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 - 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.


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 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)