Full disclosure: this is not my personal story. It was told to me by my beautiful friend Jessica Johnson.
My brother Danny and I grew up outside of Philadelphia, in a typical American suburb. It was a ordinary upbringing filled with school, friends, dog kisses and all the usual childhood shenanigans.
Danny had always been a bully. He played roughly with our dog, Doyle, seeming to enjoy frightening an innocent ten pound pug. On Saturday nights, he and his friends randomly "keyed" cars parked in our town ["car keying" is when one uses the small end of a key to scratch or create a dent in a vehicle]. I could tell you more about Danny, but I think you get the picture.
As Danny got older, his heart remained cold. He remained selfish and indifferent, even to people he seemingly loved.
A few years back, on a icy Thursday night in March, Jon, Danny's best friend, called in a panic. He was having trouble breathing. He was thinking about going to the hospital but was reluctant to call 911. Jon's car was in the shop, so he asked Danny to drive him.
Danny, cozy in bed and annoyed at being woken up, told Jon to calm down, that nothing could be seriously wrong with a healthy 26 year-old. He promised to drive him in the morning, if he still wanted to go. Danny turned over and went back to sleep.
Jon didn't call call in the morning. Jon never called Danny again. He died of a heart attack a couple of hours after he phoned Danny.
Danny sunk into a depression, feeling that his indifference had literally killed his friend. He was heartbroken and racked with guilty. Danny began to evaluate his whole life.
He wanted to change. He wanted to become a better person. Danny wanted something good to come from this tragedy.
He found a therapist, Grace. I call her a kindness therapist.
Aside from the usual techniques of "working through the past", Grace taught Danny how to be a kind person. This wasn't normally part of Grace's therapy. Danny had begged her to help him become a better human being.
Witnessing the changes in Danny was astounding to me. Frankly, I had written him off years ago. I desperately wanted to know how he transformed himself into a good person. How is that even possible?
Grace worked with Danny for a good two years. Here's some of what he shared about his "kindness therapy".
One of the most impactful things Danny learned was to be kind to himself. At first glance, that may seem a bit ironic. Grace told Danny that in order to be able to be kind to others, he needed to learn how to be kind to himself. And, that meant loving himself enough to forgive his mistakes.
Grace told Danny that he needed to incorporate kindness into his daily life. He needed to act with kindness. Eventually, kindness would become a habit.
Danny does a daily "ten second kindness". It's a very small act of kindness, something that takes ten seconds or less. Here are a few examples: buying someone a cup of coffee, holding the door opened for the person behind you, letting another car go ahead of you.
Once a week, Danny picks someone he cares about and shows them how much he appreciates them. Grace said that we are often unkind to the people we are closest to. It's easy to neglect the people who love us and take them granted. Here's a couple of things Danny does: calling his mom (asking about her, asking if she needs help with anything), picking up groceries for his elderly neighbor. He just picks someone he cares about and does something nice for them.
Smiling And Positive Affirmations
Grace told Danny to smile more. Before Grace, Danny was not much of a smiler, so in the beginning he had to constantly remind himself to smile. Why smile? According to Grace, smiling brings happiness to others. Everyone likes to be greeted with a smile. And, because humans are innate copiers, your smile can cause others to smile too. Lots of joy can be spread with smiles.
Also, Danny starts every day with positive affirmation [positive affirmations are positive statements used to help overcome negativity and produce positive changes in your life]. It can be anything. Some mornings Danny tells himself "you are a good person" or "you have lots to contribute". Other mornings, Danny sticks a post-it note on his bathroom mirror that says, "I learn from my mistakes" or "I forgive myself for my past mistakes".
Making It Up To Doyle
Recently, Danny started volunteering in an animal shelter. His apartment complex doesn't allow pets, but he really wanted to be around dogs. Every Wednesday and Saturday, he walks and plays with dogs that don't get a lot of human contact. He says connecting with them and caring for them is his way of apologizing to Doyle (our pug growing up) for all the years he bullied him.
Today I am proud to say that Danny is my brother. I love him and admire how he turned his life around. It wasn't easy. He is brave. He is beautiful.
Kindness Is All Around Us
In my life, I've been lucky enough to be the recipient of several random acts of kindness. One instance stands out in my mind as if it happened yesterday.
Back when I was a kid, probably four or five years-old, I was enjoying a day at the beach with my family. Dancing in the waves, chasing jelly fish, playing with abandon, I suddenly realized I lost sight of my family. I had unknowingly wandered far down the shore.
I froze in my tracks, desperately scanning the crowd, hoping to spot my parents. Realizing I was truly alone, I began to sob. I stood rooted in the sand, crying for what felt like hours. A woman with a kind smile came up to me, asking me if I was okay. Between sobs, I blurted out that I was lost.
She took me by the hand and together we searched for my parents. We found them. I will never forget that kind woman.
Despite what happened at the beach, it is one of my favorite places. I always feel at peace by the ocean. I love everything about it: the sand between my toes, the smell of the salt, the sound of the waves crashing against the shore.
I wanted to create shoes that reminded me of the ocean, specifically of the vibrantly colored marine life that resides deep under the surface.
Your Turn . . .
What did you think of Danny's story? Do you think cruel people can become kind people?