Clippings by Gaen Murphree: Maybe kindness changes the world

When I was a lot younger — in the “B.C.” that’s “before children” era — I thought the only way to change the world and live rightly was through grand gestures, BIG ideas, daring sacrifices and bold, brave actions. But now that I’ve stuck with it up through the tween and teen years, now that I’ve made who knows how many peanut butter sandwiches and put countless hours into tying shoes and making pony tails and feeling proud and happy over entirely ordinary and humble things, I see things differently. Now — even though I’m still in awe of the extraordinary people who’ve changed the world — I no longer have any expectations that I will be one of them (not by a long shot), and I begin to wonder more and more if it’s not the small kindnesses and small acts of generosity that truly shape our world day to day. I especially wonder about this in thinking about how we create community.
There’s a lot of buzz these days about “community.” Social scientists are studying it. Important people are talking about it, putting it under a microscope, sticking a pin through it, and trying to examine it. People are talking about “community” a lot and bandying the word about with quite a lot of … well … I’m going to call it “preciousness.” But I wonder if it isn’t a lot more straightforward than that? Humbler and truer than all that? More down to earth. Simpler. In only my first two and a half weeks on the job as a reporter for the Independent, I’ve witnessed myriad small kindnesses and small acts of generosity that together build a better kind of world.
Driving around, reporting on Field Days, I talked to a lot of 4-H leaders and heard over and over again about the kinds of events and support adults in 4-H create for our county’s kids. I watched as older teenagers mentored younger friends in how to wash, show and care for animals — and handed down clothes and equipment, so that no one family was overburdened with the cost of participating.
Out in West Addison, I spoke with the extraordinary Pat and Lee Kayhart. When Lee lost both arms in a farming accident 30 years ago, the Kayharts could so easily have lost their farm. But neighbors stepped in, at the most crucial moments, and kept the farm running until Lee could return to his job. Family members watched the Kayharts’ children, the Kayharts’ church brought meals.
Meals are a small but important way that a community expresses its love and binds itself together. The good people of St. Stephen’s Church in Middlebury came to my house with countless casseroles in the two weeks after my second daughter was born. And I’ll never forget the awe-inspiring love-as-food-and-vacuum cleaning, when I watched the women of Havurah come in, clean everything, rearrange the furniture as needed, set out the food, and prepare a friend’s house for her husband’s shiva, the period of mourning in the Jewish faith. There’s not much you can say to a woman whose two little girls have just lost their dad. But there’s a lot you can do. Grief and joy can both be so large we’re left speechless. But kindness speaks for itself.
Community can go outside our human borders making us part of communities that we might not even recognize, county forester Chris Olson suggested to me. Chris shifted my own idea of community when he talked about how, right outside your window, right at the edge of your yard or your field, you might not see the deer but the deer sees you; it’s watching — and everything you do affects it. Our human community took a notable, if small, step toward reweaving a bit of the punctured ecological web around us when it expanded the Lemon Fair Wildlife Management Area, an event I was lucky enough to get to investigate and report on last week.
I’m not a Bristol resident, so I had never been to the Bristol landfill, so I was a bit perplexed, truth be told, when my editor insisted I go in person to the last day at the landfill. It’s a dump. End of story. No. Not really. What I saw amazed me. One guy, George Smith, in his late 80s, creating a place where people chat and get along and share news and share stories. When George says hi, he really looks at you, and when he asks you how you’re doing, he really listens to your reply. One of my favorite exchanges at the dump’s last day was over politics. George and a town resident from a different generation, a different upbringing, and a different side of the political divide told each other how much they’d miss their political disagreements … and occasional agreements.
In case you’ve been listening to America lately, you might have noticed that a lot of political discussions have gotten a lot uglier in the past 20 years. There’s been a lot more name-calling. And everybody’s sort of circling their own wagons, closing off more and more to talk only to people just like them. But community, as George Smith and his companion so aptly demonstrated, is when you go to the town landfill and talk to somebody different from you and you both actually listen.
Community can also be threatened by income inequality, as social scientists and epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett discuss in “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.” Looking at 30 years’ worth of data from the major industrialized nations, they argue that equality or lack of it is the greatest determiner of a society’s health and well being. Community is threatened — and concomitantly statistics for violence, poor health, mental illness and the like shoot up — if wealth and privilege become too concentrated in the hands of too few.
One of the greatest studies of community and of the profundity found at the heart of simple things is Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” still surprisingly bitter and truthful and inspiring almost 80 years after its debut. Wilder’s play contrasts three days in the life of a small New England hamlet, circa 1901. And along the way we meet an eager young girl; a self-destructive, despairing drunk; chatty gossipy church ladies; an overworked town doctor; and a small town newspaper editor, among many others. Sound familiar? At the end of the play, a young woman named Emily who’s died in childbirth, gets to go back and relive her 12th birthday. As she moves through the quiet bustle of small town life and the moment to moment events at the family breakfast table, Emily keeps trying to get those around her to stop, really look, really see and hear one another, and really experience the ineffable beauty of life’s smallest moments. “Let’s look at one another,” she keeps saying.
So let’s look, maybe take a little more time to listen, and a lot more time to just be kind and to be generous. And keep building this great community. 

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