My tween eyes followed its four-foot journey towards the cashier with more suspicion than curiosity. “Who’s THAT for?” I interrogated. She plucked the mitten-hat combo off the rack and sent it down the conveyor belt with the Beef-a-Roni and cantaloupe. This fuzzy ensemble wasn’t me, and I prepared to wield my fashion veto power.
“Not for you,” my mom replied softly, “for one of my other kids”—a euphemism for her elementary school students.
I can’t tell you much more about this modest exchange. What I can tell you is that in a span of about 15 seconds, without a classroom or a pulpit, among the latest issues of The Inquirer and stacks of Big Red gum, my kindergarten-teacher mother gave the lesson of a lifetime.
A few pages into Dystopia 2020: The Sequel, I still see the hat and mittens and hear my mom whisper in the checkout line. They revisit me often here—as Frodo said—at the end of all things.1 I think of them on the trail as I scowl under my mask, hold my breath, and slip past the hiker without one. They resurface as I swear (I never used to) under my breath at inconceivable images on the 6:00 news. They haunt me with every sigh I heave as my son invades my workspace for what is, incredibly, his 50th remote learning recess of the day.
I ask myself why this supermarket scene, among the litany of possibilities, has such staying power. I can christen it a “teachable moment” in kindness, but there are thousands of other blue-ribbon contenders: Kindness was Sesame Street’s battle cry, pounded into me by the likes of Oscar and Big Bird between intervals of 1-2-3-A-B-C. I regretted my lack of it in third grade after coiling a classmate with a jump rope and pushing her down the muddy hill. There was the occasional “Cruel to be Kind” song on the radio . . . and the list goes on. Yet, somehow, like a stubborn wad of gum clings to a shoe, it’s the hat-and-mitten scene that sticks to my soul.
After nearly a year of quarantines, disconnect, and dissonance I think I finally understand why. In that moment my mom did what no other pastor, theologian, or professor in all their extrapolations of “love thy neighbor”—ever did: She decrypted the catalyst to kindness. My mother showed me that it doesn’t begin where I thought it did. Kindness is ignited neither by hands nor hearts.
It opens with our eyes.
I promise you that she had a million distractions that frigid week. Somehow, in the morning chaos of runny noses, shedding coats, and prying small feet out of snowy boots, my mom saw him shuffle into school—the boy with icy hands and snow-peppered hair.
There was another Teacher in another time. He saw them too.
He saw the man, 38-years-ill, hoping for healing waters at Bethesda’s pool. He saw the hungry multitudes from the mountain, the sister grieving her dead brother, and the man on the roadside who couldn’t see for himself. From the cross, in his own agony, he looked down and saw his mother’s also.2 Yes, Jesus healed, fed, and comforted them. He even brought a brother back from death.
But first, he saw them.
I promise you his days were full of a million different distractions. But he looked past the chaos, crowds, and pain and chose to really see. As we witness similar scenes in succession I wonder: Do we?
Among the makeshift furniture barricades, with an angry mob pressing in, a congressman sees his colleague’s fear and reaches for her hand.3
Through a Google Classroom portal, a teacher reads the frustration etched in the creases of her student’s brow. Her “tell me more” call after class probes into why.
From her window, a woman watches her elderly neighbor scraping paths in his icy driveway. She joins him, shovel in hand.
Under the desert sun, he sees her there: the runaway, with disposable status. She is pregnant and alone until he greets her at the spring. His presence gives her hope, and she gives him a name: “the God who sees me.”4
I’ve never told my mom about the mittens and hat memory. She probably doesn’t remember. It’s just one of many in the legacy of kindness she continues to leave. But I’ll never forget, because in that moment, she first taught me to see. As for the boy that went home warmer that day—I’m sure neither will he.
“She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’” Genesis 16:13
1 J.R.R. Tolkien’s character Frodo speaks these words in The Return of the King.
2 In 500 Bible Readings, Dr. F.E. Marsh describes “the active eyes of the Lord,” noting seven times that “Jesus saw” in the Gospel by John alone. These are among the seven.
3 Pictures released by Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images show Congressman Jason Crow supporting Rep. Susan Wild during the January 5, 2021 Capitol siege.
4 Genesis 16:13