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.