A few days ago, I was visiting my mother in the nursing home where she lives. She has been suffering from thyroid cancer and is “immune compromised,” which means that she is highly susceptible to illnesses. As a result, when I visit here, I wear a mask, just to be cautious and protect her Covid. It’s not too much of a burden, and it makes me feel glad that I’m trying to protect her.
During this visit, I went to the dining room to get some food for my mom and me to eat in her roomfor lunch. At this point, most of the residents are not wearing their masks. In any event, there was something of a crowd in the dining room and, as I wandered around deciding what to eat, I came face to face with a resident I didn’t know. I smiled at her (at least under my mask) and said, “Hello!” just to be polite.
She snapped. “I don’t know you!”
I was so surprised. I was trying to be friendly.
Then she reached out with her hand and pulled my mask away from my face and let it snap back. I was so shocked. “We don’t wear our masks here!” she snapped.
“Well, I do,” I said. “My mom is sick, and I have to.”
“Oh” she said, and turned around and started talking to her friends, with no apology.
Why am I bringing this up? To remind us that sometimes people can be mean. Or at least rude. Inconsiderate.
There are a few possible responses to this. First, we can return the cruelty. That is, I could have said something rude like, “Take your hands off me or I’ll punch you in the face!” Or I could have been sarcastic and said, “Yes, my mother’s sick. I guess you don’t know everything after all, do you?” But neither would be especially Christian things to do. The Christian thing to do is, after you stand up for yourself, is to be kind and forgiving. In this case that meant simply walking away from a confrontation with someone who clearly was either rude, mean or inconsiderate.
Being kind is a lost virtue, and sometimes it may feel like you’re the only kind person around. Sometimes it seems like everyone else is being curt or short-tempered or, to use a word that should be used more in spiritual circles, mean. Sometimes people are just mean!
Jesus always tried to be kind to people, even when they were rude to him. The only times he gets angry is on behalf of someone else (someone whose healing is being prevented by religious authorities) or something holy (like the Temple). But for the most part, Jesus doesn’t respond to cruelty with cruelty.
Now, let’s be clear: this doesn’t mean that you’re a doormat. Or that you should allow yourself to be regularly mistreated—much less abused. When that woman challenged me, I responded to her. But it does mean that you don’t have to be mean even if others are.
Being kind, and not returning meanness, are not the only things that make up a Christian. But they are an important part of it. So be kind, even if everyone else is not.
James Martin SJ
James Martin, SJ, is a U.S. Jesuit priest, editor at large of America Media, consultor to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication and author of many books, including Jesus: A Pilgrimage and Learning to Pray. His newest book, Come Forth, on the Raising of Lazarus, will be published in Sept. 2023.