It’s night 5 of Hanukkah in my Brooklyn home. Colorful little candles are casting a warm glow against the tarnished-golden metal of the menorah — bringing light into the world, even if only temporarily.
Night 1, also in Brooklyn, was an evening of pausing and remembrance for me — good practices for nearly any day (https://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/the-light-of-remembrance/).
Nights 2 through 4 were missed, and instead replaced with a two-hour trip north by train to the hilly, rural, calming landscape of the Hudson Valley for warmth, pauses, and remembrances of other kinds — calling forth illumination, too, but in different ways: woodstoves, sunsets near the end of hikes, star-studded skies, and most especially, friends old and new.
At this dark time, light becomes crucial to sustain our spirits, our humanity. Perhaps, to be generous, the tacky-kitschy-comic displays of electrified outdoor Christmas (and increasingly Hanukkah) lights starting to reappear could be seen as a goodwill gesture, even if misguided, to meet the widespread need for brightness — those sparks of hope that are so lacking in most of our daily interactions. More than ever, as counterweights to all the gloom and doom we routinely encounter, we need to strive to make our own festivals of light.
Light, though, comes in many forms. And our longing for it in this contemporary moment, I fear, is far more than merely a matter of the lack of sunlight or counting the days until the winter solstice.
One particularly brilliant form of light at this dark time, then, might simply be bountiful little gifts of random yet not-so-random acts of kindness. That is, intentionally pausing to remember our own capacities for spontaneous, gentle kindnesses — forgotten, it too often seems, in the rush and alienation of an everyday “life” that has us barely able to look another human being in the eye and see those eyes twinkle back.
It’s not that random not-so-random acts of kindness constitute revolution, or that if we accumulate enough of them, those acts will tip the imbalance of power, bringing all those structures of social domination, exploitation, and oppression to their knees. Yet they are part of (re)schooling ourselves in how to practice, routinely, the lost arts of caring, neighborly, and empathetic face-to-face social relations. And as many of us have personally experienced during uprisings like Occupy, the lack of such rigorous yet tender practices on a daily basis makes us woefully unprepared to be the people we want to be during our own experiments with egalitarian and directly democratic forms of social organization.
A bit over a month ago, at a painfully bleak time, my sister K urged me to start putting care and love into the world precisely through tiny, varied, random acts of kindness to strangers. She encouraged me to both push myself to do this regularly, even (or especially) if I’d lost faith in the reciprocity of such care and love from what I understood to be my community, and to trust. So I began to follow her advice, day after day, and usually in the most unusual or sometimes conventionally inappropriate of spaces.
As my own not-so-random acts toward strangers started to pile up, I noticed that even though I wasn’t receiving “credit” for most of them, the doing of such acts made me feel kinder and more compassionate toward myself, which likewise nudged me on to be even more kind at random. I also started to become aware of others who were practicing random acts of kindness toward seemingly complete strangers, and how if those strangers became aware of that kindness directed at them, they responded in unexpectedly beautiful ways — all of which made me feel kinder and more compassionate toward random people. Little by little, it seemed that suddenly, random not-so-random acts of kindness were increasingly showing up at my doorstep, figuratively and literally.
Lest this verge on sounding too cosmic, I don’t think this is mystically accidental. We teach each other, over time and generations, and through such kind and empathetic co-mentoring, we thus also unlearn, de-learn, relearn, and learn. Perhaps, with patience, we’ll begin to form webs of “horizontal” and “circular” social relations that feel like the soft cushions of our everyday new homes in a new world. Such “modeling” — with a far different content, marked by a paucity of care and love — is what the current structures of social control rely on to consolidate their power. They impose social relations on us via all sorts of hierarchical institutions and oppressive socialization techniques, until those unkind relationships begin to feel natural, and we can hardly imagine any other ways of being. Hence the need for our practices of throwing care and love (and caution about doing so) to the wind, as light in the world, even if only temporarily.
Today, on night 5 of Hanukkah, I saw little flames of this — like paper matches struck and extinguished quickly, but afire long enough to light a few little cheery candles.
The first random not-so-random act of kindness was me getting to witness a new friend as he noticed a woman struggling to lug suitcases and shopping bags off the train as we arrived at NYC’s enormous, crowded Grand Central Station. He asked this stranger if he could carry her bags, and relief flooded over her face as she explained that she suffers from an inability to breath well due to some ailment. I followed his lead and took another bag from her, and my friend insisted that we walk her a substantial distance so she could catch a cab. During our walk, she asked our names, asked about us, and we did the same. In response to her saying at one point, “You don’t need to keep helping me,” my friend remarked something to the effect: people don’t take the time to help others, so that’s exactly why I’m helping you, because people could and should take the time. When we reached the taxi, she hugged and then kissed us both, in what had transformed into the most humanizing of interactions, if only for those randomly kind 10 minutes or so.
Later that evening, when I was walking toward my Brooklyn home, I thought: “I should call my parents. They’ll be worrying about whether I got back to the city safely or not, especially given the tragic train derailment on the same line I was traveling later in the day.” Then I paused with a jolt and remembered: “I can’t call them — ever again. They’ve passed from this world.” Such are the mysterious ways we process grief: the mind goes back and forth with comprehending that fact and then, for brief flashes, not recalling it. My mood sank lower and lower as I trudged up the two flights of stairs to my apartment.
But there, leaning against my door thanks to someone else in my building bringing it directly to me, was a whimsically and artistically wrapped package, sent from two friends in San Francisco — a care package. Inside was a handmade card with penned notes from each friend, sharing how random kindness had recently bolstered their spirits, such as this comment from one of them: “When my grandmother passed, kind words were sent [to me]. No particular words helped, but that someone wrote did [help].” She went on to explain why they’d included each and every treat in the box, shedding light on the intentions of the care, with this one touching me the most: “The olivewood [heart] stays nice and smooth. I thought that maybe, on a bad day, you could put the heart in your pocket and periodically rub it with your fingers to remind you that you are loved.”
Or maybe, also, on many more not-so-random moments ahead, I can pull out that wooden heart — along with my own still-heavy yet slowly starting to get lighter heart — and help someone who’s having a bad day feel that they are loved, too.
* * *
If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”
(Photo by Cindy Milstein, Brooklyn, December 1, 2013)