The Power of the Pause

“Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight.”  (Rollo May)

 

Attribution: Donna CameronBetween Stimulus and Response

Some time ago, a friend happened to be looking at the huge collection of quotations I have tacked to a bulletin board that covers one wall of my den.  Inexplicably, she started to cry.  Then she grabbed a pen from her purse and wrote down this quotation from Stephen Covey:

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

“That’s it exactly,” she explained.  “Whenever I am tempted to take a drink, I need to pause in that space between stimulus and response.  If I stop and think about it, I won’t drink.  If I don’t, I slip and have a drink.”  I knew my friend was in AA and that sobriety was still a struggle for her.

I looked at the quotation again and saw how many things it applied to.  Not just alcohol, but overeating, smoking, spending… or any number of actions we take automatically with little or no thought.  We allow an addiction or a learned response to overtake our free will.  And, as Covey describes, each time we don’t give in to the reflex response, we grow and claim our own precious freedom a little more.

I think his wise words are just as relevant to kindness.  Yesterday in a parking lot, I saw a man blast his horn at a woman whose car was blocking his exit.  When she didn’t move quickly, he blasted it again, and then a third time.

Admittedly, some people are just Bozos, and they always will be.  But I’d like to think that if he had paused, perhaps he would have chosen a different response.  Maybe he would have shrugged and looked at his watch and said, “I’ve got time.”  Or maybe he would have tried for a quick tap on the horn to alert her to his car, instead of three sharp and aggressive blasts.

I know I’ve been guilty of speaking sharply in response to a real or perceived stimulus of rudeness or bad behavior.  But that’s their problem.  It’s only mine if I let it be, if I let their Bozo-ness provoke me to similar behavior.  When I react in kind, it doesn’t improve the situation and it doesn’t make me feel any better.

I also know that when I snap back at someone (more often than not, my spouse), it’s because I’m tired, feeling overwhelmed, inadequate, or—I admit it—hungry.  A timely pause can keep the snapping-turtle in her shell, and maintain harmony.  It’s one of those lessons we learn and relearn over and over, until finally the pause becomes the automatic response.  At least I hope it does.

There’s a reason why our mothers used to tell us to stop and count to ten when we got angry.  It’s the power of the pause.

The Rotary Club has the right idea (sudden segue, but stay with me).

Rotarians have a four-question test that helps them decide whether and how to act or speak.  Before responding, they consider:

  • Is it the truth?
  • Is it fair to all concerned?
  • Will it build goodwill and friendship?
  • Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

If the answer is no, they keep silent.  Wise people, those Rotarians.

A pause is not a vacant space.  It’s a place of enormous potential and growth.  It’s where we choose who we will be in this moment, and the next, and the next.

“Kindness. Easy to do. Easy not to do. Choose the latter, no one will notice. Choose the former and lives may change.”  (Julian Bowers Brown‏)

A Tribute to Men of Great Kindness

“Guard well within yourself that treasure, kindness. Know how to give without hesitation, how to lose without regret, how to acquire without meanness.”  (George Sand)

"14 Ernie Banks Medal of Freedom White House" by White House photographer - http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/audio-video/video_thumbnail/thumbnail_banks.png. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Ernie Banks, “Mr. Cub,” receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2013. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I had been planning something else for today’s post, but it can wait.  Today I want to remember someone who modeled a life of kindness, and bequeathed so much joy in his 83 years that his name alone makes me smile, though today with some sadness.  Ernie Banks died Friday.

I grew up watching and rooting for the San Francisco Giants.  My hero was Willie Mays (still is).  Before my father died, we went to at least a dozen games each summer at Candlestick Park.  We always tried to go when the Giants were playing either the Dodgers—San Francisco’s long-time rival—or the Cubs, our second favorite team.  My mom had grown up in Chicago and her fondness for the Cubs moved with her to the Bay Area.

As far as I’m concerned, Willie Mays and Ernie Banks rank high among the best ambassadors the game of baseball has ever had.  Their baseball cards were among my most treasured as a child.  I still have Willie’s.  Somewhere along the line, I lost Ernie’s.

Willie Mays

World Telegram & Sun photo by William C. Greene. Library of Congress via Wikipedia Commons

#24, Willie Mays, World Telegram & Sun photo by William C. Greene. Library of Congress via Wikipedia Commons

At the end of my 6th grade school year one of my classmates was hit by a car while riding his bicycle through a busy intersection.  He was badly injured, with numerous broken bones and internal injuries.  He was in a coma for weeks.  When he finally woke up and started the months of intensive therapy that stood between him and 7th grade, one of his first visitors was Willie Mays.  Willie was not accompanied by reporters or photographers.  He just came to Rob’s hospital room because he had heard about his injury and wanted to cheer him up.  That’s the Willie Mays I knew growing up.  That, and the sheer joy he demonstrated every day he was on the field.

I went to the first game Willie played at Candlestick Park after the Giants had traded him to the Mets in 1972 (what were they thinking!).  The stands were completely packed that evening.  The fans weren’t cheering for the Giants, or for the Mets.  They were cheering—wildly—for Willie. He tipped his hat to the roaring crowd at each at-bat. The Giants may have forsaken you, but we never will.

Ernie Banks

Ernie Banks, By Bowman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ernie Banks, By Bowman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cubs fans can cite similar stories about Ernie Banks.  His kindness to fans is legendary.

Listening to and reading the stories about Ernie these last few days, a couple of things stand out: The words “kind” or “kindness,” referring to Banks, are in every single story.  In addition, one cannot fail to see a man who was thoroughly in love with life and with his job.  The fact that he played his entire career on a perennially losing team didn’t bother him.  He fell in love with Wrigley Field the first day he walked onto the field.  He loved it so much he wanted to live in the apartment team owner Phil Wrigley maintained behind left field.

It’s also notable that in his 19-year career with the Cubs, Banks was never ejected from a game.  Hall of Fame umpire Doug Harvey said of Banks to The Associated Press: “He wasn’t a griper. Never complained about a strike or an out or a call. Some guys would turn their heads after a pitch and look at you like you were nuts. Not Ernie. It was always, ‘Isn’t this a great day to be alive and playing baseball?’’’

I try to imagine what the world would be like if each of us went to our job every day with the attitude Isn’t this a great day to be alive and [managing associations…selling shoes…waiting tables….].

Ernie Banks got his start in the Negro Leagues, where he would occasionally play three games in one day, sometimes in different cities.  Banks loved it.  He didn’t focus on the indignity of not being allowed in some restaurants or hotels, or of having to ride in the back of the bus.  He was playing baseball!  He loved the game so much that when he got to the Majors, he gained fame for the oft-repeated line: “Let’s play two.”

Some stats about Ernie Banks:

  • He played in 2,528 games during his 19 seasons
  • He averaged 150 games per year during his 16 prime seasons
  • He hit 512 career home runs, including five seasons with 40 or more HRs
  • He drove in 1,636 runs, including more than 100 RBIs in eight seasons
  • He won the National League MVP Award in back-to-back seasons (1958-59)
  • He was elected to the All-Star roster 14-times
  • He never charged for an autograph (as even my beloved Willie Mays does)

One of the few people with whom Banks had difficulties dealing was one-time Cubs manager, Leo Durocher, known for his cantankerous nature. Banks later said he followed his mother’s advice when interacting with Durocher: “She said, ‘Ernie, kill ’em with kindness.’ And that’s what I did.”  [It was the same advice I got from my own mother, as I wrote in an earlier post].

Interestingly, it was Leo Durocher who coined the phrase, “Nice guys finish last.”  How fitting that his words were disproved by one of his own players, Ernie Banks.

In his homage to Banks, Chicago Tribune reporter Paul Sullivan wrote last week, “Most great players are remembered for their stats or their style of play. Ernie Banks always will be remembered for showing us how to enjoy life every single day.”

Former Cub Mark Grace said of Banks: “What a wonderful, outgoing, terrific man. He was a Hall of Famer who didn’t act like one. He always had time for others, always asked about you. Never talked about himself. Just always was interested in you. What you were doing, what you had to say, it was important to him.”

In a 2009 interview with NPR, Ernie said he was uncomfortable when he was in the spotlight and he didn’t feel like he’d really done anything important.  What he’d really dreamed of, he said, and what had been his goal since he was 15 years old, was to win the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Alex Rodriguez

What, you may wonder, is A-Rod doing here?  If you follow baseball at all, you know that he is not well-respected, he’s viewed as a liar and a cheat, and is arguably the most hated man in baseball.  It wasn’t always so.

In March of 1997, the Seattle Times ran a story about Alex Rodriguez, the 20-year-old player who was then in his second year with the Mariners.  The story focused on how nice he was, how polite, how generous and self-effacing.  I saved that story for years, thinking, “Here is a man who is following the likes of Willie Mays and Ernie Banks.”  I tossed it a couple of years ago, but found it online again today.  Somewhere along the way—between 1997 and 2015, something went terribly wrong and the Alex Rodriguez that young man grew to be is anything but the embodiment of Ernie Banks or Willie Mays.  How that happened is a story that may someday be told, if it hasn’t already.  Suffice it to say that when people list the finest ambassadors for baseball, or the kindest athletes, Rodriguez will not be among them.  It saddens me.

Thanks, Ernie

Maybe Ernie Banks never got to collect that coveted prize in Stockholm, but the impact he made on baseball and on humankind will ripple beyond our imagining.  And maybe if peace ever comes to this world, we can credit this modest Hall of Famer for part of that achievement.

Thanks, Ernie Banks.  For showing us how to live life to the fullest … and to the kindest.

 

Extend Yourself

“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”  (Dalai Lama XIV)

Dr. Dale Turner

Dr. Dale Turner

Years ago, theologian, speaker, and extraordinarily kind man, Dr. Dale Turner, handed out little green cards with two simple words printed on them: “Extend Yourself.”  I have no religious background or education, nor any inclination toward such, but every time I heard Dr. Turner, he touched me to the core.  He also made me laugh—a fine combination.  I’ve carried that little card in my wallet and had those two words clipped beside my desk for nearly three decades.  It seems to me that the phrase “Extend Yourself” captures the essence of kindness.  It also highlights the difference between niceness and kindness.

Nice is something we can be without extending ourselves.  Nice is tipping the hat, holding the door, smiling at the cashier.  Nice may even be dropping a dollar in someone’s hand if we do so without looking the person in the eye and saying a genuinely caring word.  Kind is asking how we can help, offering our hand, jumping in without being asked, and engaging in conversation that goes beyond the superficial.  All of these actions have an element of risk—we might be rebuffed, ignored, or disrespected.

Nice generally doesn’t inconvenience us.  I can share my bounty with you because I have plenty.  Kind is when we share knowing that we may not have as much as we would like, and that’s okay.  We often go out of our way to extend ourselves or to be kind.

Generosity

Extending ourselves is an act of generosity, whether material or relational.

Recently there was a story on NPR describing how the impulse to generosity seems to be hardwired in our brains.  In a study of children, researchers found that they smiled significantly more when they were giving treats away than when they received the treats themselves. But what the researchers found to be especially interesting was that the children smiled significantly more when they gave away their own treats than if they gave away an identical treat provided by the experimenter for the purpose of giving away.

I saw another story two days ago, about Calvin Olsen, a second grader in Las Vegas.  He told his parents that he had been given so much for Christmas he didn’t want anything for himself for his birthday.  Instead, he wanted “to give all my birthday presents to kids that need them.”  He asked for $25 gift cards for older kids and presents for the little kids.  Sixty people came to Calvin’s birthday party.  He collected over $600 in cash and gift cards for kids and teens in foster care, $100 of which was from his own savings.

That impulse to generosity that Calvin Olsen and the kids in the NPR study have seems to be an instinctive knowledge of the rightness of “extending yourself.”  Let’s hope as they grow older we don’t “help” them unlearn it.  Instead, let’s learn from them.

extend yourself

 

Rejecting Kindness

“Kindness can become its own motive.  We are made kind by being kind.” (Eric Hoffer)

Attribution: Donna CameronIt can be upsetting and bewildering when someone rejects our kindness.  An act which was meant to be helpful and benign is rebuffed or rejected.  Sometimes, the intended recipient even lashes out at us.  What did we do wrong?  Are we in some way at fault, or inadequate?

As a result, the next time we want to extend a kindness, we hesitate—fearing rejection or scorn.  Our act of kindness dies before it is born.  Some weeks it feels like there is worldwide scarcity of kindness, and we must do our part to keep the impulses alive.

There is a simple saying that I use often in working with groups or in one-on-one situations:  We assume one another’s good intent.  So simple, and yet so powerful. If only we could always remember it!

The Seattle Times runs a daily section call “Rant and Rave.”  It invites readers to share examples of good and bad behavior and positive and negative encounters in our community.  The raves are frequently descriptions of generosity and kindnesses experienced and witnessed—they’re often uplifting and touching, little vignettes that reinforce our shared humanity.  Here’s an example: “For the Men’s Warehouse employees who helped my developmentally disabled son have the senior prom he’d dreamed of, and for his teachers who made it all happen. It was a night he’ll never forget!”

The rants, on the other hand, often describe careless, rude, or unscrupulous deeds or situations.  A rant caught my eye recently: “To the guy in the VW who flipped me the bird, mouthed obscenities through the glass and then sped off when I was knocking on his window to let him know his tire was flat.”

Who knows why the driver reacted as he did.  He may have been frightened, surprised, or embarrassed.  He may have thought he was caught doing something naughty.  He may have been having a lousy day and the knock on his window put him over the edge (if that’s the case, the dawning awareness of a flat tire a short time later can’t have added to the day’s enjoyment).  But how sad it is that the first reaction some people have to unexpected contact by strangers is to strike out at the individual.

Road Rage

We’ve all heard of road rage precipitated by a honking horn when someone fails to notice the light has turned green.  A tap on the horn is a kindness under those circumstances, one to be responded to with a wave of thanks as the driver proceeds through the light.  Too often it initiates an angry gesture, a curse, or even a brandished weapon.

For those reasons, we are often wary.  I’ve seen lines of cars patiently waiting through two green lights for the oblivious driver to notice that the light has changed (this is Seattle, remember, we are boundlessly courteous).  Rather than honk, I once saw a man get out of his car and politely tap on the driver’s window of the car ahead.  For his effort, he was rewarded with an unkind gesture and screech of tires as the driver shot through the now-yellow light.  I’m sure the driver was embarrassed, but what is it about embarrassment that makes some of us lash out.

Embarrassment

Embarrassment is part of the human experience.  It’s also what makes us human, whether an unzipped fly, a broccoli-adorned tooth, or a verbal gaffe.  It happens.  We’ve all been there.  To not risk embarrassment is to shun human contact entirely.  It seems to me that grace is the ideal response to those embarrassing moments.  More broadly, though, isn’t grace the best response to almost anything?

I hope the driver who knocked on the window of the VW isn’t deterred from doing so the next time s/he thinks a stranger would want to know what s/he has noticed.

And I hope we all (myself most definitely included) can learn to react with grace when someone tries to help us.

 “He who sows sparingly will reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will reap bountifully.” (St. Paul)

 

Choosing Peace

“Treat everyone with politeness, even those who are rude to you – not because they are nice, but because you are.”  (Author Unknown)

Attribution: Donna CameronIf someone would just be rude to me I could test out my kindness resolve.  Everyone’s just been so damn nice.  In the first two weeks of my “year of living kindly,” I have encountered nothing but courtesy, friendliness, and, yes, kindness—lots of it.  I’m feeling like a researcher of a disease that has already been eradicated.

In her book, Grace (Eventually)—Thoughts on Faith, the devoutly irreverent and hilarious Anne Lamott describes having been swindled by a carpet salesman.  After days of increasingly rancorous back-and-forth to recover her $50, Lamott decides to choose peace over victory.  She returns his bad check with a note of apology and a bouquet of daisies.  Even then, the “carpet guy” gets in one last jab and, rather than resume arguing with him, she lets go.

It’s a charming and provocative story—told as only Anne Lamott can tell a tale—and it caused me to wonder how I would behave in the same circumstances.  Would I relinquish the notion that someone (me) has to be right and someone (the other guy) has to be wrong?  Would I give up the satisfaction of having the last word?  Would I surrender $50—or $5—that was rightfully mine to gain peace of mind and perspective?  Would I trade righteousness for harmony?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I am likely to respond when sharp words, criticism or belittling comments are directed at me—assuming someone in mellow Seattle gets cranky and takes it out on me.  I know I have choices, but which I will choose remains to be seen:

  • I can respond in kind (“tit for tat”); I can be equally sharp or critical: “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” There’s a good chance this would escalate the situation.
  • Or I can respond in such a way that indicates my superiority (“I’m above your petty criticism”): “What a shame that you have to resort to name-calling.” Implied here is I feel sorry for you, you under-evolved oaf. That may not further escalate the situation, but the other person will still feel like I’ve dropped a warm turd in his hand.
  • I can completely ignore the person and their words or actions. It may be a safe response—especially if the other person is psychotic or deranged—but it does little to improve things. The message I send is another of superiority: “I can’t be bothered acknowledging your existence.” Yeah, that’s going to improve things!
  • I can also acknowledge my fear and my pride and think about how I might connect with the other person where their fear and pride reside. I can say,   “I’m sorry you feel that way, and sorry if I did anything to annoy you. I’ll try to be more aware next time.” The thing is, I have to mean it. This can be where confrontation ends and reconciliation begins. However, if I say it with a tone that conveys sarcasm or superiority, or insincerity, we’re right back in turd territory.

This takes practice and can be clumsy and awkward at first, sometimes resulting in all the things we hope to avoid.  But, just like playing the piano or hitting a golf ball, it takes some practice before we start seeing skill development.  I comfort myself with the quote from Julia Cameron: “It’s impossible to get better and look good at the same time.”

I don’t recall instances in recent years when someone verbally “attacked” me and I attacked back.  That’s just not my style.  I’m too “nice” for that.  But I confess that there have been times where I have acted with indifference, disdain, and even superiority.  Generally, my response has been in answer to what I perceived from the other person—be they family, friend, colleague, service-worker, or complete stranger.  Perceptions aren’t always accurate, and I have control over both my perceptions and my reactions. This is where kindness resides.

Surrender doesn’t necessarily mean giving up or letting go.  I think it can mean opening up or letting something in.  That’s what Anne Lamott did with her shady carpet guy.  My time will come.  I’ll let you know.

And if it doesn’t and no one is rude or unpleasant to me … I can always call Comcast.

“We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us.  Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them….  Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.  Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”  (Rainier Maria Rilke)

Great Expectations

“We become what we love.  Whatever you are giving your time and attention to, day after day, is the kind of person you will eventually become.” (Wayne Muller)

Attribution: Donna CameronI look at this year as an opportunity for me to practice kindness and to learn to extend kindness more often and more naturally.  It is also an opportunity for me to expand my kindness awareness, to see others acting kindly and recognize the act for what it is.

While I will undoubtedly observe many incidents of unkindness or of kindness opportunities missed—and many will surely be my own—I don’t want to spend my time looking for or focused on those negative examples.  As Jose Ortega y Gasset says, “Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.”

It has been my experience that for the most part, in our day-to-day lives we get what we expect.  If I expect to be treated with courtesy and respect, I generally am, and am greatly surprised when not treated thusly.  Of course, I am saying this as a middle-aged, middle-class, white woman.  I am not so naïve that I don’t realize I could be treated very differently if I were of a different age, race, gender, background, or circumstances.  Far too many people still react out of prejudice, fear, and ignorance.  That brings to mind Tom Lehrer’s words in the intro to his classic song, National Brotherhood Week: “There are people in the world who do not love their fellow human beings and I hate people like that.” Still, I want to be a person who expects the best—of myself and others.

When What We Do Gets in the Way of Who We Are

There are a lot of people—smart, generous, and kind—whose professions have trained them to look for what’s wrong and rewarded them for their efforts.  We saw this with certain clients in our company over the years.  If success in their profession requires that they be good at finding mistakes, aberrations, or imprecision—as building inspectors, clinical diagnosticians, or auditors, for example—they sometimes extend that ability to other parts of their lives, often completely unaware that it may not be appropriate or appreciated.  They are always the ones to point out the typo in the newsletter … they find fault with the way the hedge was clipped or the lawn was mowed … they feel the need to inform their waitress in the Thai restaurant that “Wellcome” is misspelled on the menu (let’s you and I move to Bangkok and open a restaurant and see if we get everything right)….

Sadly, they listen for the missed note rather than for the music.

Sometimes, with only a few words, they can suck the life and joy out of an encounter.  They’re “just trying to help” by pointing out a flaw, but the person they’ve pointed it out to can be annoyed, demoralized, and even demotivated.  We saw the damage such behaviors wreak in a board room; I can only imagine what having such a critical person as a spouse or parent might be like.

The lesson here may be that what makes someone good at their job may not be the same skills that make them a good parent, board member, or friend.  Sometimes, the kindest thing we can do is overlook the unimportant blunder, the mispronunciation, the misstatement.  It’s hard, though, if you’ve been trained to seek out flaws, or if it’s important to you that everyone knows how smart you are.  I think it sometimes comes down to would you rather be right or happy? because you can’t always be both.  This is one of those lessons we learn and relearn, and choices we choose and rechoose.

An editor friend of mine once told me he finds it hard at times to read for pleasure, because he can’t turn off the editor in his head.  He finds himself looking for errors or better ways to craft a sentence rather than enjoying the author’s passion or the story.

Wayne Muller, in one of my favorite books of all time, How, Then, Shall We Live? elegantly describes the dangers of honing our critical skills to the exclusion of others:

“All we are is a result of what we have thought.  If we focus the lion’s share of our energy on what we believe is wrong…, we gradually grow into people who are good at seeing what is wrong….  Instead of creating a life of beauty and meaning, we may simply become better and better at seeing only what is broken.”

“Kill ‘em with Kindness” – A Lesson from My Mother

“Kindness is in our power, even when fondness is not.” (Samuel Johnson)

Attribution: Donna CameronMy mother could be remarkably kind, but she also could be startlingly unkind.  And the change from one behavior to the other could be as fast as a green light switching to red—without the warning amber light in-between.  The kind Connie was always the one I hoped to see, but occasionally the other Connie could be a hoot-and-a-half.  I think she knew it and kept that part of her at the ready for when she wanted to surprise people who thought they had her pegged.

When I was in high-school, she worked as a receptionist and scheduler in a large medical practice.  She told me once that when people were rude or impatient with her, she made it a goal to turn them around by “killing them with kindness.”  She would answer a scowl with her brightest smile, a hostile comment with sympathetic and serene understanding.  She would look for ways to help—whether a glass of water, a compliment, or generous use of their name.  She told me that frequently when these people left, they made it a point to stop by her desk and thank her for her kindness.  Sometimes—though not often—they even apologized for being short with her.

I remember asking her if it wasn’t hard to be nice to people who were so unpleasant to her.

She told me, “No, I look at it as a game.  I win if I can remain nice in the face of their rudeness.  And I win even more if I can influence them to change their behavior.”

Let the Kindness Games Begin

For some reason I remembered her words many years later when a few of my company colleagues and I were staffing a large 4-day conference for one of our association clients.  On the second day, one of our team came to me and asked if I could help them deal with a woman who had been giving them nothing but grief from the moment she checked in at the registration desk the day before.  She had complained about the parking at the hotel, the cost of the conference, the complexity of the conference brochure, and even the distance to the restrooms.  Today, she was upset because there were two breakout sessions that she really wanted to attend, but they were at the same time, so she could only attend one.

As I was walking up to her, I remembered my mother’s strategy and thought I’d give it a try.  After I introduced myself and asked how I could help, she declared that the conference was a huge disappointment and had obviously not been planned well.  She wanted to attend two sessions that were being offered at the same time.  Why, she asked, weren’t we repeating sessions, so she could go to both?  Or, failing that, why didn’t we tape all the sessions so she could get a recording of the one she couldn’t attend?

I did my best to empathize with her frustration and explain why neither of her ideas—while entirely reasonable—had been practical for this conference.  Mostly I listened and absorbed her dissatisfaction.  When she finally headed off to attend the session, I breathed a sigh of relief, but didn’t especially feel that I had accomplished what I set out to do.  I wondered if there was more I could do to turn this woman’s negativity around.

As it happened, the session she was unable to attend was on a topic I had some understanding of and interest in.  I checked with the team to see if they could do without me for 90 minutes and headed to the room where the class was being held.  I picked up two sets of the handouts and sat down to listen.

When it was over, I headed out to look for the woman our staff and some of the volunteers had dubbed “Nasty Nancy.”

I saw her sitting by herself in a chair by a window.  I asked if I could join her.  She nodded curtly.  I then handed her the handouts from the session she had missed and told her I had attended it and would be glad to share with her what I thought were the key points.  Her eyes widened and after a long pause she eagerly accepted.  I pulled out the notes I had taken and started sharing some of the speaker’s concepts that had struck me.  She pulled out a pen and started making notes.  Then she asked—almost shyly—if I would be willing to share my notes with her.  I looked at my messy notes and then at her, “If you can read my handwriting, you’re welcome to them.  I’ll get a copy made and have them for you at the registration desk after lunch.”

She thanked me—not profusely, but genuinely—and asked me more questions about the session I had attended.  Mission accomplished, I thought to myself.

For the remainder of the conference, there were no more complaints about “Nasty Nancy.”  She sought me out a few times, and once, after she had joined me at a lunch table, she admitted that she had never been to a conference this large before and she was a bit overwhelmed by the crowds and the choices.  I remembered the first big convention I had attended and identified with her anxiety.  Once I saw Nancy’s behaviors as a response to her fear, I saw her in a new light.

I suspect Nancy still responds with aggression to situations where she feels uncertain or fearful, but maybe she’s learned some new strategies.

What Pushes Your Buttons?

I wonder if we would all be kinder if everyone walked around with thought balloons above our heads describing our circumstances:  “I’m scared.” “Just broke up with my girlfriend.”  “Haven’t a clue what to do next.” “I don’t wanna look stupid.”  What is your thought balloon saying when you feel the impulse to lash out or act unkindly?

I wonder, also, how many similar opportunities to “kill ‘em with kindness” I’ve missed because I was in too much of a hurry, too lazy, or simply oblivious.  Perhaps I can practice being more mindful and better able to recognize and respond in the future.  It felt good and it was a good learning experience.

Thanks, Nancy.  And, thanks, Mom!

I Get Judge-y

“Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.”  (Ian MacLaren)

5.0.2When I am unkind, it is probably more in thought than in deed.  I exercise unkind thoughts more often than unkind actions.  That’s something I certainly want to work on in this year of living kindly (reducing the unkind thoughts, that is, not expanding my repertoire of unkind actions).

For me, unkind thoughts seem to creep in when I am in the most ordinary of circumstances, surrounded by others who—like me—are just trying to get in, get out, and get on to the next thing.

Judge-y Goes to Market

The grocery store we frequent is well-trod.  It has narrow aisles and, occasionally, prolonged waits in the checkout line.  More than once I have turned the corner on an aisle, to find a woman (I’m sorry, but it is usually a woman) on her cellphone, standing in the middle of the aisle, oblivious to the fact that her cart turned is sideways and blocking not just our access to the dill pickles, but other customers trying to come from the other direction.

“Excuse us,” we say, but she doesn’t hear.  So I straighten her cart to clear a path.  This she notices and glares at me as she continues her conversation.  I get judge-y.  How can people be so inconsiderate?  But maybe she’s not inconsiderate.  Maybe she’s oblivious (a little better…we’ve all been there), or preoccupied by a family emergency (perhaps that’s the reason for needing to make/take a phone call at Fred Meyer’s).  Give her the benefit of the doubt.

We’re in line to check out behind a woman with a full cart (again, sorry, it’s usually a woman; guys, your time will come).  She watches as the checker scans and bags several bags of groceries.  When all has been rung up and the checker pronounces the total, she digs into her purse and produces her coupons.  Fine, we use coupons, too, although we try to have them at hand.  The checker scans the coupons and announces the new total.  It is only then that the woman burrows again into her cavernous handbag for her checkbook and begins writing a check.  Bill and I look at each other and roll our eyes.  I get judge-y.  Really, couldn’t she have been writing that check while her groceries were being rung up, so all she’d need to do is fill in an amount?  How inconsiderate.

I need to be better at giving people the benefit of the doubt.  So she delayed us by 90 seconds, is that really worth stewing about?  Nah.  What I want to be able to do is let the annoying behavior go and see something admirable in her.  Maybe she made eye-contact with the checker, or said something nice; maybe she is bringing some of those groceries to a friend who can’t get out to the store. Maybe….

Judge-y Takes to the Road

It’s also easy to think unkind thoughts in the car—it’s an auto-response (sorry, I like puns).  When I see some yahoo driving at top speed by himself in the carpool lane, or when I follow a Corolla going 25 all the way up the highway entrance and braking before merging onto the uncrowded freeway, I have unkind thoughts.  I get judge-y.  I don’t curse or call the drivers foul names—okay, only in the most egregious of circumstances.  I tend to call offending male drivers “sport,” and females “lady” (with a tone you might recall from old Jerry Lewis movies), as in, “What’s your hurry, sport?” or “C’mon, lady, surely your car has a second gear.”

Compared with the drivers who blast their horns or gesture vulgarly, I’m doing tolerably well, but nothing to brag about.  I usually allow other cars to merge, or to change into my lane in front of me.  And I always wave and mouth “thank you” when other drivers do the same for me, but all in all, driving is—at best—a pretty neutral experience.

Where do your unkind thoughts crop up?  Or am I the only one who has them?  I’d love to hear your thought (see comments below).

Suspending judgment is hard, but it’s one of the first big steps in behaving kindly.  A story the late Stephen Covey told illustrates how sometimes our judgments can be way off-base, and if we knew what was behind a behavior we might think very differently.

This brings to mind the power of the pause … but that’s a subject for another time…  Instead, I’ll close today with the first of many quotes from Wayne Muller’s remarkable and beautiful book, How, Then, Shall We Live?:

 “Every day, we are given countless opportunities to offer our gifts to those at work, in our families, our relationships…. If you give less than what you are, you dishonor the gift of your own precious life.”

The Absence of Unkindness Does Not Signify the Presence of Kindness

“I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you’ll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you’ll make something that didn’t exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind.” (Neil Gaiman—the perfect quote to start this new year)


“He who sees a need and waits to be asked for help is as unkind as if he had refused it.”  (Dante Alighieri)

Attribution: By Lndj92 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Grand Canyon photo by Lndj92 by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I am rarely unkind (feel free to disabuse me of this notion if you have observed otherwise…put your hand down, Bill).

I can think of only a few times in recent years when I have behaved unkindly, and thinking of them makes me cringe.  I’m certainly not proud of those instances and I have learned that I never feel good about myself afterward.  I hope they are rare and becoming rarer.  But the fact that I am generally not unkind does not make me kind, just as the fact that I own a set of golf clubs does not make me a golfer.

I don’t know many—if any—people whom I would describe as unkind, and I am blessed to know several who are extraordinarily kind.  If, as certain politicos assert, “corporations are people, too,” then there are kind and unkind companies.  We recognize them by the respect and trust, or lack thereof, with which they treat us.  We can all probably name several kind companies, and a few we would classify as unkind (talkin’ about you here, Comcast).  Then, there’s the vast majority of people and companies who are neither kind nor unkind, but who reside in that ravine between the two.

The Kindness Chasm

Even if I do not behave unkindly, and even if I am able someday to dispel unkind thoughts, that will not make me kind.  Kindness is a lot more than not being unkind.  There’s an immense chasm between kind and unkind, and it’s filled with all the things that get in the way of our kindness:

  • Fear
  • Laziness
  • Impatience
  • Indifference
  • Inertia
  • Obliviousness
  • Habit

What am I leaving out?

At one time or another, each of these may be a barrier to both being kind and accepting kindness from others.

If I am to spend less time in the chasm and more on the kindness side of the canyon, I’ll need to climb over and out of those limiting responses.  That takes awareness and action … and a willingness to be vulnerable.  That’s the challenge for the coming weeks.