A woman who had recovered from breast cancer praised her husband before a group of women. “Richard is my blessing!” she said, and then she shared a deeply moving story about him.
She explained that this was a second marriage for them both; they were deeply in love, and their blended family worked together beautifully. Richard was a widower when they met. His first wife had suffered a lengthy, difficult death from cancer. The woman—her name was Celia—went on to tell her friends that 12 months into their courtship, she found a lump in her breast. Her doctor delivered the devastating news that it was malignant.
Immediately, she thought about Richard and his children. They’d been impacted by cancer once and were still healing. Unwilling to bring this terrible ordeal into their lives again, Celia called Richard, and without explaining why, abruptly broke off their relationship. Over the weeks, Richard called repeatedly, but she refused his phone calls and returned his letters.
However, Richard wasn’t easily discouraged. He continued to call and write, asking to see her again. Finally, Celia agreed and arranged to meet him, believing that a formal goodbye would convince him to stop pursuing her. At their meeting, Richard was visibly strained but gently asked why she had broken up with him. Holding back tears, she told him about the cancer, the surgery she’d recently experienced, and the chemotherapy she was about to begin.
“You and the children have lived through this once already,” she explained. “I won’t put you through it again.”
Stunned and for a moment speechless, Richard responded, “You have cancer?”
Celia nodded and tears began to run down her cheeks.
Then Richard began to laugh with relief, saying, “Oh, Celia, we can do cancer. We know how to do cancer. I thought you didn’t love me!”
That story, related by author Rachel Naomi Remen in her book My Grandfather’s Blessings, is instructive for everyone—but men in particular. It is a compelling and inspiring example about the power of kindness. That story should speak volumes to men, reminding them to unleash this power into all of their personal and professional relationships.
American novelist Henry James tells men that three things are important in life. “The first is to be kind,” he says. “The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” In a similar vein, the English poet Lord Byron reminds us that kindness is vastly more important than conquest and empire building. He wrote, “The drying up a single tear, has more of honest fame, than shedding seas of gore.”
Those two statements about the importance of kindness are also a recurring theme in the Bible. More men need to reflect on these biblical calls to kindness: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, [and] humility” (Colossians 3:12); “Make every effort to add to your faith . . . kindness” (2 Peter 1:5, 7); “Be kind and compassionate to one another” (Ephesians 4:32).
The path to becoming a better man means traveling the road of kindness. It means infusing the world around with kindness and compassion. Following are some ways for men to do that.
The kindness imagination
Begin by expanding your kindness imagination. Many men feel they don’t have the experience or knowledge to be as kind and empathetic as they would like to be. They feel unskilled and untutored in the fine art of practicing kindness. This problem is easily corrected by simply working at expanding one’s kindness imagination.
One way to do this is to pay attention to those who are more skilled and advanced in kindness. Observe them, learn from them, and act like them.
Consider the powerful lesson about family kindness, which this husband and wife learned via an encounter with Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, a leading rabbinic scholar in Jerusalem. The rabbi, known for his warm heart, humility, and great intellect, was approached by the concerned parents of a mentally disabled boy. They sought the rabbi’s advice on the choice of an institution for their son. The couple was struggling between two alternatives, each having certain positives and negatives. After listening carefully to their descriptions, the rabbi asked, “Where is your son? What does he have to say about all of this?”
The parents simply stared at each other, somewhat embarrassed. Clearly, it had never entered their minds to discuss this important matter with their own son. Missing completely was this vital link of kindness toward their little boy.
The rabbi reprimanded the couple, saying, “You are committing a sin against the soul of this child! You intend to evict him from his home and consign him to a strange place with a regimented atmosphere. He must be encouraged and not be allowed to feel he’s being betrayed.”
Rabbi Auerbach instructed the parents to bring the boy to him. They went home and returned with their son.
“What is your name?” the rabbi asked.
“Akiva,” he replied.
Then Rabbi Auerbach, who was known for his uncommon humility, said something completely out of character for him. “My name is Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. I am the greatest Torah authority of this generation and everyone listens to me. You are going to enter a special school now, and I would like you to represent me and look after all of the religious matters in your new home.” With the boy’s eyes riveted on the rabbi’s face, he continued, “I shall now give you rabbinical ordination. This will make you a rabbi, and I want you to use this honor wisely.”
That encounter with Rabbi Auerbach became a powerful teaching and learning moment for the parents. It provided them with an opportunity for their kindness imagination to expand. Had they simply sent their son away the way they were planning, he would have experienced betrayal, rejection, and shame. Because of Rabbi Auerbach’s kindness, he went to his new home with a new dignity and sense of mission. The lesson: by observing others who are compassionate, kindness can be learned, deepened, and expanded in every man’s life.
Use personal power and authority to cultivate a culture of kindness. In our society, many men hold positions of power and authority. Men need to understand that with this privilege comes the responsibility to cultivate the culture of kindness. One man who has done just that is Howard Schultz, the man who took the Starbucks Coffee shops from three stores to more than three thousand. Under his leadership, Starbucks was among the first companies in the United States to provide health benefits to all employees, including part-timers.
His desire to create a corporate culture that was kind toward employees was developed when he was merely seven years old. “Something happened to my father that changed the way I looked at life,” Schultz says. He explained that his father grew up in Brooklyn, where he was raised in a working-class family. His father was a high school dropout who struggled at a string of unskilled jobs. The family lived in federally subsidized housing.
When Schultz was seven, he walked into their apartment after school and saw his father sprawled out on the couch with a full cast on his leg. While delivering and picking up cloth diapers, he had slipped on a patch of ice. His job provided no workmen’s compensation and no health insurance.
Schultz vividly recalls, “Our family was faced with severe financial problems. My father became extremely angry and disenchanted with what had taken place. That incident was a powerful experience for me and my family. As I got older, it became the backdrop for the kind of company that I wanted to build. In many ways, I wanted to have the kind of company that my father never got the chance to work for. My father had some bad luck in life. But everyone should have access to the American dream. I think success is best when it is shared.”
There have been years when Starbucks actually spent more on health care that on coffee. When workers expressed nervousness about shrinking health benefits, Schultz reassured, “We’ll never turn our backs on our employees.”
Continuously feed and nourish your kindness spirit. On a daily basis, every man has ample opportunities to choose how he will grow spiritually and emotionally. Men can choose to fan anger, or they can choose to fuel kindness. They can be concerned only about themselves, or they can care compassionately about others.
That’s the point of a Native American story about a boy and his grandfather. The boy, a five-year-old, was sent to spend the summer with his grandfather, who was a respected tribal elder. He adored his grandfather and observed his every move. Soon he noticed a pattern. Every morning at sunrise, the grandfather went to an altar in his home, removed a necklace, and placed it on the altar. Then he sat in silence for a few minutes. Afterwards, he put the necklace back on and continued with his day. Each evening at sunset, he repeated the same ritual. After a few days, the curious youth asked, “Grandfather, what are you doing?”
“I am taking some time to quiet my spirit and honor our ancestors,” the older man replied.
“But what is on the necklace?” his grandson asked.
Taking it off, the old man showed it to the boy, who saw that on it were the heads of two wolves. “Grandfather, what does this mean?” he asked.
The grandfather replied, “Inside each of us there are two wolves fighting to control us. One of them is scared and mean and has a hunger that can never be filled. It cares only about itself. The other is brave and kind and shares whatever it has with others. It cares as much about the community as it does for itself.”
Amazed and somewhat frightened by those symbols, the boy asked, “Grandfather, which wolf will win?”
The grandfather smiled at the lad, then said, “Whichever one we feed the most.”
It’s the same with kindness versus anger. The one that will win in our lives is the one we feed the most. And our happiness in life depends on feeding the right one. Men who embrace the power of kindness will find themselves living larger, better lives. Their words and deeds of kindness will be self-transforming, elevating, and transforming to the lives of all those they encounter. Being characterized by kindness and compassion is one of the most powerful contributions a man can make to his world.