From Chapter 8, “Kindness: The Art of Paying it Forward” in Ingredients of Outliers
From Slavery to Significance
Another boy whose life would be forever changed by an act of kindness was Frederick Bailey, born to a slave woman in 1818. He never knew his father and he was only seven when his mother left him with the owner of the plantation and his life of slavery began. He was beaten often and forced to go long hours with neither food nor sleep. Recalling those days, he would later write, “I was broken in body, soul and spirit.”
Back then it was against the law to teach slaves to read and write, but the owner’s wife, without her husband’s knowledge, began teaching little Frederick anyway. It was a small and simple act of kindness, but it would change the boy’s life, and the lives of countless others he would meet on his journey.
As a young man, he was determined to escape the life of a slave, and at age 20, he succeeded, moving to New York and then to New England. He married and began raising a family, but continued to pursue his education, something that would have been impossible without the kindness the plantation owner’s wife had shown him.
To escape his past, and as part of his new life, he decided to change his last name to Douglass, and it was as Frederick Douglass that he would win renown nationally and internationally as a writer, publisher, and orator, and as a champion of the rights of slaves and of women. As an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, he played a key role in the abolitionist movement. Later he would play a similar role in the women’s suffrage movement.
During the Republican National Convention in 1888, as a measure of how far he’d come, he became the first African-American to be nominated as Vice President of the United States on the small Equal Rights Party ticket. While little more than a symbolic gesture, it demonstrated the power of a simple act of kindness. Frederick Douglass is remembered to this day as one of the most successful and prominent figures in U.S. and African-American history.
A Legacy of Kindness
Kindness, of course, isn’t limited to the way that slave owner’s wife or Jim Shotwell demonstrated it in reaching out to Frederick Douglass and Dudley Henrique. For example, consider the story of Agnes Bojaxhiu. Born in Macedonia in 1910, she had become a nun and was teaching at St. Mary’s High School in Calcutta, India when she decided to pursue her dream. With permission from her superiors, she left the convent school to devote her life to working among the poorest of the poor in the Calcutta slums—beggars and children dying in the streets, dirty, unwanted, and ignored. So Agnes, who as a nun had become Mother Teresa, began a ministry she would continue and expand until her death in 1997.
She described her philosophy with these words: “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.” For nearly a half-century, she gave that unselfish, serving kindness to everyone in her path.
Mother Teresa never forsook her dream. Rather, she perpetuated it, starting homes for the poor, the dying, the leprosy laden, and the unfortunate throughout the entire world. A champion of the unwanted, the unborn, and the unloved—she traveled the world well into her eighties, with a challenge to the “haves for the have nots.” The Missionaries of Charity, which she founded, now has more than one million workers, carrying on her labor of love in more than forty countries.
As an elderly woman, stooped with arthritis and barely 4’9” tall, Mother Teresa was asked how she felt being so bowed by her disease. Her response was classic: “It is not a problem, because I just get closer and closer to those I love.”
She died with just five possessions: two robes, sandals, a bowl, and a Bible. But she died with a wealth of dreams realized and a Nobel Peace Prize, leaving a legacy of kindness beyond measure.