Hurry Up! Hurry Up! … Impatience as a Barrier to Kindness

The more you know yourself, the more patience you have for what you see in others(Erik Erikson)

Attribution: Donna CameronWe’ve looked at fear as a barrier to kindness, and the previous post explored time—or our lack of it—as a major obstacle to being kind.  With lives that are overflowing with obligations, deadlines, and activities, making time to be kind may not always be a priority.  Today, I want to ponder a subset of the time conundrum: impatience.

Sometimes impatience is the result of feeling one doesn’t have time for the chit-chat, or time to be kept on hold.  And sometimes, we may have all the time in the world, but we don’t have much tolerance for the circumstances we find ourselves in.

When Time Is the Problem

If I am in a hurry, taking time to say kind words, offer assistance, or extend myself will just slow me down more.  I’ll fall further behind.  Sometimes it feels like the more rushed I am, the more things seem to be conspiring to get in my way: the slowest checker in the market, the driver who is stuck in first gear, the acquaintance who wants to tell me in great detail how she selected the yarn for the sweaters she is knitting for her dogs.  Yikes, I don’t have time for this!  I’m sure they’ll understand if I blow them off … after all, I’m busy!

But what is it I’m rushing to?  Often, it’s my job, a meeting, the next obligation on my never-ending list.  How many of us are so important or so overscheduled that we really haven’t time to be kind?  And if we are that important or overscheduled, is it by our choice, or someone else’s, or maybe nobody’s—we just think that’s the way it’s supposed to be?

Perhaps if I change my perspective.  Instead of allowing myself to get impatient because I have to go do my job, what if I decide my number one job is to be kind?

If being kind is my most important job, won’t it be easier to stand in line at the grocery story while the person in front of me fumbles for her checkbook and questions the cashier about the price of broccoli?  Won’t it be easier to follow the car going 25 when the speed limit is 45? Won’t it be easier to wait through 15 minutes on hold for the next customer service representative?  It’s all part of the job.

When Time Isn’t the Issue

Sometimes we may have the time we need to extend a kindness, but we may not have the tolerance.

I’m going to make a confession here:  I was really late in learning to tie my shoes, really late.  Most of my friends had that skill down when they were 4 or 5.  I was still struggling at 7.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn, but my parents quickly discovered that teaching me wasn’t easy and it was a lot easier just to tie my shoes for me, or to buy me shoes that didn’t need tying.  The problem was that I was left-handed and everyone else in my family was right-handed.  They’d show me how they did it, but I couldn’t make my hands do what theirs did.  Then they’d try to figure out how to do it from a left-handed perspective and they couldn’t do it.  So, the hell with it, just tie the kid’s shoes for her and send her on her way.

Finally, my mom or my dad found someone who was left-handed and asked them to show me.  Happily for all, the learning came easily and I’ve been tying my own shoes quite successfully for many decades.

My point here is that regardless of time issues, patience is required when it comes to teaching and to learning.  The best parents, teachers, and managers know that they need to allow the learner to stumble, fumble, or even just sit and think about it—without jumping in to fix, show them how to “do it right,” or do it for them.  My husband tutors kids in math and I see this patient kindness in his teaching.  If one explanation doesn’t do the trick, Bill finds another, or asks just the right questions until the students get it themselves.  He never rushes them, and when they finally get a concept, they own it.

Sometimes, we may think we’re being kind when we rush in to help, or to fix, or to get it just right, but what we may be doing is disempowering the person we think we’re helping.  The truly kind response may be to stand by silently while they figure it out, or explain a concept again in a different way, or to be willing to show someone something for the tenth time.  And that requires patience.

It takes patience to be kind and kindness to be patient.  But if I can view being kind as my job, it will be much easier to patiently teach a child, or instruct a new employee in an unfamiliar skill, or refrain from jumping in and doing something myself, thus denying someone else a valuable growth lesson.

“Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.” (Simone Weil)

The Fundamental Things Apply … As Time Goes By

“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)

By User:S Sepp (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By User:S Sepp  via Wikimedia Commons

Time seems to be our most precious resource these days.  We all have the same 24 hours, but for most of us, it’s never enough.  There’s rarely enough time to do everything we want to do.  And using some of that precious time to extend kindness may not be a priority.

Last February on Forbes.com, contributor Tim Maurer wrote a thoughtful article entitled, “Time Is More Precious Than Money.”  That’s right, Forbes, not High Times.

Maurer, a financial advisor, is part of a group of advisors that is deliberately asking new questions of themselves and their clients—questions that are intended to go beyond portfolios and financial investments to explore the values that make our lives richer in every sense, not just ka-ching.  When he explores asset allocation with his clients, he wants to probe beyond securities and talk about how they allocate their time, their lives, and their love.  Maurer states:  “We have the choice to order our loves, to acknowledge the limited nature of time and our own capacity, and to prioritize our work and life.”

As we allocate our time, are we creating space for kindness?  If it’s a priority, we will.  But, it’s a choice we need to make consciously, otherwise it may be squeezed out by the myriad other things clamoring for our time and attention.

It takes time to be kind.

  • It takes time to pause and think about what is the kind response.
  • It takes time to step out of our routine and enter into a genuine conversation, or provide assistance when doing so might delay us from our appointed rounds.
  • It takes time to be patient—to allow someone to fumble, stumble, and learn—without jumping in to fix, show them how to “do it right,” or do it for them.
  • It takes time to reach into our pocket and find a dollar that might help someone make it through another day and then to look that person in the eye and say a kind word as we hand it to them.
  • It takes time even to be kind to ourselves—to stop and think about whether what we need most is to slow down, take a walk, relax….

When I was working 60+ hours a week, and also trying to maintain some sort of a life outside of work, I think I often blew off opportunities to be kind.  The few moments it would take to drop someone a note, or to go out of my way to pick up a small gift, or to invite a friend to lunch or bake a treat for a neighbor…all were just too much, like dumping a bathtub full of water into an already sinking rowboat.

I have friends and colleagues whose workloads were as crazy as mine who nonetheless often went out of their way to be kind.  Their kindness, and their priorities put me to shame.  What great examples they are.  These are people who are just naturally kind and who would probably think it ridiculous to set an intention of kindness, or to spend time pondering the nature of kindness.  To them, kindness is like breathing, it requires no thought.

Kindness isn’t something we do only when we have time for it.  Kindness is how we choose to live.  I’m reminded of Robert Corin Morris’ lovely quote:

“The way we live our life is our spiritual practice—no more, no less, nothing but, nothing else.”

Now that I’ve cut my workload by half, I’m trying to look for those opportunities I used to overlook, and I’m also seeing that fitting them into my previous life might have been just what I needed—for kindness is energizing.  Isn’t it curious how many great lessons we learn through our rear-view mirrors?

It may not always be a good time to extend kindness, but it’s almost always the right time.

There are so many barriers to kindness.  I suspect, though, that once I can make kindness a natural, first response, the barriers begin to crumble.  Once I no longer have to tell myself to pause, to engage, to connect, kindness will become second-nature … at least that’s my hope.  For now, time and I are still skirmishing.  And I remind myself daily that taking time for kindness is what gives meaning to life.

“When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening.” (Madeleine L’Engle)

When the Kindest Thing To Do Is … Absolutely Nothing

“Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”  (Winnie the Pooh)

Yellow RhodieAs I wander around exploring kindness, I’ve been surprised to realize that quite often choosing to do nothing is the kind choice.  That probably flies in the face of any image we might have of the kindest people being ones in tights and a cape, with a big K emblazoned across their chest, leaving a trail of good deeds in their wake.

Over the last week, I’ve had occasion to witness a few episodes where feelings were hurt and tempers were raised as a result of emails that never should have been sent.  That’s one of the problems with email.  It’s just so damn easy to reply immediately—in the heat of the moment—before we’ve really thought through what the sender may have intended, how our reply might be interpreted—or misinterpreted—and what our ultimate goal for the communication is.

Do we want to be right (or righteous), or do we want to keep the peace?  Sometimes, we can’t do both.

I think there was probably a time in my life when being right (or, I admit it, righteous) may have felt more important than keeping the peace or being kind.  Being right doesn’t seem all that important anymore.  I’m reminded of a line from the classic film Harvey, where Elwood P. Dowd, played to perfection by Jimmy Stewart, says, “Years ago my mother used to say to me…. ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’  Well, for years I was smart.  I recommend pleasant.”

This harks back to an earlier post about the power of the pause, and the importance of delaying long enough to decide if the action you’re anticipating will really get the results you want.  Sometimes, when we hit pause, we realize that we should make that pause permanent and simply do nothing, say nothing.

“Silence is sometimes the best answer,” the Dalai Lama wisely said.  It’s harder than it sounds, though—at least for me it can be—especially in verbal interactions.  A derisive comment or sarcastic reply may come to my lips quickly and be spoken before I realize how snarky it sounds.  I’m learning to bite my tongue, but it is not always easy.

Even if my words aren’t snarky, does what I’m saying help?  Maybe somebody in my office brings up an idea that they think is great, but there are ramifications that make it unworkable or unwise.  How I communicate that may mean the difference between their continuing to search for good ideas and their feeling deflated and put down.  Sometimes, the right thing to do or say may be nothing—to let them discover the flaw for themselves or even find a way to make the seemingly unworkable work.  Or maybe the best course is to talk through the issue in hopes that they see the unsoundness, or that I can point it out considerately.  Either way, the knee-jerk response (“No, that will never work”) is not the best choice.

I think back on the four questions Rotarians ask to decide whether and how to act or speak (mentioned in the earlier post on pausing):

  • 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 to any is no, don’t say it or do it.  Such good advice, it bears repeating!

Wise and Kind Parenting

I am not a parent, never have been, know nothing about parenting, and would surely have been a dreadful mother.  The closest I’ve come is raising a cat or three, each of whom assumed its rightful place as head of the household in very short order.

I have a few friends whom I consider to be extraordinarily good parents, and it seems that the wisdom to do nothing out of kindness is something great parents learn.  As kids grow, there are times when parents need to let them learn lessons—sometimes painful ones—on their own.  If mom or dad always steps in and clears the path or fixes the problem, the child will never learn independence.  I’m guessing (remember, only guessing, I only know cats) that it’s terribly difficult for a parent to do nothing when they know the lesson their child must learn is accompanied by pain or distress.  And to compound that, the kids—seeking rescue—rarely recognize that the parents’ choice to do nothing is exactly the right one.  But the parents know that the pain is temporary and the lesson will serve the kids for a lifetime.

And here’s the amazing part: these parents also know that there are other times when the exact right thing to do is step in and help solve the problem or avert the pain, and they do that.  How do they know the difference?  That discernment, that wisdom, fills me with awe.

There’s a reason I’ve only had cats.

I suppose, though, that the same wisdom parents have of when and when not to intervene is what good leaders and managers have with their team members.

It may be tempting at times to tell ourselves that we are choosing to do nothing out of kindness, when really our kindness is sorely needed and we are being lazy or apathetic.  Kindness requires both mindfulness and honesty.  If we pay attention, we will know what’s right, and we will respond accordingly….or not.  If kindness were always easy, there’d be a lot more of it….

“When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”  (R.J. Palacio)

When Fear Gets in the Way of Kindness

“Be not afraid.  A kind life, a life of spirit, is fundamentally a life of courage—the courage simply to bring what you have, to bring who you are.” (Wayne Muller)

Attrib: Donna CameronThere are many barriers to extending kindness, and fear may be one of the biggest.  Fear is also frequently the cause of people acting unkindly.  In an earlier post, I described an ah-ha I had when dealing with a disgruntled conference attendee a while back (does this mean that the other conference participants were “gruntled”?): much of her unpleasant behavior was the result of her fears in the face of a new and intimidating experience. When I see unkindness—my own or others—I can often trace it to fear: fear of judgment, fear of rejection, fear of not being enough, fear of being vulnerable, fear of looking foolish.  It’s true not just with unkindness, but also with that netherworld between kindness and unkindness—indifference. There’s an old proverb that “pride goeth before a fall.”  As with so many old proverbs, this one holds a ring of truth.  Fear and pride do often go hand-in-glove.  Most of the things we fear are threats to our pride, to the image we have of how good, strong, smart, capable, and lovable we are.  When these are shaken, we either strike out or strike back. Sometimes, if we are able to see someone’s unkindness toward us as an expression of their own fear, it is easier to forgive and respond to them with kindness, rather than retaliating and escalating the encounter. Just as fear can often be the impetus for our acting unkindly, it can just as easily be a barrier to our extending kindness.  Sometimes the thought of putting myself out there or taking the risk to do something kind can be enough to stifle the impulse. Two Key Questions I’ve often heard that when dealing with my fears I should ask, “What is the worst that could happen?”  Then, assuming “worst” is not a fiery death or a lengthy prison term, further evaluate whether I could handle “worst.”  In the case of extending a kindness, what’s the worst that could happen?

  • I might be embarrassed. I could deal with that—it won’t be the first time.
  • I might be rejected. I can get over that, I always have.
  • I might do it badly (whatever it is). Well, that’s how we learn—very few of us get it right the first time. But if we never try….
  • I might be judged as foolish or stupid, or weak. Well, so who does judgment reflect on, really? The judger, not me.
  • I might be put in a vulnerable position. Well, life is a pretty vulnerable condition, might as well accept that.

I think it’s a useful exercise to ask “what’s the worst that could happen?”  But I also think that’s only half the question.  The other half—the more important half—is “what’s the best that could happen?”  Let’s look at our potential action from that perspective: What’s the best that could happen if I extend a kindness?

  • I might help someone feel good or make it through a tough day.
  • I might grow closer to an old friend or make a new one.
  • My words or actions might be just what someone else needs to extend a kindness themselves.
  • I might be appreciated.
  • I might be judged as loving, compassionate, or wise.
  • I might become more confident in my own values and actions.
  • I might overcome a fear and be the better person that I want to be.
  • I might change the world.

This last one might sound a bit grand, but, truly, we have no idea where or how our kindnesses reverberate.  The small kindness I extend to one person might cause them to extend a kindness they might otherwise not have acted upon.  And then that person might … you get the picture. We’ve all heard the stories of someone suffering the depths of despair whose potential act of self-destruction was suspended by a seemingly small act—a kind note, or word, or gesture from someone.  What if we approached every encounter with a sense of the sacredness of our words and actions, and of the potential each of us carries to change the world for the better? I think looking at the best that could happen is a great way to overcome the fear that keeps us from being kind to others … and perhaps also to ourselves.  Also, if we’re focused on best, rather than worst, then our eyes are on the prize—we’re thinking about what we want to happen, not what we don’t want.  The world and our own unconscious inner resources will conspire to make it happen. It requires a change in our perspective and our paradigms.  It may not be easy, but it’s worth it.  After, all, what’s the worst that could happen … and what’s the best?

“Each smallest act of kindness reverberates across great distances and spans of time—affecting lives unknown to the one whose generous spirit was the source of this good echo, because kindness is passed on and grows each time it’s passed, until a simple courtesy becomes an act of selfless courage, years later and far away.” (Dean Koontz)

Kindness Begins With … Who, Me?

“Self-compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others.” (Christopher Germer)

Attribution: Donna CameronIn the previous post, we talked about the need to be kind to ourselves if we are going to be able to give genuine kindness to others and to receive kindnesses.  The challenge is to feel worthy and not to listen to that voice—ours now, but probably once that of a parent or teacher—who says putting ourselves first is always selfish.

Selfish and unselfish is a polarity we must manage, recognizing that there are times when our need is greater and other times when someone else must come first, and still other times when putting someone else’s need above our own is our greatest need.

“Self-care” is not a term that will mean the same thing for everyone.  It’s also a term that can get a bad rap.  For some, self-care may be analogous to selfishness, or self-absorption, and taken to an extreme, like anything else, it ceases to serve us.  It’s no fun spending time with someone who has nothing of interest to talk about but herself, or anyone above the age of eight who still believes that the universe revolves entirely around him.  Yet, those people are all around us and they are as exhausting as they are unwelcome.  We can’t change them, but as a gesture of kindness to ourselves, we can limit the time we have to spend with them.

Let’s look at a few more methods we humans have devised for being kind to ourselves:

Recognizing Boundaries 

I look at boundaries as something like values.  My friend Lynn describes values as “decisions we make in advance” and I think boundaries are much the same.  They are the demarcation of what I will and will not do, and what I will and will not allow as I interact with others.  They are both external and internal.  External boundaries protect us from invasions of our space, our emotions and beliefs, and even our possessions.  Internal boundaries help us manage our time, our emotions, and our impulses.  Without a sense of our own boundaries we can deplete ourselves by trying excessively to please, serve or fix, by tolerating abuse, byaccepting criticism without evaluating it, by overscheduling our lives ‘til we reach exhaustion, or by taking on other people’s baggage.  Learning to both establish and hold to our boundaries is a big element of self-kindness.

 Forgiving

As someone who has done her share of stupid and thoughtless things, I have finally learned that continuing to carry them around with me in the form of regrets and self-recriminations serves no one … and it’s a dreadfully heavy weight.  That doesn’t mean ignoring them, but rather learning from them, forgiving myself, and letting them go.  There is a quote of unknown origin that says it well: Your past mistakes are meant to guide you, not define you.

Small Indulgences

Somewhat related to the satisfaction triggers we talked about earlier, “small indulgences” is a term I first heard from trend-watcher Faith Popcorn.  She was referring to the tiny “affordable luxuries” that we allow ourselves—they don’t break the budget and they offer a quick and easy respite from stress.  In the commercial world, Starbucks is the embodiment of a source for small indulgences, having convinced us that the answer to our immediate need is a caramel macchiato, a chai tea, or simply a good cup of Ethiopian blend.  But we can find small indulgences all around us: a piece of dark, artisan chocolate … a magazine we enjoy but don’t usually spend five dollars to buy … a visit to a museum or library … a massage … just about anything by a couple of guys named Ben and Jerry … or maybe it’s buying that new bestseller we’ve been wanting to read, rather than waiting months to get it from the library.

The barriers that prevent us from being kind to ourselves are generally the same obstacles that keep us from being kind to others: time, fear, fatigue, apathy, obliviousness….  We’ll be exploring some of these in upcoming posts.

If we are to have a long-term perspective on compassion, as the Dalai Lama encourages, that means recognizing that kindness begins with self and radiates outward.  Unless we replenish ourselves periodically, we cannot offer our gifts to others and to a universe that is in dire need of our kindness.

What’s the kindest thing you could do for yourself right this minute?  What’s stopping you?

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”  (Anna Quindlen)

 

Kindness Begins With … Who?

“Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.”  (Parker Palmer)

Attribution: By zenera (http://www.flickr.com/photos/zenera/37026266/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsI can’t effectively extend kindness to others or graciously receive kindness from them if I don’t have a solid relationship of kindness with one very important person: me.

Seems obvious, but how many of us are really pretty mean to that person we live and breathe with 24/7?  Sometimes we’re downright abusive; other times, we’re indifferent or neglectful.

I’m going to employ one of the most overworked analogies around—one we encounter every time we take to the friendly skies:  “Should there be a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead compartment … be sure to secure your own mask before assisting others.”

We’ve heard it a thousand times, not just from our amiable flight attendant, but it is part of the repertoire of every motivational speaker on the circuit.  Yes, it’s overworked and trite, but, as so many overworked and trite things are, it’s also true.

Think about it in its original and literal setting:  If you were a child or someone who might need assistance donning an oxygen mask, would you prefer to get that help from someone breathing calmly and offering the assurance that this is a minor inconvenience which we will handle together, or from a wild-eyed martyr who may pass out at any moment.  I’ll take the former, thank you.

And in more earthbound circumstances, I find it more pleasurable to receive a kindness from someone who is steady and self-assured than from someone whose attempt at kindness seems to be born more out of desperation or obligation than of genuine caring.  And I find it easier to extend kindness to someone who is able to receive, than to someone who can’t because they don’t feel worthy.

There is not a one-size-fits-all method of being kind to ourselves.  What works for some won’t for others.  Let’s explore just a few:

Knowing When to Say Yes to Saying No

Saying yes to our own lives sometimes means knowing how to say no to others.  When we give so much to others that we have nothing left to give ourselves, we must follow the advice of the Dalai Lama: “…for the sake of everyone … withdraw and restore yourself. The point is to have a long-term perspective.”  Likewise, there are times when we need to speak a gentle “no” to ourselves, when we are poised to embark on a self-destructive action, or when we simply need permission to get off the merry-go-round.

Margot Silk Forrest, author of A Short Course in Kindness, offers a wonderful list of 42 ways to say no.  Here are just a few.  You’ll find the whole, handy list on her website:

  • I wish I could help you out, but I’m overextended/overcommitted right now.
  • Not in this lifetime!
  • The part that wants to make you happy wants to say yes, but the rest of me won the vote. I’ll pass.

Changing Our Self-Talk

How many of us say things to ourselves that we would never say to another human being?  We call ourselves stupid, clumsy, ugly, fat.  We criticize our slightest error.  We tell ourselves that we don’t deserve the good things that come our way, and that we do deserve the bad.  If we happen to look in the mirror and notice that the person looking back at us is looking pretty hot today, we immediately look for the flaw: check out that hair, brushed it with a cattle prod, did you?  We need to notice when we’re engaging in verbal self-abuse and change it on the spot:  Dahling, you look magnificent!  Come, let the world see how beautiful you are!

Finding Our Own Satisfaction Triggers

Everybody has different self-care activators, and they are as diverse as the population is: reading, exercise, bubble baths, being in nature, listening to music, writing, walking the dog or petting the cat, romance, travel, swimming, tennis, meditation, spending time with friends, spending time alone.  These are just a few.  What are your satisfaction triggers?  We all need to recognize the activities that replenish and re-energize us and then activate them with some frequency.  If we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?

Self-care and self-kindness is a big issue.  In the next post, we’ll look at a few more means of being kind to that VIP who is us, and we’ll talk about what gets in the way.  Please share your own ah-has and thoughts about self-kindness.  What happens when you don’t practice kindness with yourself?  What do you do to be kind to yourself?

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” (Dr. Seuss)

Kindness Counters Indifference … It Requires Engagement and Action

“They say philosophers and wise men are indifferent. Wrong. Indifference is a paralysis of the soul, a premature death.”  (Anton Chekhov)

Attribution: Donna CameronWhile the opposite of kindness is, logically, unkindness, I think equally opposite is indifference.  One cannot be kind if caring is absent.  Unless we are willing to suspend our spectator status and jump into our lives, we will probably wallow in a state of relatively comfortable indifference.

And indifference and kindness cannot coexist.

An anthem to indifference, entitled, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” was written and sung by Phil Ochs in the 1960s, in response to the horrific murder of a young woman named Kitty Genovese in New York.  Dozens of people were awakened by her screams, and even watched from their windows as she was attacked and stabbed over a prolonged period.  Yet none tried to intervene or even picked up the phone to call the police.  It seems unbelievable that no one would step up to help in any way.  But they didn’t want to get involved; they couldn’t be bothered; they were afraid; perhaps they assumed someone else had already taken action.

Ochs’ song satirizes our indifference not just to a crime such as the Genovese murder, but also to poverty, inequality, and the needs of others.  Like so many of Ochs’ songs of protest (and he was a master of the protest ballad), the song is outdated now, too strident and a bit corny.  But it still has a bite.

Today’s “anthem” to indifference might be a one-word phrase that is generally delivered with an accompanying shrug and a roll of the eyes: “Whatever…”

There is so much packed into that little word: who cares? … I can’t be bothered … what’s the big deal? … so what?

“Whatever,” delivered with the accompanying tone and gestures of indifference, is not a kind word.  At best, it’s a lazy word; at worst, a door slamming on potential kindness.

We learn indifference and phrases like “whatever” from the people around us.  Children, especially, model what they see, and from the time they are very young, they see a great deal of indifference.  But just as indifference is learned, so is kindness.  The earlier we start learning kindness, the sooner we are able to practice it, thus staving off indifference.

Teaching Kindness

According to neuroscience expert Patty O’Grady, PhD, of the University of Tampa, children can learn kindness in school through the teaching of empathy.  She cites many classroom experiences that can demonstrate and reinforce kindness, among them simple acts such as charting kind actions, noticing kindnesses, teaching tolerance, and group participation in activities that spread kindness.

In an online article on the Psychology Today website, O’Grady notes: The neuroscience and social science research is clear: kindness changes the brain by the experience of kindness. Children and adolescents do not learn kindness by only thinking about it and talking about it. Kindness is best learned by feeling it so that they can reproduce it. Kindness is an emotion that students feel and empathy is a strength that they share.

Kindness and empathy are an antidote to indifference.  We cannot force kindness, any more than we can force love or respect.  But, the sooner we can replace shrugs with caring, and “whatever” with a smile and a genuine response, we will be on the way to countering indifference and engaging in the precious life that is only ours to live.

“Indifference.” Jerusha surprised herself with the answer. “Indifference, Gundhalinu, is the strongest force in the universe. It makes everything it touches meaningless. Love and hate don’t stand a chance against it. It lets neglect and decay and monstrous injustice go unchecked. It doesn’t act, it allows. And that’s what gives it so much power.” (Joan D. Vinge, The Snow Queen)

On the Receiving End of Kindness…

“One who knows how to show and to accept kindness will be a friend better than any possession.”  (Sophocles)

[As I wrote this post, I had the distinct impression that this might be a gender-specific issue.  So to any men who happen to read it, take what you will, and perhaps there will be something that you can relate to.  Accept that you are wise, and handsome, and remarkably accomplished….]

Attribution: Donna CameronEven if we don’t have the resources to give all that we would like to give, we always have the capacity to receive graciously.  It sounds so simple, but it can be surprisingly hard.  Think of the times someone tried to give you something and you demurred—perhaps because you didn’t think they could afford it, or you didn’t feel worthy, or it was simply your initial reaction to an awkward situation.  Maybe the gift wasn’t something you wanted; perhaps you didn’t want to feel indebted.  Or maybe you are among the cynical who wonder what’s the catch?

Did your refusal of their offer please them, or did it disappoint?  In retrospect, would a gracious thank-you have made both of you happier and immensely more comfortable?

Giving is such a pleasurable act.  Yet we often deny our friends and acquaintances—and even strangers—the joy and satisfaction of giving by being such terrible receivers.

And the gift doesn’t have to be something material.  How often do we devalue the gift of another’s words by refusing their compliments?  We deflect kind words about our appearance by saying, “No, I look terrible!  My hair needs cutting and I need to lose ten pounds, and look, I’ve lost a button on this shirt.”  Do you really think they complimented us just to hear us point out all our flaws?  I seriously doubt it.

How much better to respond with, “How nice of you to say so,” or “Thanks for your kind words, they make me feel great!”

In his book, Imperfect Alternatives, Dr. Dale Turner quotes a friend who chided him for brushing off a compliment: “When someone gives you a compliment in words, don’t disagree or minimize what he says, for words are gifts, too.  Accept them gratefully, even though you don’t think you deserve them….. A compliment is a gift not to be thrown away carelessly unless you want to hurt the giver.”

We also reject compliments on our achievements by down-playing them.  We say, “No, it really wasn’t anything special. Anybody could have done it.  I was lucky.” It’s as if we are saying, No, you dolt. Can’t you see I’m really an incompetent nincompoop?  It’s always great to share credit—that’s another form of kindness (not to mention decency)—but minimizing the overall accomplishment serves no one.

How much better to say, “Thank you, I’m really pleased with the result, too,” or “Yes! Don’t we have a fabulous team!?”

As I pose the question of why accepting compliments is something most of us aren’t very good at, I realize this is a much larger issue for women than for men. When was the last time you complimented a man on his new suit and he responded by saying that it makes his butt look big?  Doesn’t happen.

Most of the men I interact with know how to accept compliments about their work.  Hell, they expect kudos … and good for them for having those expectations.

A lot of women were raised with the direct or indirect instruction to hide their light under a bushel.  Our mothers told us to be modest.  Our teachers encouraged humility and restraint.  Somebody else kept mumbling that the meek will inherit the earth.

Let’s Reframe Our Response to Compliments

Perhaps if we reframe our response to gifts and compliments we can learn to receive them.  Instead of questioning whether we deserve them, or fearing that we will appear conceited, or that we are getting more than our share, let’s stop thinking about ourselves and think instead about the giver.  Think about the kindness we can extend to them by accepting their gift with grace.

Why don’t we all set an intention of receiving compliments graciously for the next 21 days and see how that feels.  No demurring.  No downplaying.  No false modesty.  And while we’re at it, let’s extend some compliments.  I don’t know anyone who couldn’t use a few.  Do you?

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” (Leo Buscaglia)