But then I met a woman who actually worked for the insurance company. Her house in the Midwest had fallen victim to flooding many years prior. She spoke to me in a way that helped begin my healing. She mourned my soggy, irreplaceable keepsakes with me and understood that it was all more than "just stuff". She verbalized the guilty thoughts from her own experience about materialism and not feeling thankful that I was currently struggling with. She listened and understood and empathized but she also stood as an symbol of hope and victory over my circumstances. She had walked in my shoes once, and now, there she sat in my wrecked, carpetless living room, on my water stained, mildewing furniture, as a living, breathing, smiling, encouraging example that this, too, would pass.
I've never forgotten that. It took me years to tell the story of the flood without breaking into tears at some point (all part of the healing process, I believe). But my broken heart was indeed healing, only now with tender spots for those I'd begin to see on the news. Those standing in disbelief in the middle of a tornado ravaged town. Those climbing into boats on flood filled streets. Those crying on the sidewalk as flames engulfed their house and devoured a lifetime of treasures. Those returning to places that looked nothing like the place they had so lovingly called home. I didn't just feel bad for those people...I understood in a deep, powerful, personal way. I would see those images on the news and be immediately transported to my own experience of losing the security a house and belongings bring. I felt it with them and I cried with them. And I wanted to be the one to go and say, "I understand. And I know what to do and how to help and what not to say." And most of all I wanted to hug them and let them know that they would get on the other side of this and be stronger and more resilient and more compassionate than ever before. I wanted to be that symbol of hope and victory for them.
The key to Intentional Kindness is to not forget those broken moments or let them grow dim after the passage of time. These are the areas we mustn't forget when considering how best to give back to the world around us. It is so easy to want to get past the struggle and put it behind us. To just forget it and move on. But there has to be purpose in our story.
The most common request I receive is for more ways to celebrate Birthdays with kindness. I can list 100 ideas and there will always be someone who wants just a few more. My response has become pretty standard:
"What is the most difficult thing you've walked through in your life?"
"Oh," people say, "Well, I don't know. I mean, I don't really want to talk about THAT. That's too sad and depressing."
"OK, well, my advice is to think about one example of something really challenging you've had to endure, and who/what helped you get through it. Or what you wish you'd had to help you," I'll respond.
Post Partum Depression?
Parent with dementia?
Bullied as a kid?
Moved far away from family & friends?
We've all got the stories and we each know exactly what helped us get through it. Those are the best places to consider how best to make a difference in someone else's life. So yeah, buy coffee for the guy behind you in line, hold open the door for the woman with her arms full, and smile encouragingly at the frazzled Mom with the screaming toddler in the grocery store. But in the midst of those things, don't discount the maximum impact your personal experience can have on someone else walking through a similar struggle. No one understands it quite like you do....you are a difference maker. Let your pain help someone else heal.