Jeannette Maré’s youngest child, Ben, died of croup just before his third birthday and became the inspiration for the Ben’s Bells project. Following his death, Jeannette and her family began incorporating coping strategies into their lives. They started making Ben’s Bells in their backyard studio with friends. The therapeutic effect of working with clay was amazing, as was the power of being surrounded by people talking and working toward a common goal. They made hundreds of Bells and distributed them randomly in the community to encourage the kindness that they had so depended on to get through each day. Since Ben’s death in 2002, it has been the kindness of others, strangers and friends, that helped Jeannette and her family to heal. Ben’s Bells has been a way for her to pass on that kindness and to help others in the process.
AH: What is love?
JM: In my world, it’s kindness. I believe that kindness is love in action. Kindness is the doing of love.
AH: Your organization, Ben’s Bells, is about being kind. How do you define kindness?
JM: Kindness is about caring—for ourselves and other people. Having empathy and compassion for others involves a certain amount of self-awareness. Kindness is the actual doing of something that helps another person, builds another person up, connects with another person, or makes them feel supported. I believe that kindness is that doing piece.
AH: What gives you energy?
JM: Learning and growing give me a lot of energy, especially when I’m in a safe place where I can be vulnerable and go for it. I get energy from trying to help people connect better and create this level of kindness that is foundational to everything we do.
AH: Who were the mentors in your life?
JM: After Ben died, I needed evidence that I could survive. I met a couple of women who had experienced the death of their children. The three of us had lunch regularly. They knew how to sit in the pain and be real and offer me hope at the same time, which was something most people couldn’t do. Most people couldn’t be in the pain; they needed to avoid it. I needed to know that I could not only survive, but thrive.
I struggled mightily after Ben died. I know I was difficult to be around for some people. I had people who had to remove me from their lives. I don’t blame them because they had an option to leap out of that pain. I didn’t. I’m just so grateful to the people that stuck with me when I wasn’t so much fun. It was hard for the people who loved me to have the endurance to be with me until I could start reciprocating their kindness.
AH: You had to deal with tremendous grief after your son died. How did you heal and find happiness again?
JM: You need to be able to feel sad and there aren’t a lot of people who can let you feel sad. One of the goals of my life is to be a spokesperson for letting people grieve and for healthy grief and how to support people in grief.
I really push back against this whole idea that you never get over something like the death of a child. It’s not that you get over it, but it is true that you can have joy and thrive even when you’ve had immense sadness. You can have all of these emotions in your life and have a really full and meaningful and happy life. I needed to know that, and I want other moms and dads who are experiencing this to know it, too. To know that the pain they’re going to endure is real and intense and long, but that they can definitely do it.
The idea of post-traumatic growth is real—of course we would give up all that growth to not experience the trauma, but we also don’t have to curl up and die because of it. If we have the support, if we have kindness around us, we can do it. It’s important that people know that. Because the depth of that pain—it wants to pull you down. I heard someone say, “you have to travel through the valley. Don’t go around the valley, but don’t camp in the valley. Don’t put your big, long tent-stake into the ground because you have to keep moving.” I needed to keep actively doing things that were healthy for me. Being with people that were healthy for me, exercising, going to counseling.
AH: Tell us more about the message Be Kind.
JM: After Ben died, people would tap me on the shoulder and say things like, “be positive.” I had a hard time with that. I think an overwhelmingly important message to the world is that it’s ok to not be ok sometimes. That’s why the Be Happy message doesn’t work for me in the way that the Be Kind message does. I love happiness, don’t get me wrong—but when you say Be Happy people might think, ok but I’m really sad and I feel like in order to Be Happy I have to somehow ignore or suppress my sadness.
But with Be Kind it’s actually something you can do and be intentional about. You can be kind and sad at the same time. And all the research says that through doing kindness and practicing self-kindness you can actually increase your happiness. So the happiness is a wonderful byproduct instead of an unrealistic or incongruent expectation.
AH: When did you first feel a connection to something bigger than yourself
JM: I needed a pragmatic approach to experiencing sadness. I needed to allow people to support me and to turn that support outward when I could. Initially I was certainly very self-focused because you have to be—on yourself and your immediate family. And then it was this huge relief to feel the capacity to reach out again. I remember when I was able to consciously, intentionally, start doing kindness for other people and how empowering that felt. I felt like I transitioned into something important when it wasn’t all about me anymore.
Everything starts with your center and once you can figure out what that is, you can radiate outward. But that work has to be done, whether it’s through grief or another process.
AH: What are you curious about?
JM: I am fascinated with the brain and the mind and how it works and how an awareness of that gives us the ability to not just react to situations that are difficult. How do you do kindness in those moments? I’m curious about how we show kindness when kindness is difficult or in situations where we don’t imagine kindness existing.
I am not just talking about being nice to each other. It’s easy to confuse the two. Nice can be superficial or self-serving. You might be nice to someone to avoid having a tough conversation. I’m looking at the greater good. What is the kind thing to do? It could mean laying off a worker for the betterment of an organization. Figuring out what the kind thing is and having the courage to do it is work. It’s not always clear cut—it’s not always the nice or popular thing.
AH: Do you have a favorite saying?
JM: I like to go beyond the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), to what we call the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. You have to use a skillset that includes imagining another’s experience. It takes a shift in understanding that people have different perspectives and different experiences. It might be kind to throw a big surprise birthday party for an extrovert but maybe not so much for an introvert. Realizing that we have different needs for connection is part of building awareness and learning how to get better and better at understanding ourselves and others.
Kindness is a skillset. Some people may have a bit more of an innate tendency toward kindness, but it is definitely a learnable, practicable, and improvable skill. Ben’s Bells is a great organization for compounding that kindness and spreading it to the world.
Jeannette Maré is the founder and Executive Director of Ben’s Bells Project. Jeannette’s leadership has anchored the organization through remarkable growth, including the opening of four studios, collaborating with hundreds of local organizations and recruiting more than 25,000 annual volunteers. As part of her vision, Ben’s Bells has become nationally recognized and “kindness” is becoming part of the nation’s collective consciousness.
Featured image: a few of Ben’s Bells. (Source: Metiza)