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The Language of Kindness

My mother sits in a cushioned chair wearing a blue hospital robe, waiting patiently for the ER doctor. I sit slightly behind her at an angle, where I catch glimpses of her nervous hand movements, and I sense that she doesn’t want me to see her this way. She avoids the hospital for many reasons, particularly because it raises fears of her own mortality and memories of others passing. But this year, she felt it was time to take care of herself, even if it meant filling out countless forms, meeting with nurse practitioners, doctors, and surgeons, and nervously awaiting test results.

After 30 minutes have passed, a young female physician comes to my mother and starts asking the typical questions: Tell me why you’re here. How long has this been going on? What is your medical history? My mother does her best to answer each of the physician’s questions carefully from memory with that familiar focused voice and concerned facial expression. We’re hoping that the ER doctor will refer her to a specialist. After my mom answers all of the questions, the doctor pauses, looks her in the eyes, and says slowly, “I’m glad you’re here. Thanks for having the courage to come today.” I observe as my mother’s face and body slowly relax for the first time that day. At that moment, her body communicates that she is in the right location, at the right time, with the right person. Without turning away, the doctor adds, “Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of you.” My mom automatically outstretches her arms and says, “I want to hug you.” The doctor smiles behind her mask, but due to COVID regulations offers an air hug instead.

Throughout this exchange, I remain silent, stunned at how this doctor just changed the entire trajectory of our day—keeping us steady, even when everything in life had just hit the fan and threatened to pull us off course.

After the doctor leaves, my mom turns to me with a smile and says, “I like her. I feel more relaxed.” I sense my body relaxing too, and my heart softening as I absorb the ripple effects of my mom’s relief.

What just happened? How was Dr. Leung able to calm my mother’s nerves and bring her peace of mind? I sit down and replay the conversation in my mind. I’m glad you’re here. We’ll take good care of you. Expressions I’ve heard time and time again, but why did they feel amplified on this occasion?

Dr. Leung reached my mother through the language of true kindness. A language that flows from the heart and makes the receiver feel seen, heard, and valued for who they are and what they need. She didn’t use flowery speech or give false hope. Instead, she expressed what she could offer from the available resources in a confident, clear, and caring tone.

After our morning appointment, my mom and I decide to head to a nearby mall to eat lunch at the food court. We settle on a delicious Shanghai restaurant and order bowls of seafood noodles. My mom is delighted with the meal. After clearing the table to leave, I suddenly feel compelled to go over to the restaurant owners and thank them for preparing such a delicious meal; something I wouldn’t have bothered to do before. I just want to pass on the feeling of kindness that I received earlier. The doctor planted a seed of kindness, which grew into a desire to do something good for others. She taught me that the more love we can extend, and the more people we can include in that love, then the more love we have. Whatever we can generate, that much we have within us.

This reminds me of a moving TED talk by James Rhee, an entrepreneur, educator, investor, and goodwill strategist. In his talk, titled “The Value of Kindness at Work,” Rhee retells a story about a time when he was a young boy sitting in his kindergarten class and his friend’s father and older siblings walked in and presented him with a gift: a red toy helicopter. At the time, he didn’t comprehend why they were giving it to him. It wasn’t until much later that he had a realization: his friend had recently lost his mother, and this gift was a thank you to James for sharing his lunch with his friend on the many occasions that he came to school without a lunch of his own. James never forgot the lesson and how this one gesture made him feel. His father’s friend had rewarded kindness with a tangible object that contained his money, time, and heart. That one act would plant a seed of kindness in James that would compound quietly for decades and lead him to become one of the leading advocates for establishing a culture of kindness in the workplace because of its transformative power.

I’d like to think that we all hold kindness as a very good friend in our hearts, waiting to do our bidding. The founder of Won Buddhism, Sotaesan (1891–1943), spoke of loving-kindness as a quality of the heart that makes no distinction between any living being. It is to love all beings just as a mother loves her only child: “The great loving-kindness and compassion of the Buddha radiate more warmth and brightness than the Sun. Thus, where this loving-kindness and compassion reach, the ignorant minds of sentient beings melt away into the mind of wisdom; their minds of cruelty melt away into the mind of loving-kindness and compassion; the mind of miserliness and greed melts away into the mind of generous charity; and the discriminative mind of the four signs melts away into the all-encompassing mind. Therefore, the awesome power and radiant brightness of this loving-kindness and compassion are incomparable.” We may not be able to emulate the great loving-kindness and compassion of the Buddha completely, but we are making progress in that direction.

A week later, we receive a call from the hospital; they want my mom to come in for a meeting with a specialist. We are elated, but tone down our emotions as we don’t want to jinx anything. The following week, my mom and I wait patiently in another medical office. After going through the intake process with the nurse practitioner, I sit down next to my mom. She’s nervous, but visibly more settled because she now knows that everything is under control. I think back to Dr. Leung and her parting words to my mother, “We’ll take good care of you.”

She followed through as promised.
I will never forget her.

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