I first conceived of this week’s mission as a kindness “assignment” back in September, 2001. I was offering an online version of my original kindness class, what I call “The Practice of Kindness.” Per usual, the first week’s assignment was to do something kind for yourself. A couple of days after sending out that assignment, the attacks of September 11th took place. So here I was, trying to facilitate an online class on the subject of kindness for dozens of people located all over the world. As you undoubtedly recall, that week and those that followed were filled with many confusing emotions, some of them even at odds with each other. Much for myself, I created this theme back then to give me something concrete to do that honored the kind of response I wanted to have to the events of September 11th. And I credit a co-worker for the inspiration.
September 10th, 2001 was the first day of the new year for the school I co-founded with my wife and direct, Puget Sound Community School. We held an all-school overnight that night, meaning we awoke to scattered news of the attacks. We didn’t have Internet access or cell phones then, but an enterprising parent managed to reach his child and in a bit of a panic suggested that Seattle might be a target. Another student located a TV and turned it on, the wall-to-wall news coverage contributing to the confusion and for some students what was fast becoming a very scary situation. I made the decision to turn off the TV and focused on seeing that all the students got home safely. All in all, this wasn’t terribly difficult.
Like most everyone else, I spent the rest of September 11th glued to the TV set trying to make sense of what was happening. I was also trying to imagine how to structure the school day coming up on September 12th. Arriving at school on the 12th, I gathered all the adults present, staff and parents, and offered some guidance to how I wanted the day to unfold. I said that there would be some students who would want to talk about what was going on and I wanted to be sure we provided space for them to do so. And I said that other students would not want to be subjected to such conversation and we needed to provide space for them. I told the adults that they were all welcome to stay but they had to be present in a loving, supportive way. That meant that I did not want them adding to any fears the students may already be having, nor, worse, creating new ones. If a student asked a question, I told them to answer it honestly and factually. “‘I don’t know,'” is an honest and factual answer to provide a child when you don’t know an answer,” I said. “Don’t make things up or guess at answers.” I also told the adults to trust their own instincts for possible things to do.
Under these guidelines, we had a brief morning meeting with the students. Collectively, activities emerged. We had access to a gym so gym games emerged, thus providing an all-day physical outlet for students who wanted to simply play and not think about world events. We had access to a private conference room in which conversations about world events could take place, all questions being welcome. But the most meaningful activity emerged from the desire of one of the members of the school staff, a man named Dave, to be doing something proactively kind and loving. He had learned that an Afghani man named Wali, the owner of an Afghanistan restaurant a couple of blocks away from where we were meeting, had received threatening telephone calls. Dave offered to show this man support by being present at his restaurant during the day. Students received permission from their parents to accompany Dave. As the day unfolded, the group cleaned up outside of the restaurant, which Wali decided to keep closed during the day, thus providing a physical presence of support. Dave talked with Wali and convinced him to open the restaurant for dinner, and then members of our school community filled it to capacity the night of September 12th. It was an incredible outpouring of support, engineered by Dave’s desire to do something positive for himself.
This was the event that inspired the creation of this particular “assignment,” which became the focus of the second week of that kindness class back in 2001. I’ve offered it a handful of times in my kindness classes since then. Of all the themes I’ve offered, it has generated the most confusion, maybe even angst, among kindness class participants. One past participant voiced her confusion this way, “So, I have found this homework puzzling. What do I want… World peace? If I could give that I would be going to Oslo. $10,000? If I could give that, I wouldn’t want it myself.”
I offer her comments here to provide a voice for any of you who may be feeling the same way now. In response, I want to encourage you to look for other interpretations of this week’s mission, perhaps those that may sound simple or even superficial. For instance, if you want world peace, providing a moment of peace for someone contributes to world peace. And if you want to experience wealth in monetary terms, giving a child a small amount of money may achieve the same thing $10,000 would achieve for you.
In terms of inspiration, perhaps you can take time to turn back the clock to September 11, 2001 and think about your own thought process and what you did in response to the events of that day. To assist this process, consider these words written by William Sloane Coffin and published in The Nation on January 12, 2004 under the heading “Despair is Not an Option:”
Lastly, to see the concept of this week’s mission spread throughout a community, take a look at this video about the residents Gander, Newfoundland in Canada who found themselves hosting thousands of stranded airline passengers beginning on September 11, 2001. There is an even better one, much longer, told by Tom Brokaw, that aired during the Olympics in 2010. If you can find a link to it, please share it with me.