Kindness and Holiness
Over the past 30 years I have flown over two million miles with one airline. As you might imagine, things have changed. In my early days of flying it was not unusual for me to exchange addresses with a seatmate, or share a cab into town. I regularly wrote letters to the airline extolling the exemplary service of this or that employee. Back then people were, in a word, kind.
Frederick Buehner said kindness is not the same as holiness, but it is awfully close. My father is an extraordinarily kind man. Throughout my life I have heard others refer to him as a gentleman. Gentleness and kindness go hand in hand.
I was blessed to have two mentors, both of whom have moved on to the other side, where I imagine kindness is in abundance. I am confident they are at home there. Both were brilliant, both with doctorates in philosophy. One was a Roman Catholic priest. When a mutual friend, also a priest, told me my mentor had been considered for the role of bishop, but passed over, I asked why. He said, “Because Jim isn’t mean enough. He is far too kind.”
When I was younger I was a bit of an idealist. Idealism can be dangerous. It can lead to a shortage of kindness. You become convinced that wrongs must be righted and justice must be done, no matter the cost. Eventually you learn that determining what is wrong and what is just are not nearly as easy to discern as you once imagined.
When I was in my late 30s I had to tell an older gentleman that his position no longer existed and we would have to let him go from the non-profit I directed. As he walked out of the room he said, “Be nice Paul, be nice.” I had adopted a posture of clinical coolness as I informed him of his termination. I did not want to “lose it.” I wanted to “be a professional.” Years later, when I had to let 21 people go in a single day, I cried with just about every one. I did not care whether or not I was “professional.”
I do not have to tell you that the flying experience is no longer what it once was. Civility is barely maintained. A couple months ago I had to protect an airline employee from a verbal assault by a passenger. I said, “Buddy, leave her alone. A mechanical delay is hardly a gate agent’s fault.” He started to push me and then thought better of it. The gate agent was in tears. When I returned to the airport the next week she said, “I am so glad you were there. No one else would have protected me.”
Kindness is awfully close to holiness. I am grateful for my father’s example. I do not have much hope that the flying public will suddenly become kind, but I can still hope, right?
And so it goes.