I don’t know how to respond to kindness—especially kindness that is totally undeserved.  Even getting thank you cards and pictures from children whom I teach throws me for a loop. Gifts that people actually spent money on to give me just about unglue me.  My job is to smile and give so that people can see God never left me.  I don’t deserve gifts, and I know that, and so it makes me very uncomfortable when I receive something I didn’t earn.  My freshman year in college, one of psychology teachers smilingly asked the class if we’d ever thought about how it made someone feel when we failed to acknowledge a compliment…. by saying anything except “thank you”, he said, we were really undermining the other person, failing to give credence to their words. Saying something like, “Oh, it was nothing” when someone complimented me was really the same as saying their feelings on the subject didn’t matter—even if the action might have been huge in their life. That got my attention and thereafter I made a conscious effort to simply reply “thank you” whenever I was given a compliment or gift. I didn’t want to hurt the feelings or undermine the emotions of the person who complimented or gifted me.  Still, I never exactly know how to emotionally handle simple acts of kindness from others. I usually have an internal battle going on. I know I need to and want to smile, say thank you and accept the gift but part of me thinks that what I’m supposed to do is find a way to get them to return the gift and use their hard-earned money on something or someone more worthy than me. 

Strangely, I seem to have been the totally undeserving recipient of lots of small, but really important, acts of kindness recently. And it started a month or two ago. Someone I didn’t really know very well thought of me mid-week and brought me a small gift that I could use with the girls. At the time, I said thank you, and walked away feeling strange, which is the way I usually feel when I’m given a present. But it also made me smile. It made me feel like I had a friend, which is a big deal, because, besides my family, the only friends I have are children. After this incident, I received an e-mail from someone who read the book. In the past, if it’s a particularly touching review/comment, I’ve posted it because my goal is to help people and if a review / comment makes someone who needs to read The Character makes the person in need buy it, then, so much the better.  But this particular e-mail was almost too touching, so touching I didn’t even tell my family members about it. I cried for a long time over it, tears of gratitude and thankfulness.  And then I apologized to God because the e-mail was sent to me and not Him, even though I’ve known for a very long time that that book is His, not mine. 

Coming out of church one night, I had my humungous tote that I use to lug all my teaching stuff around in. It weighs only about fifty pounds or something ridiculous like that. In addition, I was holding Pinkie Pie, one of Alight’s huge My Little Pony stuffed toys, and I was carrying a couple other things.  A woman who could have been my mother insisted that I let her help me carry some of it to my car.  My instinct is to refuse help. I started to do what I always do when someone asks me if they can help me, and refuse. I always think to myself  “don’t bother them”, or “they have things they need to do” or “it’s not their job” or something like that. I usually insist that I can handle it. The woman saw my reluctance to hand her any of my load and said, “Now I know that you mothers can carry everything but… really, let me” and, when she said that, within a moment’s frame of time, a single thought popped into my head: “Don’t take this away from her. Let her help you”. That thought was instantly followed by three words: The Chair Carrier. Defeated, I gave her one of my bags while me and my sore arms profusely thanked her. 

For Christmas, one of the girls I teach and her mother gave me an extremely thoughtful and kind gift.  The mother told me, “I thought you could use some me time”, which just about made me cry.  I don’t think anyone outside my immediate family has ever said that to me. It really touched me, and my girls and I have spent the last month or so enjoying the benefits of a gift and bonding experience the gift could have brought the mother and daughter who gave it to me.

Yesterday was Sunday.  Sunday morning, I taught my first class like normal, then Breathe and I went to attend class together. While we were sitting waiting for our pastor to arrive for the class, one of the students in my class, a little boy, saw Breathe and I sitting in the classroom waiting and came in. His mom said, “Sorry – he just wanted to tell you bye.” And then, last night at church, one of the little girls’ mother came to pick her up. She went and hugged her mom, gathered her stuff and then walked across a sea of other children because she wanted to give me a hug before she left. THEN, all of the kids had been picked up except one. The girls and this other child were playing and I started to clean up the room. I turned on the vacuum, etc. I was still vacuuming when the child’s mother arrived. Her husband had just returned from a trip and was waiting for her and their child at home but instead of going on home like I probably would have done, she said, “What can I do to help clean?”  I told her to go home. I told her I could handle it. I told her there wasn’t much left to do anyway. I told her she didn’t have to. But she wouldn’t listen, and she grabbed a towel and began cleaning the tabletops for me. I was speechless. “Thank you” seemed totally ill fitting. I mean, seriously. Who wants to leave a long class, which she just had sat through, to come and clean a room she didn’t mess up, especially when she had a husband she wanted to see?

To top it all off, my daughter’s pediatrician went out of his way to make me feel respected and…. well, frankly, special this morning, in addition to taking the time to allow my daughter to demonstrate how she can write her own name, and remembering, out of all the many kids he sees every day, that she likes dinosaurs. We have had him in our lives since Breathe was born; he’s the same doctor that came to the hospital on his day off to see Breathe when she was in the ICU; he’s the same one that hugged me when an exam forced me to tell him the basic plot of my troubled past and it just hit me today how blessed we are to have him in charge of my girls’ health. We left his office and he had made Alight feel more proud of herself than she has felt in a long time: indeed, we had to go straight to Target to buy her a booster seat since he said she was allowed to move out of her ill fitting car seat. She smiled the rest of the day.  Meanwhile, Breathe oooheed and ahhhed over Alight’s new booster seat as if it were gold, never asking for anything for herself. And, while we were eating, she just laid her head down in my lap and said, “I love you, Mama” and that’s when it hit me. I am their mother.  I am Mama. They are not going to disappear: I get to watch them grow up.  What in the heck have I done to deserve that? Absolutely nothing.

And none of that EVEN begins to mention all of the wonderful things my family does for me every day. It also doesn’t mention the people in my past who encouraged me or listened to me or made me feel beautiful or expressed concern… who changed my life with small acts of kindness.  I never overlook things but my uncomfortable-ness with gifts often leads me to respond inappropriately—often with a smile and a “thank you” that’s followed immediately with silence; sometimes with no words at all.  My pastor says that we never know why we are given the thoughts we are given and that if the thought, I need to tell that person thank you  crosses our brain, we need to immediately act on it, because we never know what our words may do for that person. He’s right, of course, and so I’m trying. But, I mean, seriously, people… where do I start?

People give me lots of credit for things that…. well, frankly… aren’t that special. I mean, sure, I write books, but, really, have you been to a bookstore lately? Do you know how many other people write books?  Do you know how many of them have a platform, have an issue that they are passionate about and that they use the pen to raise awareness for?  There are tons of other teachers at my church alone who come every Sunday and teach children the word of God, and have for longer than I have. Mrs. Wendy, Ms. Anna, Mrs. Sheila, Mrs. Heather, Ms Jillian,  Mr. Ron—they’ve all been tremendously influential and special in my girls’ lives, and in mine. Yes, I homeschool and I’m fairly good at coming up with creative games and crafts. But, really, it’s not that hard: lots of mothers homeschool,  and those who don’t have wonderfully smart, sweet and beautiful children with loving homes.  And I guarantee you that most, if not all, of those  mothers make good wives too: I, on the other hand, cannot honestly say the same of me. In fact, sometimes, I’m pretty sure that the only thing I can do even partway right is for children.

Anyway—gifts make me nervous and uncomfortable because I don’t know what to do with them.  Growing up, there were dozens of unspoken, but very real, rules for me, rules that I don’t want to go into right now. The point, though, is that one of those rules was that I was not supposed to accept something if I hadn’t been good. And I’m not good. I can make that sound better than it is, I can say that, scripturally, no one is good, everyone sins. And that’s true. Still….emotion is what it is…. I don’t feel like I have deserved these simple but meaningful acts of kindness. I haven’t done anything to earn them.  I couldn’t stop thinking about this today, and so I prayed and I asked Him for ways that I could repay those who have been super nice to me.  I had some ideas and I am beginning to act upon them.  I am comfortable giving – it’s what I thoroughly enjoy doing, I thrive off it. But this time around, I am finding that, as I do it, there’s a well of tenderness overflowing. 

I can’t stand to see people in pain. It takes my heart and rips it to shreds every time I hear a sad story or see a child hurting. Worse, I think it’s my responsibility to fix it. The other day, I saw a horrific story on the news  about some kids who had been killed by my their crazy mother. I cried, and then I thought, “What can I do to make it better for their family?”  I look at Breathe and Alight and, every day, I think, “What can I do to make sure they are happy? They are the most important children in my life—what does Breathe need, what does Alight need, for me to do right this minute?”  It doesn’t matter who is feeling it, it doesn’t matter how it came about—pain hurts me.  It really, really does. Moreover…. you know… there are issues left over from my childhood that still affect my present and that I haven’t recovered from, which is probably way the mere idea of going to a counselor gives me the chills. I bring that up because sometimes I am so focused on doing what I can to alleviate pain (mine, or someone else’s) that I forget to be the blessing. There is no replacement, none, for human touch and sometimes I need to remember that, while being a mommy is my primary task, while teaching and caring for hurting children and teenagers is my passion and mission, while being the “bestest” sister and daughter and companion that I can be is my life, I sin a little bit every time I forget to stop and make those who enrich my life know how much of a blessing they are.  Part of my job is to say thank you—even if I’m not very good at it.  My heart is aching right now to somehow make all of the people who have made me feel respected, loved, beautiful, special feel those same things, and I also hope that it leads my recipients into remembering the wonderful things they did for me so that they may feel proud of themselves and give themselves time to appreciate all that they are.

Life isn’t about me, it’s about others. I’ve always known this, and I think it’s part of the reason why accepting gifts—verbal ones or physical ones—is so hard for me to do.  It only takes one act of trauma to scar someone for life—but it also only takes one act of kindness to motivate someone who’s hurting to turning away from the devastation.  This is the month of Valentine’s Day. It’s the month set aside to tell those we love that we love and appreciate them. But all of our lives are touched by more than our significant other, by more than our children, by more than our families: they are also shaped and enriched by people who barely know us but who take the time to regularly offer a smile, a word of encouragement, a small gift just so we won’t feel isolated.  It takes a lot of effort to be a loner—that’s a lesson I’m still learning. Our families will try in blatant ways to demonstrate love and affection—but acquaintances and friends will demonstrate it subtly every chance they get. Whether or not we, in turn, say thank you with sincerity and effort or not determines the kind of legacy we leave our children, and the kind of impact we’ll leave on those around whom we are surrounded.