Who will your character be?

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He is laying face-down on the floor, sprawled: his little arms crossed over top, one on top of the other. I am sitting about ten feet away, leaning forward, all the while trying to see the scene unfolding from my somewhat distant vantage point, at a bit of an angle. I pause, then plead, making the case for why he should join our community of learners on the gathering rug. We look over to where he is stationed, under the painting easel. He is immobile, for the moment. We all wait, anticipating his next move, but to no avail. He’s not coming over. Not now, anyway.

I can feel the frustration rising within me. Doesn’t he know, (she know, they know): this is school? This is what we do here? It’s the school thing.

What I feel in this moment is not uncommon. It is a familiar frustration to teachers that students do not buy into the ‘school thing’. This, the tension of our daily lived experience- to engage those who are seemingly un-engaged; inspiring students to move from where they are just a little further in their understanding, each and every day.

But we forget (and often): students are not that easily bought.

They don’t always like what we’re doing, don’t relish the work assignments we create. They don’t always love the daily plan and the structure and routine our school systems insist on maintaining. They don’t like asking for permission to speak, to use the washroom, to get a drink, to move from their desk, to sharpen their pencils and to close their books. They don’t relish being ‘told’, either. Nor do they adore math lessons, reading lessons, writing lessons- all of the time. Not to forget science and health and social studies and music. Maybe they do love art and physical education; but I bet they don’t always love that they can’t just sing what they want, play what they want, do what they want. Be who they want.

Sometimes kids do love exactly what we love: the school things. Loving the lessons, and the books, and the activities and projects. When that delightful joy occurs in our classes, we feel a secret- perhaps even open thrill- from the connection of watching a child’s mind merge with content and curriculum.

But when that does not happen: when our students don’t respond in the ways we are expecting or wanting- when it doesn’t quite work- we personify the lack of engagement, thinking that it might be something we’ve done. Or worse, something that they have done wrong, due to something they are missing, exhibiting, saying, or being.

Can we remember just one thing? We are not the only characters and players in our students’ stories? The chapters we are involved in, not the only plot in their unfolding life narrative? The setting we observe them in, perhaps not the setting they believe defines the true essence of their life? We as teachers are merely characters in our students’ stories (Lennie, 2015): school just another component of their emerging life account.

The key is to make our role a significant one.

Robin Williams, in the powerful movie Dead Poet’s Society, had this to say about contributing to the unfolding story called Life:

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

Teachers: we have this year to write a part for ourselves in a child’s life. To write a scene for ourselves in a student’s life. A young person, a teenager, a young adult. They all are making their story, each and every day we encounter them, sitting in front of us. Standing defiantly at the back of the room. Laying under the easel. This is their story. Our verse will be significant, for one reason or another. Significant for the grief it has caused or for the joy it has brought. True, we as teachers are but one character. It might seem a small role. But we are crucial in that we are those who can make a difference if we so choose, making the verse or role we write for ourselves as inspiring and uplifting as we choose to dream it to be.

The account of our students’ lives will go on and we may all contribute to their unfolding life narrative. I ask you: what role will you play?

What character are you in your students’ stories?

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For Those Moments {When We Think We are Not Enough}

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When I walked up the narrow staircase one week ago today, darkness had already enveloped our country home. It was night-time, around 10:00 p.m. when I knocked on your closed bedroom door, asking if I might come in. You were reading, a bed-side light shining its sheen across the page. The room was awash in a warm glow. You looked up expectantly. I felt such relief at seeing you there. Such a safe place to be— under our roof, where a body knows they are loved unconditionally. Where a body knows that they will be cherished forever.

I sat on the end of your bed and looked at you. Stared unabashedly at amazing you.

And inside my mother’s heart I felt the need to tell you how much you are loved. Felt the need to tell you how much I believe in you: believing that you have much to offer this world, much to give this circle of influence in which you have been placed.

I felt the need to tell you how incredible are the offerings and talents with which you’ve been gifted. Telling you how valued you are to both your father and I— to our whole family. I felt the need to tell you that who you are is enough for anyone, including yourself. You have much to give. Much to put forward to anyone.

I felt the need to tell you. And so I did.

But more than that.

I wanted you to also know that you, Precious You: You are worth so much more than even what we, your parents, think and feel. You are Loved, with an Eternal Love; loved by the One who knows no boundaries, no limits, no restrictions. Who knows no Shadow of Turning, knows no minute fraction of faltering. You are loved eternally. Wholly, purely, completely.

I wanted you to know.

But Child of Mine, there will be some, who will someday, somewhere cause you to consider whether you are enough. There will be voices that will taunt, will jeer. Will question, will doubt. And there will be niggling worries that will grow into all-out, full-blown fears in your mind. There will come a day when you will give ear to the thought that ‘who you are is not enough’.

Not enough for the crowd.
Not enough for the moment.
Not enough for the situation.
Not enough for the requirements.
Not enough for the job.
Not enough for the part.
Quite simply, not enough.

There will be moments, and these moments will come. For they have come for us all, at one time or another.

God says it differently to us:
“I have loved you with an everlasting love… with loving-kindness I have drawn you.” (Jeremiah 31:3)

There is never a question of whether or not we are enough.
We always were. We always are. And we always will be.

There is nothing that will separate us from that Love.

No crowd’s opinion.
No moment’s worry.
No situational disaster.
No lacking requirements.
No failed attempt nor any missing parts that need be present.
Nothing.

“What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.” No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.
And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8)

I left your room that night, tears falling freely. For I am so honored to have been given this opportunity to love you. It is my mission, my heart’s desire to impart to you the knowledge of this love.

A love that will endure for always. And forever ever after that.

Notice Me

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Come look at me, they cry out. Little voices calling, tiny hands reaching for my own much larger one. Watch me on the money bars, the slide, the firepole. Watch me! Notice Me! See me!

A little one comes up to me, (I know not who she is), but she has a sweet innocent face and the clearest eyes—it is almost that I can see right through to her soul. And she is calling out to me.

Watch me, she says.

I watch.

I follow her little body as it rounds the Jungle Gym, makes its way up the stairs and ends up at the tippy-top of the Fire Pole. She glances over at me to make sure that my eyes are fixed on her. They are indeed. When she is sure that I will not waver in my gaze, she grasps the pole and wraps her little legs around securely. Woosh. She is down in a second and off and running to a new adventure.

To teach is to examine humanity at its rawest, most unadulterated form. Children are a study in innocence and purity. They are authentic and genuine. And what they want more than anything is for us to notice. They want for us to notice them, notice their antics, their comings and goings. To be attentive. To watch and consider their ways. To be mindful. To be aware of what it is they care about.

Children want us to see them.

We all want this, if we were truthful. We want to be seen. We crave recognition. My own child comes home from school today and says in passing that it is easy to get lost in the sea of bodies.

No one can really notice you for all the people, says the Child.

It takes practice to notice people. I have written the following and I stand by these words today:

“We are not taught to notice, we are taught to do. Told to get out our pencil and pens. Get out our paper, and write. Read. Discuss. Speak. Told to turn to page five and then fashion a paragraph. Told to answer six questions on page 32.
We are not taught to notice, we are taught to act. Told to cut and shape. Mold and make. Told to fashion that school bus craft just as we’re told. Told to fold the paper along the crease. Told to colour in the lines.
We are not taught to notice, we are taught to perform. Told to sit right, listen up, shut up, straighten up, fly right. Told to mind our manners, watch our tongue, keep it down, watch out.
We are not taught to notice, we are taught to produce. To achieve, churn out, give up, construct and generate.
But we are not taught to notice.
Have we ever stopped to consider that noticing precedes doing? And yet, we are not taught that this act in itself is essential. We are encouraged rather to act. To get things done. To carry out both our will as well as that of those in authority over us.”

We must take time to notice. Our children are pleading for us to do them this one humanitarian service. We must notice them with our whole being, eyes and ears wide open. Watching them not with a gaze of half-hearted interest, but with a whole-hearted, complete understanding of the incredible gift of attentiveness and genuine care with which we’ve been vested.

Noticing takes time and practice. It demands our attention. We must be deliberate and intentional in our practice. But the pay off for our children in investing this service is mind-boggling.

Who can even imagine (can conjure up the images) the gifts that even one child could offer to the world someday…and all because we took the seconds, minutes, hours…took the time:

To really notice.

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Be a Noticer

“The real heroes anyway aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention. The guy who invented the smallpox vaccine didn’t actually invent anything. He just noticed that people with cowpox didn’t get smallpox.” — Augustus Waters, in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars

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We are almost there.
It’s almost that time of year again, Students. And while you’re probably not even thinking about sitting in class behind a desk, not anxious yet to trade in summer for fall: I am already there in my mind. It’s already happening.
I am already planning and thinking and wondering and hoping. I am already imagining you.
I wonder who you are, what makes you tick, what you like, where you live. Are you a morning person or a late-night owl; are you funny, are you loud? Do you have any fears of your own? Are you ready for this next chapter of your life to open wide and be written?
Who are you?
And while we might have never met, I do have one thing I want to offer you right now, before everything begins again and we are caught up in the surge of emotion that accompanies each given school year.
My biggest hope for you—what I want for you even before I have met you and come to know your unique personality and particular way of knowing, is that you be a ‘noticer’. A ‘see’-er of life.
We are not taught to notice, we are taught to do. Told to get out our pencil and pens. Get out our paper, and write. Read. Discuss. Speak. Told to turn to page 5 and then fashion a paragraph. Told to answer six questions on page 32.
We are not taught to notice, we are taught to act. Told to cut and shape. Mold and make. Told to fashion that school bus craft just as we’re told. Told to fold the paper along the crease. Told to colour in the lines.
We are not taught to notice, we are taught to perform. Told to sit right, listen up, shut up, straighten up, fly right. Told to mind our manners, watch our tongue, keep it down, watch out.
We are not taught to notice, we are taught to produce. To achieve, churn out, give up, construct and generate.
But we are not taught to notice.
Have we ever stopped to consider that noticing precedes doing? And yet, we are not taught that this act in itself is essential. We are encouraged rather to act. To get things done. To carry out both our will as well as that of those in authority over us.
Students, if I can ask of you just this: learn to notice the world around you. Learn to watch more carefully, listen more closely, feel more deeply, understand more fully.
Watch with both your eyes and ears. Use all the senses that have been gifted you.
Listen with both your ears and your heart.
Feel others pain and joy with compassion and care.
Understand that this life is not just about you—it is about a world around you full of people and living things that beg for you to notice them.
We have not been shown well, not really been taught how to notice the people and world around us. You can change this pattern, Student. You can be the one to do things differently.
One smart decision at a time.

Wonderings

I wonder—what the world would be like if we were only able to see the best in the people around us. If we could just see through to the good that lies within.

Wonder what it would be like if we were truly able to forgive. Truly able to let go. Able to release and then move on.

I would love to understand what it means to really love someone— love done flawlessly. Perfectly and whole.

I wonder— what it feels like to live life free of resentment. Free of offense and insult.

Wonder what it would be like to have no enemies, no rivals, opponents or adversaries.

What would my life be like if I was able to deeply understand other people and their story? Able to know why they are the way they are, know what makes them tick. Would it make me a more caring, compassionate person?

I wonder what it feels like to desire nothing. To feel secure, content and grateful for exactly what I have been given.

I wonder what it feels like to be free from pride, arrogance, anger, rage, disappointment, fear.

I wonder.
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Recently, I witnessed a breakdown in a relationship that brought pain to those involved. Someone had been emotionally hurt and wounded within a circle of connection due to an offense instigated by another individual, a transgression which occurred many years previous. That one injury, when spoken of, led to confession of many more offenses felt by those involved, all serving to complicate things by bringing extraneous issues and ‘wrongs done’ into the story not connected to the original problem.

Things quickly became very messy, and the ripple effect of this experience was quite troubling. Not only were the individuals directly involved affronted; many others not even connected to the original problem quickly began to take sides. This sadly is so typical of the human experience—in our fragility, we are so easily wounded. So easily are we divided.

Vanier (1998) suggests another way, a path journeyed with consciousness, if you will. He maintains that we have freedom to orientate our lives in one direction or another. He states that “this freedom can lead us into anguish and a fear of becoming, or it can lead us into growth and new life” (Vanier , 1998, p. 3). For me, the new life Vanier speaks of has been a way of seeing differently. A way of understanding differently. Of knowing differently. Of experiencing differently. It is thus a spiritual awareness of who I am in relation to God and the various others that come across my path. For in becoming human, and recognizing both my weaknesses as well as my strengths, I am coming to see that I am not the only one entitled to care. There are people with whom I share this human experience, for whom I must care; further, these fellow beings I exist and grow alongside in this process of becoming are deserving of my care by virtue of their own humanness. Understanding this enables me to consciously see that this way of living is the only way for me, in which to grow and become all I was meant to be.

Vanier (1998) puts it another way, stating that becoming human implies that we must both “be someone, to have cultivated our gifts, and also (to) be open to others, to look at them not with a feeling of superiority but with eyes of respect” (p. 3). Becoming human, for Vanier (1998), is a process of becoming wise with love. I too desire this form of compassionate wisdom.

Personally, I have come to this juncture in my life with great difficulty, traveling paths both tenderly and (at times) abrasively cultivated by the many supports which lift and hold me. A steadfast faith in God, the good parents given to me, my loving husband, dearly cherished family, those wise mentors who have nurtured me, good literature, steady, caring relationships, my professional work, an education founded in the liberal arts—all these have been among the guiding lights in my life leading me forward on a path of understanding, pointing me to an understanding knowledge of why care is essential to the human experience. Include with this, the unique set of circumstances, preferences, traits and beliefs that make me uniquely who I am: this is why I care. I care because I am human. And I am coming to care more even as I become who I was humanly meant to be, a process realized through living out each of life’s little and monumental moments. I now comprehend: becoming human is all I have ever wanted to be.

I am becoming human in my interactions with my own person-hood, making gains at understanding myself better and caring for myself in more intentional ways. I am becoming human in my interactions with my family, seeing the value in each person I have always loved, whom I love a little more deeply each day I am given breath and life to experience. I am coming to see the joy in sacrifice, the value in surrender. This is part of my calling, part of loving another human being. I am becoming human in my interactions with my students—seeing the meaning in instilling an ethic of care in both my classroom and places of influence. I am becoming human in the ways in which I perceive the world. In the ways in which I understand the human beings with whom I share this planet. I am becoming human in the ways in which I care about both the material and non-material world of which I inhabit.

I am becoming human through my understanding and appreciation of difference, of ideas, of values, of morality, of spirituality. Becoming human through cultivating an appreciation of all that contributes to my human experience.

I am becoming human. And this aspiration is what I believe I have always hoped to be. A person who is living her life to the fullest. A person caring for those around her with joy and passion, maintaining an inner peace and fulfillment from a life of service that defies finite understanding. A person at peace with who she was, who she is and who she eventually will be. A person anticipating her future becoming—even while she appreciates the person she is today.

Vanier’s (1998) words provide a closing thought: “peace will come through dialogue, through trust and respect for others who are different, through inner strength and a spirituality of love, patience, humility, and forgiveness” (p. 4). This kind of peace surrounds those who know what it is they desire to become in this life. It is the very air they breathe.

In this great adventure of becoming human, I am finding peace through caring. In the process, I am becoming all I was ever meant to be.

Radical Care

I remember driving in the old Chevrolet with my Dad behind the wheel, going to pick up some kids for church when I was about 8 or 9 years old. And while my father had a compassion for the family we were connecting with, I remember that I did not. For some reason, I didn’t like the little girl belonging to this particular family. Didn’t think she smelled right, nor did I think she wore the right clothes. Just didn’t like the look of her. And I sure as heck didn’t want to go to her house and pick her up. Something about her just rubbed me the wrong way. And I got my ‘back up’. I decided she wasn’t someone I needed to be kind to.

So I wasn’t kind.

Throughout the years, I have never forgotten that girl. Never forgotten the uncalled for dismissal of her in my mind. And perhaps because of her, I now as an adult have decided to be more deliberate and intentional in my choice to show kindness.

But I have noticed something all the while and throughout this learning process: there are some people to whom it is hard for us to be kind. For whatever the reason- right or wrong. They set something off in us; and those emotions push our buttons. Or maybe it is that they don’t really like us either, and that creates a tension all its own. Perhaps it is something longstanding that has come between two people that has been left unresolved. Or maybe it is just one little hurt after another that has built up a wall of disappointment and fear.

It’s not easy being kind to those we love. How can we ever hope to be kind to those we don’t love- those we don’t care for much at all?

And why should we anyway? Do we really need to love and care for everyone in our life? Surely not our enemies. And what about our ‘frenemies’? Do they deserve our care?

Watching the news, one doesn’t have to search far to find dislike and tension between groups. Currently, around the world there are four ongoing armed conflicts that have resulted in 10,000 or more deaths in the current or past year, there are eleven armed conflicts that have resulted in 1000- 9,999 deaths in the current or past year and there are twenty armed conflicts that have resulted in 100- 999 deaths in the same time frame; seventeen with fewer than 100 deaths (Wikipedia). These stats do not take into account ongoing civil unrest or violence against protestors not resulting in armed conflict. These stats do not take into account tensions that are mounting between cultural groups in North America as well as around the world. These stats do not take into account personal conflicts or private conflicts that fall below the radar that are still disruptive and disturbing- even here in Canada. These stats don’t take into account familial and interpersonal strife.

What these stats do tell us is this: it’s hard to get along. And they give us a hint at what this world needs so as to even begin hoping for a transformation. What we need in this world is radical, transformative love.

Radical kindness. Radical love. Radical compassion. It is what we need in this world to make a change.

I write a great deal about care, kindness, love and compassion. And when I send my writing out into the larger media ring (the national news circuit) for consideration, I have found that kindness is a topic that doesn’t interest many. The response of the public readership is rather blasé. They’d rather read about something controversial, something that ignites a strong reaction. Kindness is just too sweet.

But what the world doesn’t seem to know about kindness yet is this:
“Within our human connectedness, what matters the most is something so simple it can almost be overlooked. Something so ordinary in its application that its intense impact can be disregarded. It is simple, but not easy. Unpretentious, yet so difficult to maintain. That’s the thing about kindness: it seems basic. Yet its impact is astronomical. And the ways in which our interactions are affected by its absence are profound. In this life, amongst all our human relationships both intimate and otherwise, what matters beyond all else is that we are authentically kind to one another. Kind, in each and every encounter we undertake” (Gard, 2015)

It takes courage and guts and stamina and backbone and grit to be kind. Each and every day that we are given breath in our lungs. Kindness isn’t always natural like breathing. It’s far harder. It’s like grasping out to hold onto a small twig as you slide down a cliff on some days. It’s like planting your feet securely in the waters as wave after wave of salt-water impact tries to knock you over. It’s like holding up the corner of a crumbling building with your bare hands when all that is in you is telling you to let go. It’s like a storm raging overhead while you crouch beneath it, determined to ride out the rains.

No, kindness is not always easy. Sometimes it is the hardest choice you will have to make.

I still have people in my life that I am willing to admit- they are hard to be kind towards. I can also attest to the fact that I am a person in other peoples’ lives that they feel exactly the same way.

What helps me is this: I cannot control what others do/say/think about me, but I can be aware and intentional in my response to them. Because at the end of my life, when I lie on my own deathbed and time slips quickly from my hand, what matters is how I have lived my life. That’s it. And if I have lived life compassionately — with caring and kindness EVEN TO MY ENEMIES — I have done life well.

What this world needs now is love- radical love. And that loves starts right here.

Starts with me.

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Matthew 5:44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

What People Remember Most

We are standing together, even as the long line stretches out the door, snaking around one corner and then further back into the spacious funeral home chapel. Our feet ache from our high-heeled shoes, but we are both so intent on seeing each and every person that places their warm hand into ours so as to offer comfort that we hardly notice this minor inconvenience. These traditions are a beautiful way to honor a life, and we are both so touched by the heartfelt words we have just been privy to hearing. We are so moved by the many, many words: words of comfort, words of concern and words of joy at the ways in which lives have been touched by our own dear Loved One.

Words of hope.

He was a dear husband. A beloved father and grandfather. A brother, uncle, friend; Boss and co-worker, neighbor- among many other more diverse roles. But for today, he is just Loved. Our Loved One. Each person that comes through the processional line shares a different memory with the theme woven throughout each and every sentiment of the kindness he displayed as he lived out his life. Even the funny stories bring about a torrent of tears- we are bound together by our humanity, even in our baser moments. These words- they heal us. Words mean so much.

Harold Hazen Gard.

He was a humble man. A man of the land. A hard-working man. A family man. A man of faith in the God he served. Just an ordinary man. And yet, his story reveals a life lived out of a reserve of extraordinary love, patience, kindness and caring. This is no ordinary feat.

As I stand there absorbing the impact of all these heart-warming words, she leans toward my ear and whispers these additional profoundly moving words proffered about her father: “It doesn’t matter what you did for work, what line of employment you were in; it matters how you lived your life.”

It matters. It does indeed. And within our human connectedness, what matters the most is something so simple it can almost be overlooked. Something so ordinary in its application that its intense impact can be disregarded. It is simple, but not easy. Unpretentious, yet so difficult to maintain. That’s the thing about kindness: it seems basic. Yet its impact is astronomical. And the ways in which our interactions are affected by its absence are profound. In this life, amongst all our human relationships both intimate and otherwise, what matters beyond all else is that we are authentically kind to one another. Kind, in each and every encounter we undertake.

Because, Friend: here’s the thing.  Someday someone will recall back to the time you offered them a caring shoulder to lean on; will recall that you saw the best in them when no one else could find the strength. They will recall that instead of acting in anger, you acted in love; will recall that you were tender, were compassionate and merciful. They will remember you for your genuine concern about their welfare. They will remember you for your caring.

Someday, someone will recall back to your connection with them. And they will recall that you reached out to them in their time of need. They will remember that you offered them hope when they were desolate. That you extended them a warm welcome when they felt estranged. They will remember that you placed them first above their own needs. Because someday: someone will recall you. And they will either remember you for your kindness- your caring, your love, your understanding, your compassion, your mercy. Or they will not.

It’s as simple as that.

I have come to the startling realization at forty-one years of age- with two degrees and a third nearly gained; with a full-time job and many professional recommendations. With a beautiful house and acreage- and the toys and trinkets to boot. I have come to realize: none of this really matters. Because it doesn’t matter a hill of beans how high you have climbed the ladder in the corporate world- how much you have acquired. Nor does it matter how simple your expectations might be in this life. It doesn’t matter what successes your have seen to or what failures you have been prone to. At the end of your life, when you lie on your own deathbed and your loved ones are gathered round, what matters is how you have lived your life. That’s it. And if you have lived life compassionately- with caring and kindness, you have done life well.

Everyone can be kind. It’s something we all can choose to do as we live this life. We all have that available option at our disposal: the choice to show kindness. To be kind with every part of our being. Radiating love to the people we meet.

At the end of the day, it’s what people will remember most about us when we’re gone.

It’s our kindness and caring that people remember more than anything.