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