Kindness, I’m learning, is a powerful thing.
Working in a public library, people from all walks of life come through my door. I love this because it gives me the opportunity to interact with people who are very different from me. One of the joys of being a small town librarian is the ability to really build relationships with my patrons. They aren’t just faces checking out books. I call them by name, remember what books they like, and get to be part of their routines.
You find the most generous people in small towns. My patrons, in particular, have shown great kindness to me over the past two years. They know I have a long commute and I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been offered a place to stay on winter nights when driving conditions are hazardous. A year ago, a family who knew I love cats surprised me by bringing in their litter of kittens. Having a kitten party in the library was pretty much a dream come true and I glowed the rest of the day. Recently, one of my regulars attempted to recruit my help in tapping maple trees and boiling syrup. He’s a prankster and, when I said no, gave me a hard time. A week later, though, he gave me a jar of homemade syrup anyway.
These relationships are one of the things I love most about my job.
One of my goals, and something I work very hard at, is to treat each person who walks in the door with dignity and respect. I want people to feel seen and known when they visit the library–they aren’t just another faceless consumer. I want people to feel like they matter.
This is no easy task and, so often, I fail to live up to it. When people show you incredible kindness, it is easy to be kind in return. When people are friendly, responsible, capable, and don’t argue when you tell them they have late fines, it is easy to show them love.
But people are hard. They’re messy, complicated, and difficult.
Late last fall, a new man started coming to my library. To borrow a phrase from my mom, this man is rough around the edges. He wears tattered coats, is missing teeth, and usually reeks of cigarette smoke and booze. He’s one of the most pessimistic people I’ve ever encountered. There isn’t a thing in the world he can’t complain about: the weather, the price of rent, the government, and the effort it takes to put his backpack on over his coat are a few of his topics of choice. This man has no concept of what computers actually do, so when he first started coming in, he would make comments to my coworker and I about how all we did was sit around all day.
I did not want to be kind to this man. He was rude, abrasive, and unpleasant. Whenever he came in, I’d cringe inwardly, plaster on as sincere a smile as I could muster, and endure his tirade about the snow and everything wrong with society. When he was gone, I’d breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Over time, though, from comments here and there, I have learned a bit about this man’s story. He’s been a handyman all his life and can no longer find work. His wife has cancer and all his government assistance money goes to keeping her in an assisted living home, even though he knows she is going to die there. He is in chronic pain, uses a cane, and still walks everywhere because he can’t afford a car. On the long, cold winter days, the stack of library DVDs were one of the few things keeping him from falling apart.
Knowing these things about this man changed my perspective. It made me wonder: How many of people like this, dwelling on the margins of society, experience true kindness? Who looks them in the eye and listens to what they have to say? How often does someone like that feel seen, known, and valued?
These are the people that need kindness the most.
So I’ve been trying: trying to be genuine, trying to see him, trying to make the library a place where he feels welcome.
Over the past couple of months, I have noticed a remarkable change in this man. While still abrasive, he’s not rude anymore. He complains, but it’s more lighthearted. He checks out books now, mostly paperback Westerns, and gives me updates on how far he is with them. He even places holds on DVDs and is always eager when a black-and-white TV show from his childhood is ready to pick up. He makes jokes and asks me about my day. If I give any indication of my day not being a good one, he goes, “Well, at least it’s almost over and you have a new chance tomorrow.”
I have no way of knowing where this change has come from, but the difference is night and day. It has me thinking about the power of a smile, of a kind word, of withholding judgement.
We live in a fragmented society with hostile politics, news biases crafting alternate views of reality, and increasing diversity. There are times when I feel so discouraged by the lack of compassion and empathy between people of different ideological camps, ethnicities, and backgrounds. It all feels like too much, like there’s nothing any one person can do to stop the hate.
But kindness is a powerful thing. It may not feel like much, but to the person in front of you, it can make an enormous difference