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Sparks column: Kindness is contagious, too

Susan Sparks
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The Bible says to love your neighbor.

Alternatively, some people on this earth apparently believe that the Bible says love your neighbor unless you are in a pandemic and shopping for groceries.

Last week I saw this real-time in my local store. Tempers were hot, anxiety was high and people were just downright rude. There was a butcher who seemed to be the target of much of the anger, as the store had simply sold out of much of their stock. When I finally got to the front of the line at the meat counter and saw his face, I just involuntarily blurted out, “Are you OK?” and tears began to stream down his face.

Love your neighbor has no exceptions. No time limits. No restrictions on circumstances. Of all the times we need to be kind to each other - to our families, to our friends, to our community, to strangers - it’s now. Kindness benefits not only the person to whom we offer it but ourselves.

Psychologists and scientists as far back as Charles Darwin have argued that emotions can be regulated by behavior. We usually think the opposite - that we smile when we are feeling happy. But science has shown that we can create happiness by the act of forming a smile.

For example, there is scientific evidence to show that when a person smiles, it triggers physiological changes in the brain that cool the blood, which in turn controls our mood, which in the end causes a feeling of happiness. Translated: We can change our inward emotion by changing our outward expression.

I’ve said that what we feel in our hearts manifests itself in our behavior, and how we act over time is what we become. Consistently reminding ourselves to smile throughout our daily lives may eventually change our hearts. And when our hearts change, the way we encounter the world changes. That is when we can truly begin to affect those around us.

I think of the famous lyrics by Louis Armstrong: “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.” Louis was onto something, as science has proven those lyrics to be true. Neuroscience has shown that merely seeing a smile (or a frown) activates mirror neurons in the brain that mimic the emotion. Translated: When someone smiles at us, we smile back. And vice versa.

This research has caught on in a number of industries, including the hospitality industry. For example, Walt Disney World as well as the Ritz Carlton use what’s called the 10:5 Rule. When a hotel employee is within ten feet of a guest, they must make eye contact and smile. When they get within five feet of the guest, they must say hello. Bottom line? A virus is contagious, but so is kindness.

While social distancing restrictions may prevent us from offering a smile in person, we can share kindness in other ways. Pick up the phone. Call three people a day to check on how they are. Pick up a pen. Write one letter a day to tell someone you care. Pick up a world map, put your finger on a place you’ve never been, then raise up a prayer for a stranger in that land who is fighting the virus.

We can still maintain community while being apart. It is about being contagious with our kindness by connecting our hearts, our spirits and our prayers. It is about loving your neighbor at all times without exception. And when fear takes over and kindness wanes, remember the words of the mystic Julian of Norwich, who herself lived through a pandemic in the 1300s, and yet, wrote these words of kindness and hope from the isolation of her monastic cell:

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

A trial lawyer turned stand-up comedian and Baptist minister, Rev. Susan Sparks is the senior pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. The author of Laugh Your Way to Grace and Preaching Punchlines, Susan is a nationally known speaker on the healing power of humor. Contact her through her email at revssparks@gmail.com, or her website, www.SusanSparks.com.