teen moms. They’re each burdened in huge ways by the uncompromising reality of being young, poor, broken emotionally, and now with a young life to care for. Recently in a group session a mom – not yet 18 – was talking about how her family had never really wanted her. The room was filled with her sadness as she spoke. Another parent, from a similar background, quietly said, “But we want you. You belong here with us.”

•A staff member at a local agency I’m associated with recently took a 10 hour per week cut in pay so that another colleague wouldn’t have to be laid off.

•I have a friend who didn’t want to give a street person money, but he didn’t want to dismiss them by staring straight ahead. So he went to Costco and bought a case of canned chili. Whenever he would stop at a light, he’d grab a can of chili and hand it to the person. The response has often been one of surprise and real gratitude.

• I’d be telling less than my full truth if I didn’t include in the definition of sacred a sense of what we often refer to as God. I don’t think God belongs to anyone – no particular religion or group or faith.

•When people are looking for a spiritual life, it’s hard to recommend where to find that, but I’d start with prayer. I was at a monastery in California once for an extended period of time. I asked this nun I had gotten to know well: “If you could say what you’ve learned in the 30 years you’ve been here, what would it be?” She said, “Ask. Just ask. Ask God for what you need. And then just wait and trust.” Now, that’s a big order. To ask is to be vulnerable. But we are now facing a time where we have to reach out and ask – our neighbor, our larger community and then, ultimately, God.

•At several key crises in my life, including when I was diagnosed with cancer, what has gotten me through has been my eventual willingness to reach out and ask God for help, knowing I just couldn’t make it within my current skill set.

•The most important thing I learned in all my clinical training was from Frank W. Kimper, a professor at the Claremont School of Theology. He said every person you meet has one thing in common: infinite worth. The moment he used that phrase – I was 21 years old – my life shifted in a way it’s never shifted back from. Every person you meet has infinite worth. There is no one worth more or less. Kindness is seeing and responding to the infinite worth in another.

Reach Rebecca Nappi at rebeccan@spokesman. com or (509) 459-5496.

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