Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night and the events of daily life are crowding my mind, I have a vivid memory of a little café in Oxford. Tucked away in the side streets of a city brimming with tourists, it was a place where the espresso was rich and the music eclectic. You could sit for hours and watch old professors, hippy students, shy teenagers on their first date and, once, a man with the longest hair I’ve ever seen. I loved that little café more than I would admit, casually mentioning it in conversations until my friends would roll their eyes and say, “Bella, not that coffee shop again.” What? They had pretty good blueberry muffins.
But I digress. I loved this place most because it was there that I discovered one of the most important lifestyles I’ll ever find--the lifestyle of kindness.
Being kind. Sure, I try to be nice to others. I’m polite. I volunteer sometimes. Isn't that enough?
But what I saw went beyond the courteous niceties that we all practice. It’s an outward way of looking that projects attention away from ourselves and into the world. It’s paying for the person in the coffee line who forgot their wallet and is getting flustered. It’s listening to someone who thinks they messed up and telling them it’ll be okay. It’s noticing the woman crying in the corner and wordlessly putting a packet of tissues in front of her before moving on.
I saw all these acts and more unfold in front of me. The strangest thing was that these moments of kindness were from one stranger to another, people who didn’t know each other but simply found a moment to be kind. One night, as the café was closing, I lingered, wanting to finish the last pages of a book. “Oh, take your time,” the barista said as he began stacking the chairs. “A few minutes won’t make too much difference to me.” Perhaps it was the tone of his voice, something infinitely warm in it. Or perhaps it was because I knew he had been there since 7 a.m. and should have kicked me out 10 minutes ago. “Thank you so much,” I said, touched. “Seriously, thank you. You don’t have to be so kind.”
He looked at me for a moment and smiled. “Yes, I know. But it’s nice to be nice, isn’t it? Something that only takes a little effort from me really might mean the world to someone else. The world is a better place when we all give a little to each other.”
And it was sentimental and it was cliché but it was true. I know, because after that conversation I endeavored to bring kindness into my daily life, to think not less of myself but of myself less. I watched people who were better versed than me at finding instances where one could comfort or care for another, and I tried. I found that there was a special joy in every day that came from giving without expectation or fear of awkwardness. It was a good life, reader.
Then I came to Duke and I forgot about that little café and that conversation. It wasn’t that there weren’t kind people here--on the contrary, behind these Gothic walls lie exquisitely compassionate people whose kindness has often saved my sanity. I would dare say, however, that people are less kind here. Who could blame them? The competitive college culture does not promote a lifestyle that focuses on others, not when there are classes to take and futures at stake and many of us are competing against each other for higher GPA’s, better jobs and more profitable futures. It is easy to be selfish when we’re surrounded by the urgency of success. In fact, being selfish is probably the rational decision if we want to survive the game of life.
I want to reject that mentality. It’s hard, especially when the desire to achieve has been ingrained in all of us from a young age. Sometimes I see so much potential for kindness at Duke because I see so many people hurting. Don’t you? We’re so good at being kind to the disadvantaged kids on our summer programs or the struggling community in Nepal. Let’s not stop there, though. Let’s bring that kindness to Duke and make it a lifestyle.
Let’s be that genuine person who compliments others when they’re doing something right and holds doors open for people. Let’s actually smile at people and ask how they are, no really.
Let’s give a little and I promise Duke will become a better place.
I am going to try again. Will you try with me?