Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Our Better Angels

Seven Simple Virtues That Will Change Your Life and the World

Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity, with a Foreword by Jimmy Carter

St. Martin's Essentials




WHEN IT COMES to simple virtues, kindness may be the simplest of them all. What could be more basic than doing small acts for others without expecting anything in return? But can small acts really affect anything in the long run?

We don’t know what ripple effects even a tiny kindness may produce for the person on the receiving end. If you stop and give someone change for a parking meter or help someone struggling with an armful of packages, maybe that kindness is forgotten the next minute. Or maybe not. What if the person was having a particularly frustrating day and your tiny gesture helped them feel better and move forward rather than give in to their exasperation and take it out on someone else?

And what about the ripple effects for the person doing a kindness?

Well, for starters, I truly believe practicing kindness can change our brains. When we are kind, it makes us happy. It makes us think less about ourselves. We stop asking, “What’s missing in my life?” and start asking, “What can I give?” We become thankful for all we have rather than bitter over what we don’t have. It’s hard to do bad things when we’re feeling grateful. It’s easy to do good things when we’re feeling grateful.

When we step outside of our own selves and are kind to people who don’t look like us or have the same religion, politics, socioeconomic status, or experiences we have, it breaks down the barriers between “us” and “them.” In fact, most of the time when you’re being kind, you’re not thinking about any of those things anyway. That stuff doesn’t matter. You’re simply a person being kind to another person.

When we give of ourselves, our kindness can become a force for healing. It contributes to that halo of hope President Carter wrote about. Think about the mosques that raised money for the victims of the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. In only four days following the attack, Muslims raised over $200,000 for their Jewish brothers and sisters.

The Prophet Mohammed said to do good to “neighbors who are near” and “neighbors who are strangers.” He also said that “he is not a believer who eats his fill while his neighbor is hungry.”

The Dalai Lama says, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”

In the Christian New Testament, Jesus says there are two great commandments that basically override everything else. The first is to love God with all of your heart, soul, and mind, and the close second is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” No matter what your faith, your tradition, or your belief system, kindness is at the heart of our best selves in this world we live in.

The Jewish faith may put it best with the Hebrew word mitzvah. Most people use the word to mean “a good deed.” Its literal translation is “commandment.” According to many scholars, however, it comes from the root word tzavata, which means “connection.”

When we commit an act of kindness, we may simply be doing a good deed. We may be following a commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. But sometimes an act of kindness feels like much more than taking an action or obeying a rule. Maybe that’s because it creates a connection. We connect to our fellow man, to the best part of ourselves, and to some greater universe beyond our understanding where light chases out the darkness.

With practice, kindness can become a part of who we are and what we do. Through even small acts of kindness we can add to the healing halo and create big changes in the world. In the following stories, acts of kindness make ripples whose ultimate effects on doers and receivers we may never know. Those ripples may still be lapping onto the shores of distant beaches, a never-ending series of gentle waves, washing up gifts of treasure.

Dorothy Howard thought she knew the meaning of “love thy neighbor,” but it took a Christmas mystery for her to truly get to the heart of the matter.

Christmas with a Catch

Dorothy Howard’s Houston neighborhood wasn’t known for Christmas miracles, and yet Christmas Eve, there on the street in front of her apartment building was Tom from Habitat for Humanity. Behind his truck was an empty trailer, ready to transport her belongings. Dorothy wasn’t sad for a minute to leave this old apartment to move to her new home, a home she’d helped build with her own two hands and that she’d saved precious funds to buy. Still, it felt like a step into the unknown. Add to that, Tom had called her a few days earlier to let her know her house would be ready ahead of schedule if she wanted to go ahead and move in. Now, here she was on the eve of her new life, but she knew from experience that most miracles had a catch.

She commandeered her eight grandchildren. Small ones carried boxes out to the trailer, and older ones helped Tom carry the few pieces of furniture they were taking. It didn’t take long for them to empty out the small apartment. As Tom tied down all of their possessions on the trailer, Dorothy was struck by how much room was left.

She said a silent prayer of thanks as they piled into Tom’s truck. At fifty years old, she was starting life from scratch again. She was raising eight grandchildren instead of her own children this time around. It did feel like a miracle that her Habitat home was ready early, that she and the children would get to wake up Christmas morning in a new house in a new neighborhood, that the children wouldn’t have to remain inside on Christmas morning to stay safe from guns and drugs on the street.

Instead of thinking about how empty those new rooms would be with only her scant possessions, she thought about how spacious they would feel. She thought of how wonderful the first morning with the second bathroom would be after all the endless mornings of the children fussing at each other and elbowing their way in and out of the single bathroom in their apartment. Filling the new house with beds, a table where they could eat and the kids could do their homework—that could all come later. She would make sure it did. For now, she focused on the miracle at hand. A new neighborhood, a new start for her family.

On the way to the house, Tom broke her out of her thoughts. “There is one thing,” he said.

Here it comes, she thought. Maybe her Christmas miracle had been too good to be true. She told herself that whatever this one thing was, it was not going to keep them from waking up in their new place Christmas morning. She wouldn’t let a bump in the road keep them from moving on. She’d experienced plenty of those, and she knew how to get herself over them and keep on going.

“Since it’s Christmas Eve, we couldn’t get the gas hooked up,” he said. “So there’s no heat—and the oven and the stove won’t work for cooking. I’m sorry, Dorothy.”

“Oh, don’t you worry about that,” she said. “We’ll be fine.” She’d been planning on doing a bunch of Christmas cooking to celebrate their new home. That would have to wait. So be it. And they’d been sleeping on top of each other in their crowded apartment for over a year—they could snuggle up a few more nights to stay warm. But she said another silent prayer, asking for no more surprises, please. Little did she know what was still to come.

Dorothy felt flush with pride as they pulled up to the new house. It was so perfect. So neat and bright. It was one story with two windows facing the street. It had a front yard and a backyard. Tom had barely stopped the truck before Dorothy opened the door to get out.

Bring on the weather, the cold food—there was nothing that could dampen the joy Dorothy felt arriving at her new home. Maybe Christmas miracles were real after all. Owning this beautiful home she had saved for and helped build, and getting to give her grandchildren a safe place to live and play—it felt like things couldn’t get any better.

Then they did. There to greet her was a group of volunteers waiting to unload the trailer and carry boxes inside. Dorothy couldn’t believe that these people would spend their Christmas Eve coming over here to help her, people she’d never met before. She smiled at them and nodded her head in thanks—right now she had to get inside her new house.

She walked through the open door, and the tears she’d always been able to hold back came rolling down her face. Actually, these were new tears. They were happy tears, and she let them come.

The kitchen was so big, with brand-new appliances and clean, pretty cabinets. She had never been the first one to use anything in a house. This kitchen would be hers to use, to keep, to care for, to fill with food and love and all the generations of her family.

She decided the first thing she would buy when she saved the money would be a dining room table. She could already imagine her grandchildren sitting around it, passing food and talking about their day at school. She could imagine them doing their homework there, studying hard while she worked in the kitchen, cooking up dishes that would fill the house with their sweet smell.

She peered into her new bedroom. There was a bed in it, a bed of her very own. She hurried to the other bedrooms like a child on Christmas morning. They had beds, too! Beautiful bunk beds that meant no one would have to share.

When had Tom and the volunteers managed to do this?

The surprises didn’t end there. She gasped when she saw the washer and dryer. She had never owned a washer and dryer. A washer and dryer changed everything. It meant they wouldn’t have to wear clothes over and over without being washed. It meant she wouldn’t have to haul mountains of clothes to the laundromat. Wouldn’t have to save quarters or sit in the hot laundromat for hours, claiming the machines that worked and waiting for her loads to finish.

This last bit of her Christmas miracle truly felt like more than she could ever have hoped for. As if Santa had guessed what that secret thing was that wasn’t even on her list.

Outside the children were running around the yard in circles, just because they could.

Volunteers started moving things in, and Dorothy began organizing the boxes. She was putting them in the right rooms when all of a sudden here came Tom. He dumped an armful of two electric skillets and a Crock-Pot on the kitchen counter. Then he ran back to his truck and came back with another Crock-Pot, electric blankets, and a space heater.

“What’s all this?” Dorothy asked.

“I just raided my wife’s kitchen. This way you can cook a Christmas dinner. And stay warm.”

“You what?” Dorothy eyed the skillets and Crock-Pots, dumbfounded at what she was seeing. There would be a Christmas feast after all.

Dorothy had always been a woman of faith who trusted in God, but even for her this felt entirely unfamiliar. She looked hard at Tom. She had never met people like him and the volunteers. She had never before witnessed the love people could have for total strangers.

In this house furnished by strangers, she would go on to host family get-togethers, neighborhood parties, reunions, and holiday feasts. Over the years, she would have forty-one great-grandchildren and forty-four great-great-grands. They would know the power of a love for others just because and know how it felt to receive it and how to give it. And they would be able to share that love with neighbors, with strangers, with the world.

So in the end, Dorothy’s Christmas miracle did have a catch … it wasn’t just for Christmas. It would live on and keep going, a Christmas gift that turned into a lifetime of miracles.

A few days after Dorothy and her family moved into the new house, when Dorothy was still enjoying the sensation of touching every bed and every now and then lifting the lid of her new washing machine as if to convince herself it hadn’t all been a dream, there was a surprise delivery.

“What’s this?” she asked as she opened the door to a waiting deliveryman.

It was a dinette set. A pair of newlyweds Dorothy didn’t know had been at the dedication ceremony for her new house and felt like the place wasn’t complete without a table for her family to gather around. They’d gone out and bought one for Dorothy. Kindness. Just because.

It breaks my heart a little bit when I think about how amazed Dorothy was at the kindness of strangers. If you don’t think a few hours of volunteering for someone makes a difference, or a few dollars put in toward furniture or food or gifts for someone who’s trying to stay afloat, think of Dorothy. Think how small acts can create a lifetime of miracles and generations of people who truly understand what it means to love thy neighbor.

Geta Heradea could be forgiven for not being kind.

Winter in Mizies

She knew things couldn’t get any worse. And yet time and time again they had. Who was she fooling? Still, she’d told her husband this was it, the last winter she could live like this. The time for wishing and hoping was over.

Geta Heradea wasn’t the only one in the northwest Romanian village of Mizies in desperate need of change. Despite its proximity to the pretty city of Beius and the dramatic peaks of the Apuseni Mountains, Mizies in wintertime was anything but picturesque. Without running water in their houses, villagers waited in line at the communal water fountain to collect water and then carry it home for drinking, bathing, and cooking. Drafty old houses with rotting, leaky roofs and no reliable source of heat made people sick, tired, cold, and dejected. The simple tasks of life like washing clothes and getting them dry were exercises in maddening futility.

Copyright © 2019 by Habitat for Humanity International