“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)
I 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.”