'What if you treated everyone as if it were his or her last day?'
Kindness, Mark Twain said, is a language the deaf can hear and the blind can see.
Today that “language” can get lost amid lives full of electronic gadgets, near-impossible family schedules and a dizzying pace.
People who survive serious illnesses or horrific accidents sometimes say they've learned grace and empathy, but what if those lessons didn't come at such a cost? What if people routinely treated each other with kindness and compassion?
What if we truly were “a kinder and gentler America”?
This Thanksgiving, the Tribune-Review asked people young and old to weigh in on the thought: “What if you treated everyone as if it were his or her last day?”
Diagnosed 13 years ago with metastatic breast cancer, Linda Cordisco underwent surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. She considers herself lucky.
“My disease is considered treatable but not curable,” said Cordisco, 63, of Franklin Park.
In the first several years of living with cancer, she thought each day might be her last.
“It affected every decision I made — who I spent time with, how I spent my day,” said Cordisco, a retired special education administrator for Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Along the way, she found herself becoming kinder to others.
“Am I friendlier to the woman up the street with MS because of her condition or because she's a great person?” Cordisco asked. “I think it's both.”
Living so close to death is not an easy space to occupy, she said: “You treasure every small moment, but with the weight of an incredible sadness on your shoulders.”
Cordisco believes that if we treated everyone as if it were their last day, “we would say the things we need to say, love more deeply ... not sweat the small stuff, and we would make time for the ones we love.”
Taking a toll
As an EMT/paramedic, Randy Adams started building walls.
“I could feel myself, by necessity ... putting up a shell around me, and I didn't want to do that,” said Adams, 57, of Midland in Beaver County.
“I moved on from that (job) because of the emotional and psychological toll. Some people can deal with that; some can't. I have tremendous respect for those who do it.”
Now the group services manager for the Pittsburgh Opera, he has flexibility to do other things, such as helping kids with drug problems or criminal records.
This, too, can take its toll.
“Some days I'm exhausted,” said Adams, who also serves on Midland Development Corp., a nonprofit that works to sustain and foster new businesses.
Yet Adams believes that treating people as if we might not see them again means “we could encourage them to address things that matter.”
“As life comes at you, you lose sight of what's important,” he said.
Models of grace
Some experts believe we've lost sight of the golden rule: treating others as we want to be treated.
“Sometimes life commands us in ways that we lose track of that,” said Sarah MacMillen, associate professor of sociology at Duquesne University. “Technology, with its impersonal communications, can also enhance our self-centeredness.”
Still, she and others find that grace abounds.
“It's difficult to predict what triggers people to do good,” said Kathleen Brehony, clinical psychologist and author of ”Ordinary Grace.”
“What causes someone to place a bomb ... and others to run toward it to help?” said Brehony of Manteo, N.C.
Being kind to each other can even improve our health, according to scientist and author David R. Hamilton of the United Kingdom.
Kindness makes us happier, gives us healthy hearts, slows aging and makes for better relationships, Hamilton said. It can be contagious.
Though surviving an accident or illness can be a reality check, it doesn't have to be that way, said Grant Winters, 18, of Greensburg. If we treat others well, we might get the same in return, he said.
“We're all part of the same universe,” said Winters, who attends Westmoreland County Community College and works in a shirt factory in Hempfield. “You get what you give. Sometimes you receive tenfold what you give.”
James Zimmerman lost his wife of 61 years last year.
“I thank the Lord for the time we had together,” said Zimmerman, 84, a Navy veteran from Ligonier who still works as an electrical inspector.
“I left the pictures just like she had them, and they're going to stay that way.”
Zimmerman said he told his wife, Bertie Mae, that he loved her nearly every day.
“I miss her,” he said. “She was some lady.”
Parents of eight children, they traveled to reunions with his shipmates from World War II, the USS Albemarle.
“Life is short,” said Zimmerman. “It seems like it's long, but it's not.”
Americans show kindness in big ways.
About 64.5 million volunteered last year to work at soup kitchens, tutor or coach children, or work through a religious organization, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's down slightly from 2011, but people continue to find innovative ways to help, experts said.
“We are very united in this country” when it comes to helping others, said Debbie Tenzer, founder of DoOneNiceThing.com. The website has members in more than 90 countries and gets more than 1 million hits each month.
“When we help people, it reminds us that we are not powerless,” Tenzer said. “We have hope, so much hope.”
Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.