“A part of kindness consists in loving people more than they deserve.”~Joseph Joubert.
I still remember the smell of Pears Soap. I chose to use it as the first soap used on my firstborn, associating it with purity and simplicity, a transparent oval bar that we could only find in a Jamaican store. But I associate the name with something more: a source of information. As a child, whenever I posed a difficult question to my father, his response was always: “Go look it up!” We had a Pears Cyclopedia (an archaic name for Encyclopedia), a single volume packed with tiny drawings, definitions, and all manner of knowledge. In that book you might find the answer to homework questions, to crossword puzzle clues, or even find a statement to silence one of your siblings!
But our choices today are far more immediate and instant. Having a disagreement with a loved one in the car? Google dat!!! Can’t remember the name of the movie that starred that guy? Who sang that song? What does epistemological mean? We no longer have to go to sleep hoping that the answer to some random question will come to us in the night. Even when trying to match a face with a name we have Facebook to scroll through to trigger the memory. Whether it is school work or idle work, inspiration or confirmation, we have the tools at our fingertips. Problem solved!
As a teacher, I have to caution my students. The internet can be a wealth of misinformation, health tips passed around by concerned friends may be totally bogus or downright dangerous. How can you resist ‘copy pasting’ some life-saving tip, some nugget of advice that you hope may change a lifetime of bad habits. Then there is Snopes, the site dedicated to verifying and debunking rumor and falsehoods. But how do we know they are legit? How can we feel confident with anything we read on the internet? When I returned to school 8 years ago, one of our first assignments was to visit a very impressive and convincing website that was totally bogus. It purported to be of an organization dedicated to the preserving and protecting of some imaginary animal that lived in the Pacific Northwest. There was nothing about the page or the information (apart from the fact that we had never heard of this animal before) to make us think it was entirely fictional.
We are living in an information-based world. Technology now allows us to be bombarded with news from all over, images are snapped by amateurs and instantly uploaded, broadcasting terrifying situations from afar as if they are happening next door. We are assaulted by horrific news over and over again, until we become convinced the world is about to end. Or worse: we become numb, unable to process another tragic situation. Until the image of a dust covered child, rescued from a war torn country, tugs at our heart strings again.
So when we try to make sense of all of these happenings, we can again resort to the internet. We may read a heart-warming story of hope, or an insightful piece that gives the history behind the conflict in Syria. One of the places I frequently turn to (shhhh, don’t tell my students) is Wikipedia. It has become more trustworthy in appearance, with foot notes and references supporting its entries. Of course we are still a little suspicious, after all, we know that anyone can edit a piece. We hear about misinformation, or outright lies that have been inserted into some of the sections. We will not allow our students to cite Wikipedia in any of their papers. Yet it may be a starting point, or a quick answer to a non-academic question. Who were the authors of the Harlem Renaissance? Where did Paul Robeson die?
This week on NPR I heard an interview with one of the founders of Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales described this online Cyclopedia as: a living organism with a mission statement to make “the sum of all human knowledge available to every person in the world.” And when you think of it like that, you realize the power of this possibility. If you have access to the internet, you have access to knowledge that you may be deprived of. Of course, basic to that possibility is literacy, which for youth in parts of Africa may be less than 60%.
But the surprising thing about the interview with Jimmy Wales was the description of his community of contributors, with an underlying ethos of kindness. He stated that thoughtfulness and mentoring featured large in the community of contributors. Articles are discussed, new contributors and editors are mentored and advised, there is an arbitration committee that helps to solve disagreements on style or substance. There are still concerns regarding the accuracy of some of the entries. There still may be contentions that information can be manipulated too freely. But I was attracted by the concept of an organization that has kindness as one of its core values.
We humans often have a tendency to instantly classify people. We respond to the superficial: a messy appearance; a lack of makeup; we make an instant judgment based on a first impression. Or we observe an action, hear a statement and decide we know a person’s inner core. We jump to conclusions and put a person in a box, failing to recognize that many things may be going on other than what we can see. There may be far more to a person than that one situation. I once read that we tend to judge others by their actions, yet we expect to be judged on our intentions. If we were as kind to others as we are to ourselves, the world would be a far more tolerant place.
This Friday morning I encourage us all to be a little kinder, a little more ready to forgive others for being human. In the workplace, let us try to overlook the annoying ways of the person who never removes the used coffee packet from the single cup machine. Let us practice acts of kindness to strangers; it may make a complete difference in their day. This life is so fragile, it may be your last opportunity to show kindness to a person who has been nothing but supportive and loving of you.
Have a great weekend Family! Be kind!