On a Friday in July of 2007, fourteen-year-old LaSaller David Melia stumbled upon people giving away hugs outside a movie theater. Strange, he thought, and refused to take them up on their offer. Hours later, as the idea bounced back and forth like a pinball in his mind, he found himself intrigued. The next day, David walked Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago (where nothing comes free!) dispensing hugs while sporting a t-shirt with the words FREE HUGS applied in neon-colored duct tape.
Hugging hooked David. Every day since his first foray on Michigan Avenue, David has worn the words FREE HUGS somewhere on his person—on his shirt, his sleeve, even his forehead. In 2013, as a business management major at DePaul University, David published a book on his experience as a “free hugger” and with the proceeds traveled the following summer to thirteen cities, logging 2,500 hugs on the tour.
David has no question about who he is. He’s a serious student, a beloved son, a supportive brother, and a humble Christian. But at his core, David is a hugger. “I am making sure my actions reflect what I believe,” noted David. “What I do with my finances, what I want to do as a career, who I spend time with, where I spend my time: those are all resources that I have control over and can use to effect change. There is something in that small act of a hug, in that small gesture, which allows someone to switch their focus from negative to positive. I truly believe small, random acts of kindness have a big effect.”
The cynical side of us might retort: C’mon! At twenty-one, David hasn’t experienced the complexities of life; he doesn’t have kids or a mortgage or aging parents to support. He’s free to be himself.
True. But David sees a through line in his story that many of us miss. David has connected the various pieces of his journey into an arc of meaning. What if we did something similar? What if we remembered that openness, graciousness, generosity once came easily to us.
From Mediocre to Super Bowl Champions
On Monday morning, February 2008, every sports page in the world heralded the New York Giants’ astonishing Super Bowl upset over the undefeated New England Patriots. And the big story within the story? Giants’ head coach Tom Coughlin pulled off the shocker with…nice. Entering the season with his boss grumbling, “He’s our coach this year; we’ll see what happens after that,” Coughlin decided he needed a leadership makeover. Jackie McMullen of the Boston Globe reported an incident that took place on media day, seventy-two hours before the big game:
A boy no more than eight or nine years old was handed a microphone…and he made a beeline toward Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin, who spotting the junior inquisitor leaned over in an almost grandfatherly fashion and tenderly attended to his question. “I hear yo’ve been a lot nicer this year,” said the child. “Who put you up to that?” Said the coach to gales of laughter.
After going 8-8 in the 2007 season, Tom Coughlin met with his veteran players. They told him he yelled too much, communicated too little, and listened barely at all. Veteran player Michael Strahan calls the change “a transformation, sometimes I barely recognize him.” (Boston Globe, January 30, 2008)
Tom Coughlin spent three years trying to change his players. It didn’t work. So he decided to change himself. And that’s what changed his players. Now they’re all sporting Super Bowl rings.
He Saw it, He Loved it, He Ate it
Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are and other children’s books, gets many letters from his young fans. A favorite was a “charming” drawing sent on by a little boy’s mother. “I loved it,” Sendak says. “I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on a post card and sent it to him. His mother wrote back: ‘Jim loved your card so much he ate it.’
The little boy didn’t care that it was an original drawing. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it. That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received.”
Submitted by Chris Stroup, source material, Maurice Sendak.
Hiding His Kindness
Have you ever noticed that some people hide their kindness? Fred Allen, an American comedian and writer, would always hide behind his own cynicism after performing a kind act. One time Allen rushed out and grabbed a newsboy about to be hit by a truck. Needing to protect himself from the threat of being called kind, Allen commented, “What’s the matter, kid? Don’t you want to grow up and have troubles?”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Kin and Kindness
…I started reading The Kindness of God by Catholic theologian and philosopher Janet Soskice. In her examination of the etymology of the word kindness, Soskice helped me see it for the first time as a strong virtue rather than a weak one. “In Middle English,” she writes, “the words ‘kind’ and ‘kin’ were the same—to say that Christ is ‘our kinde Lord’ is not to say that Christ is tender and gentle, although that may be implied, but to say that he is kin—our kind.
This fact, and not emotional disposition, is the rock which is our salvation.” I paused after reading this sentence to try to take it in, to try to peel the sentimental layers off my definition of kindness and replace them with this fact: to be kind meant to be kin.
The word unfolded in my mind. God’s kindness meant precisely that God became my kin—Jesus, my brother—and this, Soskice said, was a foundational truth about who I was. Not only that, but for speakers of Middle English, Lord had a particular meaning—a lord was someone from the nobility, the upper social classes. To say “our kinde Lord” was to say the difference in social or economic status between peasants and nobility was also erased through Jesus the “Lord” being of the same “kinde” as all, landowners and peasants alike. Jesus erased divisions that privileged some people over others.
If Soskice is right, then practicing kindness requires, at minimum, a willingness to see the image of God in, and to find a point of honest connection with, every person—even, and especially, those I dislike.
We are Creatures Created By Kindness to Be Kind to All That Is
In this short excerpt written by the prolific Christian Ethicist Stanley Hauerwas to his Godson, he describes one quality of both God the creator and us the image bearers: Kindness.
An extraordinary Christian named Julian lived in Norwich during a time we now called the Middle Ages. She had a vision of God that is as wonderful as it is frightening. One of her famous claims is that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Such a claim seems remarkable because the world in which she lived seemed anything but “well.”
So how did she know her claim was true? She says she knew because “God is kind in his very being.” She knew of God’s kindness because God became our “kind” in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians call this great mystery—the mystery of how Jesus was very God and very man—the Incarnation.
It is because our faith centers on the Incarnation that kindness is the very heart of the way we are called to live. We believe, even in a world as violent as the one in which we find ourselves, that we can risk being kind. We are called to be like God, but we are not called to be God. In fact, we believe we can be like God precisely because God is God and we are not. We are, like Connie and the rabbits in your backyard and the plants the rabbits’ eat, creatures. Another great Englishman, William Langland, in a poem called Piers Plowman, asked “what kind of thing is kind,” answering that
Is the creator of all kinds of beasts.
Father and former, the first of all things, And that is the great God that had beginning never.
Lord of life and of light, of relief and of pain.
We are creatures created by kindness to be kind to all that is.
An Unexpected Kindness
In the book entitled Sweet Thursday, John Steinbeck introduces us to Madam Fauna. She runs a brothel and takes a liking to a prostitute by the name of Suzy. Madam Fauna sets Suzy up on a real date with a man, not a client. She buys Suzy a nice dress and helps her get ready for the evening.
As Suzy is leaving, she, moved by Madam Fauna’s kindness, asks her, ‘You have done so much for me. Can I do anything for you?” ‘Yes, ‘ the older woman replies, ‘you can say, I’m Suzy and no one else.” Suzy does. Then Madam Fauna requests, “Now say, “I’m Suzy, and I’m a good thing.” And so Suzy tries. “I’m Suzy, and I’m a good…” and Suzy begins to cry.”
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Kindness. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!