“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)
There 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)