Today I went to the bank to pay our rent. Our rent is low because we live in a poor barrio, which makes ends meet easier. The bank recently moved from having on space in a strip mall to constructing a massive new building of its own. The windows are huge and provide wonderful natural lighting and there were eleven–11!–tellers on duty so I stood in line for maybe three minutes. That was marvelous, since I had three kids waiting for me.
I visit the bank monthly for this. We have a rumpled piece of paper on which we have written the name of our landlord, his account number, and the amount of our rent due. Every time I hand the teller this piece of paper with my cedula (Nicaragua identification card). Every time the teller verifies the figure as I hand him or her the money. Every time the teller then asks a question I do not understand. Every. Single. Time.
I’ve asked for this question to be repeated multiple times. I put my ear closer to the plexiglass. Sometimes I just say, “Si.”
I’ve lived in Nicaragua for nearly six years now. I speak Spanish poorly, or passably or, if I’m with one of my closest Nicaraguan friends, quite sufficiently because they slow down and can understand my unique diction. God bless those friends. If Jamie hadn’t already claimed dibs on The Very Worst Missionary, I would claim that title, but she got the trademark and everything.
So today, I’m back trying to pay the rent again, in this spacious new bank building, and the teller comes to the question. And I don’t get it. I ask her to repeat it. She rephrases it. I still can’t grasp what she’s trying to ask me. She smiles at me–that’s a first, no one in the bank has smiled at me before, much less after the second request for a repeat–and asks, “How else can I phrase this?” Then she rephrases it. And I get it!
And she smiles some more and, because now I understand what she’s asking, I’m able to ask an intelligent-sounding (to me) clarifying question which both helps me understand better what’s going on and shows that I do, in fact, speak some Spanish. We laughed together and I thanked her for her patience and for the lesson, and she said “de nada” and I spoke blessing to her, which I always try to do when I end conversations here. I may garble Español, but I invoke God’s blessing on people’s heads.
But the point of this post is not how poor my Spanish is, entertaining though that may be; the point I’m making here is that a little kindness and grace is a game-changer. Our transaction may have taken one or two minutes longer than if she had just scowled at me and done the classic repeat the exact same words, with palpable irritation, louder and s l o w e r. Perhaps we naturally respond that way when someone doesn’t understand us; certainly it’s the stereotypical response of US travelers abroad, even when they are not speaking the language of the nation they are visiting and there is no reasonable expectation that the hosts will understand them.
I’ve been scarred by people who respond intolerantly to words I can’t understand. I get gut cramps thinking about entering a certain business here where I felt deeply shamed for not being able to answer a question I couldn’t hear above the music playing outside (many Nicaraguans really love their speakers and promotions usually involve six foot speakers playing at full volume) no matter how many times I tried. I’ve also watched folks in my home city speak contemptuously to native Spanish-speakers who didn’t understand the first time. It’s ugly wherever it happens.
A dear friend of mine suffered a horrible car accident and sustained brain trauma. She slowly regained her ability to speak and, even more gradually, her memory and full mental capacity (she’s one of the smartest people I know). As she was describing the process, she told me that she had to learn to be patient with herself because the part of the brain that facilitates language functions when a person is calm; when threatened or stressed, a different part of the brain jumps in to defend, but this part does not obtain language. In other words. stress, anger, and fear all shut down language learning. Huh. Shouting at someone who can’t understand you doesn’t help them understand you. As my father loved to say, “Who woulda thunk?”
I’ve been focusing on simple exchanges and language challenges so far. Obviously, we can apply this much more broadly. The moment today with the woman at the bank reminded me that kind words have power. I came out of the bank feeling happy, actually smiling, and jumped in the car with my kiddos and told them how nicely the woman had treated me and what a difference that makes. They got happy dad instead of discouraged, defensive dad (they may want to write thank you’s to the bank).
I believe in small acts. God is a God of small acts. Jesus talked about sharing cups of cold water, he affirmed the giving of two pennies,* he called for faith simply for today. God does big acts, too, but often our faithful response is simply the small and concrete action right in front of us.
So literally, what does kindness cost us? It requires patience instead of the immediate knee-jerk of snapping at what irritates us. I don’t know how many people I’ve heard mock the bemoan the call center people they encounter. I get it: we want good customer service and we want it now. But I’ve seen the other side. A good friend here wanted me to teach him English, as quickly as possible, so he could get hired by a call center. His much more fluent wife would come home in tears, every day, because of the verbal abuse she suffered from those “angry Americans” who weren’t concerned that they were talking to a human being, a mother of a small child, who was doing her best to help provide for her family. The cost of kindness would be to see beyond their immediate frustration to the bigger picture: they’re talking to someone who makes $400 a month, which is about double the usual wage here,** lives in some level of poverty, and takes call after call from angry, aggressive people, many of whom complain at the slightest hint of an accent.
I get that people react defensively to the word “privilege.” But what would you call it when someone who can afford toys that cost more than another person’s yearly wages, who makes 10 (or 100) times more per month, cannot deign to be civil to the person working 50 or 70 hours per week when calling customer support about their Fitbit?
Again, this is one example among millions. Do our interactions shame or encourage? People are mean. We’re sharing testimonies in my senior Bible class and that point comes through over and over: people have treated these young adults with cruelty and spite. These are, relatively speaking, more privileged kids who attend a pretty good school. Most of them have suffered significant trauma. The girl who lives in our barrio whom I just helped with her English homework for tomorrow (can you differentiate between the simple past tense and the simple perfect past tense?) has an alcoholic father and lives in crescendoing chaos. Small acts of grace and patience and love can shine through darkness. We don’t know what others have been through; we do know God never lets any act of love go to waste.
Choosing to make the effort to show kindness to people around us requires thinking of others. How will my words impact them? How might I encourage them? How can I show patience or grace in this interaction? If I never say anything about myself that Jesus wouldn’t say, might I also never say anything about you that Jesus wouldn’t say?
Of course, we all know we can say the “right words” and still convey un-love, still shame the other person. The cost of kindness is putting away our daggers, even the ones we pretend we aren’t wielding.
I’ve been pondering this quote for the past week:
“[God] has made the sharing of ourselves the law of our own being, so that it is in loving others that we best love ourselves.” Thomas Merton
If it is in loving others that we best love ourselves, then the cost of showing kindness, or of encouraging instead of shaming, is a bargain. It may be the best deal we’ll ever find.
My final thought: U.S. politics feels crazy to me right now. The President just fired the FBI Director who happened to be investigating this administrations dealings with Russia. Big new plot twists hit us daily. People are screaming at each other and the divide seems only to widen. I believe these are crucial things going on in our world and our response to them matters. A lot. Those tremors don’t make our small interactions less important. I would argue the opposite. As events get crazier and screaming gets louder, our choices for kindness and grace, for encouraging not shaming, become even more crucial. If grace is disappearing and Jesus followers feel justified in abusing one another, our tiny acts of kindness stand out more.
Dios te bendiga, teller at the bank!
*Mark 12:41-44. Not pennies, technically, but two small copper coins. Contextualizing, for us it would be pennies.
**Do me a favor? Take one moment to consider what that means, living on $400 or $200 a month. How different would life be for you or me?