Why is it that suffering so often brings out the best in people? You’d think that we’d be at our best when things are going well and when we have every reason to be satisfied and happy. Instead, we tend to get complacent, entitled, and ultimately bored and grumpy. On the other hand, a little dose of hardship can do wonders for one’s perspective.
Practically speaking, it’s easier for me to feel kind to my children when they are sick. Part of this, of course, is that they tend to be better-behaved when they lack energy, but the fact is that the sight of a poor child in misery simply evokes a feeling of tenderness and sympathy.
When I’m worried about a sick child, my everyday concerns diminish in importance, and I find that I make the effort to spend more time simply being with the ailing one. Rather than resent all the work not getting done, I find myself appreciating the time spent quietly one-on-one.
This delightful character hack works the other way, too. When I was pregnant this last fall, the children hovered solicitously as I lay on the couch, fetching me water and stroking my hair. They were all careful to keep their voices down, and the older ones took great pains to occupy the younger ones in quiet reading or play.
When I pulled a muscle in my back recently and moaned about the pain, they donned their nurse’s uniforms and took care of me while I took it easy. By the time I was up and about, they were having so much fun that they spent the rest of the day nursing each other, taking turns playing patient and nurse.
It’s endearing to see how kind my children can be when they feel sorry for someone. But I also believe that it shouldn’t take suffering to bring out the best in us. Why can’t we feel this kind and loving to each other under the best of circumstances?
Since sympathy for others’ suffering is such a natural impulse for me, I understand their motivation—I’m susceptible to the exact same emotional tugs. I just want to make a habit of cultivating a loving disposition because the other person is lovable, not because I feel sorry for him or her.
So, to wrap it all up (and tie in the full title, which I wrote for the rhyme factor), I’m making a point to scatter fun and unexpected acts of kindness into our daily lives, regardless of whether someone’s misery merits it or not. The recent sickness that sparked this whole post inspired the concoction of homemade elderberry syrup, so after making up a batch, I thought I’d do something fun with the leftovers. Although most recipes for elderberry syrup say to discard the strained berries, that seemed wasteful, so I decided to try making elderberry muffins out of the dregs. They weren’t quite like blueberry muffins, but it was a fun treat (we don’t have muffins that often), and the kids gobbled them up.
Sometimes I think that doing something fun and unexpected, as a morale boost and a means of expressing love and kindness to my children, is a matter of diminishing returns: the more often I do it, the more common it becomes, and the less appreciated it will be. I think that belief often holds me back from spontaneous merry-making.
As much as I want my kids to learn contentment, though, I don’t want the fear of spoiling them to put a damper on what might otherwise have been a happy and delightful memory-maker. Doing kind things for others—especially without the immediate reward of accolades—is a good practice for me. It reinforces the value of service and unconditional love. After all, my kids aren’t the only ones learning lessons in this parenting business.
Photo Credit: First photo graphic design by Charity Klicka; second, third and fourth photos by Rose Focht.