“The Mitten Tree” by Candace Christiansen
In our story, it was a small kindness that made a huge difference. And that seems strange – counterintuitive, in fact.
There’s so much big stuff we’re facing – the world seems to have lost its collective mind and there was already so much work to do that now it seems insurmountable. The sheer volume of ills is staggering – from immigration to reproductive rights to the environment to poverty to racism to homophobia – huge problems that seem to demand huge solutions.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Just a half hour of news can paralyze us in such deep anguish we can’t even see all of the thousands of ways, big and small, our world is hurting, no less the ways we can help. As Rebecca Parker says in Blessing the World, “our despair keeps us from being able to see.”
So what difference does a small kindness make? Why should a pair of mittens matter?
And yet it does.
Author Jeffrey Lockwood tells the story that one night a thief snuck into the room of a sleeping Buddhist monk. As the burglar rummaged about, the monk awoke. The startled thief ran into the snowy streets with the monk racing after him, “Please stop!” the monk called, and the man finally did, realizing that his pursuer was no threat. “You’ll need this,” the monk gasped, handing the thief his own coat.
“What do you mean?” the man asked.
“I saw that you dashed from my room into the cold without so much as a winter wrap, and I realized that I had both a blanket and a coat.”
“I don’t understand,” the man said.
“It is simple. You have nothing at all to keep you warm,” the monk answered.
“But you are a fool to give away your coat, leaving you with only a blanket,” the man replied, reaching for the garment.
“If I had two gloves on one hand and none on the other, would I be a fool to put one of them on my bare hand?” the monk asked.
The man said nothing, took the coat, and hurried down the street.
When we are not alienated, when love draws us into the suffering of others, when we see our happiness entwined in their well-being, then kindness and generosity is neither foolish nor heroic. It is the simplest and most obvious choice.
In a few minutes, we will decorate this tree with this pair of gloves, and this scarf, and more mittens, and hats, and gloves, and scarves, each one just a drop in the bucket. Each one a singular, small kindness.
Like the old woman’s mittens. She knitted one pair for one boy. But that led to another pair of mittens, another act of kindness. And another. And soon, the kindness of one called to others, who answered with a small kindness – a basket of yarn. One small act of kindness, snowballing, rewarded. Each one a singular, small kindness.
Now we could decorate our tree and just say “isn’t that nice” – and go on with our lives. But do we want to be kind, or do we just want to be nice?
It’s easier to be nice than to be kind. Niceness buys into the gospel of comfort, that says we don’t want to offend. Niceness is being quiet and complacent, niceness is not making waves and not making a stink and just letting people have their own version of truth even when they’re not factual. Niceness is demure and unobtrusive and doesn’t want to bother anybody. Niceness allows comfort to be more important than goodness, ease to be more valued than doing what’s right.
Niceness is not kindness. Kindness sees a need and offers to help. Kindness stands up for the person being bullied, and then makes sure they’re safe. Kindness disrupts lawlessness and incivility. Kindness goes out of its way. Kindness recycles, kindness holds the door, kindness builds a ramp, kindness explains, kindness knows its privilege and uses it to build justice. Kindness is not easy. Kindness is sometimes uncomfortable, because it requires us to not stay comfortable, to not stay nice and docile.
Kindness doesn’t sit still. And kindness acts in many big and small ways. Kindness calls elected representatives, and writes letters, and sometimes goes to protest marches, and makes sure everyone who wants to have a voice has one. Kindness donates much needed funds to groups in need and sometimes stands outside of Planned Parenthood and acts as a protective escort to women seeking medical treatment. Kindness puts on angels wings and shields a grieving family from a Westboro Baptist Church protest. Kindness sends water to Flint and camps with the Indian nations at Standing Rock. Kindness prays for the protection of sacred land and water, and asks forgiveness. Kindness mourns the loss of another black person killed by police and sometimes kindness works for racial justice because it knows that Black Lives Matter.
Kindness isn’t always easy. But kindness – the big acts and small – matters.
What does one pair of mittens matter? What does one letter matter? What does one check to the ACLU matter? What does one case of water matter? What does one prayer matter?
And yet, it does. One pair of mittens warms the hands of someone. One pair, along with all the other pairs of gloves, and hats and scarves, warm many. One letter, one check, one case of water, one prayer – all drops in a bucket, but soon the many drops fill and overflow the bucket.
Kindness seizes the moment and answers yes. Kindness doesn’t calculate the return on investment or the risk to reputation or the fear of comments. Kindness is present to the moment. I recently saw a video of Mike Krzyzewski, longtime coach for the Duke University basketball team, where he talked about his old friend Jimmy Valvano, the coach of NC State, who died from cancer in the early 1990s. Coach K talked about Valvano’s philosophy – that all we have are moments, and we should pursue moments. In the short months he had left before he died, Valvano seized the moment and started the V Foundation for Cancer Research. A small kindness that he surely would never see the results of, but one small kindness in one moment that has gone on to help thousands.
Kindness matters. I laugh to myself when I remember how trite and silly George HW Bush’s “kinder, gentler nation” seemed at the time, realizing now that while there was much of the elder Bush’s presidency I disagreed with, this is something I can look back to and say yes, he got that right. That whole ‘thousand points of light’ thing that accompanied the kinder, gentler remark? Our acts of kindness make up those points of light. It doesn’t seem so trite now, when we realize that if I didn’t put this scarf on the tree, you might not put your mittens on the tree, and we might not be able to help people be a little warmer this winter. And if we don’t do this bit of kindness, one that costs us just a few bucks and a little effort, we might not do some of the bigger kindnesses that will affirm, promote, and protect every person, every right, and this very planet.
Kindness is what this season calls us to. It calls us to get out of our comfort zone and give of ourselves, even if we don’t know for sure if our gifts matter. In the Christian story, as news of the baby’s birth spread, people far and wide wanted not to be nice but to be kind – to bring gifts that made a difference. We often joke that Mary probably needed diapers and blankets more than she needed incense and jewelry, but what we know is that the act of giving mattered. And while what we give may be material goods, it’s what comes along with kindness that truly matters.
Our giving matters. Our seizing the moment matters. Our call to be uncomfortable matters. Our giving out of love and compassion matters. Our kindness matters.