I occasionally do private tutoring and scholarship coaching, and one of my students recently shared an observation with me that blew my mind. This student is an adult who teaches parolees math so that they can receive a GED and put their lives back together.
I asked him, "What is the biggest factor that determines whether a parolee will violate parole and end up back in jail?"
I thought he was going to say, "a job" or "stable housing" or "getting a GED." But he simply said, "Community. If they have people in their lives who love them and give them something to live for, they are more likely to stay out of jail."
That made me think about the "silent struggle" that everyone around us is waging just to get through the day. And how the only thing that makes it bearable sometimes are the small kindnesses of others.
David Foster Wallace talks about this beautifully in his mind-blowing commencement address, This Is Water. He explains how the true goal of education is not just to know how to think, but also what to think about. The power to direct our focus and imagine other people complexly is the greatest act of empathy we can undertake.
The reason that small acts of kindness make a difference is because they remind us that the world is not always a terrible place. While we each walk alone in our journey, it helps to have someone there who says, "Hey, I'm alone too, and we will be okay."
This act of hope is what made the It Gets Better Project so successful. For LGBT youth who feel alone and isolated (and therefore have higher suicide and homeless rates), the act of a stranger expressing compassion and support from an understanding perspective can make a huge difference in keeping them alive.
So too for the parolees. The knowledge that they are loved and supported helps them make decisions that result in more productive and sustainable outcomes.
Students benefit from this type of community as well. If they feel that adults and peers in their life care about them and are committed to helping them succeed, they are much less likely to drop out or give up on school.
As caring humans, we have the ability to support people in our lives even when we don't fully understand them. A kind word, a little gift, even common courtesy can go a long way toward making someone's day (and life) a little more bearable.
Hopefully, even though we may sometimes feel alone and misunderstood, someone will take the time to be that caring person in our lives as well. But in the meantime, all we truly have the power to control is our actions and the kindness we share with others.
Has there been a community that has helped you keep moving forward in life? I'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments section below.