Enough IS Enough! Kindness and Abundance

“True kindness is rooted in a deep sense of abundance, out of which flows a sense that even as I give, it is being given back to me.” (Wayne Muller)

TulipsThe world offers us two perspectives on abundance.

It’s easier to be kind when we have that sense of abundance that Wayne Muller talks about above.  If we are always worrying that there is never enough, or that if I share my bounty with you, there will not be enough for me, it will be hard to extend kindness.

Have you ever felt resentment or envy toward someone who experienced good fortune or great success?  Maybe you found yourself rationalizing it (“Well, sure, with his family connections, getting that job was easy”), or minimizing it (“What’s the big deal? So she got a MacArthur Genius Grant—they’re a-dime-a-dozen”).  Or maybe you noticed the grinding of your molars as you congratulated someone for their success.

Thoughts like that are focused on scarcity: if she gets a lot, there will be less for me.

Pie, Anyone?

Attribution: By jeffreyw (Mmm...Blueberry Pie!  Uploaded by Fæ) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsCultural anthropologist Jennifer James often speaks about the concept of the limited or unlimited pie.  If we view our world as a limited pie, our slice is smaller if someone else gets a big piece.  But if we can see the pie as unlimited—expanding endlessly from the center—then we have no reason to feel threatened or diminished by someone else’s success or prosperity: there’s plenty for everyone and the size of mine isn’t impacted by the size of yours.

Rarely does someone else’s abundance mean a dearth for us.  It doesn’t work that way.  Success and good fortune—like sunshine—are not rationed.  There’s an ample supply for everybody.  In fact, the more we all recognize the plenty surrounding us, the more there is for everyone, because—through kindness and our own contentment—we start helping others to experience abundance.  And we share what we have because, after all, there’s plenty.  And, like a boomerang or an eager puppy, it bounds right back to us.

This doesn’t mean that kind people never experience envy and pettiness.  They’re as susceptible as the rest of us, but perhaps more able to acknowledge and move beyond those feelings quickly.

For the rest of us, on those days when we wake up feeling less than, it is easy to lose sight of what really matters.  That’s when a sense of abundance needs to be summoned.  Maybe we feel less than attractive, or less than smart, or less than capable, or less than secure. Or maybe we are aware that we don’t have the wealth or resources that others do.  Focusing on what we don’t have—whether real or imagined—only ignites a downward spiral.

As trite as it may be, it’s the old “glass half-full or half-empty” conundrum.  We create our own reality by how we look at the world.  If we view it through the lens of “not enough,” that is what we train ourselves to look for and we are never satisfied.  If we view it through the lens of abundance, then how easy it is to be satisfied, and to see that there is enough to share.

Without a sense of abundance, we can neither give nor receive.  We hold our own possessions too tightly, and we have neither the open eyes nor the open hands to see and receive all that the world is offering us.

A Different View of Abundance…

To believe we have enough, we must first believe we are enough.  We are surrounded, though, by messages that tell us we are not.  These are messages of a different kind of abundance: the copious consumption and assiduous acquisition that are so prevalent in Western society.

Even if we’re lucky enough to have family and friends who see us as whole and perfect just as we are, the media bombards us with messages that we’re not.  Magazines show us the fashions we’re lacking, or the youthful skin that we’ve lost.  Television shows us—both through advertising and Hollywood’s relatively narrow view of beauty—that we’re far from adequate: some bits are too small and some are too big, some are too curly and some are too straight, but, good news, there’s a product to fix all our faults.  Ads about weight, skin, and hair plague us online, and continually remind us that there’s a wonder drug or serum just waiting to solve our problems.

We are subtly and not so subtly taught to believe in our own inadequacy: we are not enough, something is missing.  And the solution is always out there—something that will fix us or make us whole.  If we just buy the right stuff, acquire the missing magic ingredient….  If we allow it, it becomes an endless quest for more.

The view of abundance we see from the lens of kindness tells us we have what we need to live a life of joy and meaning and service, and we are fine just as we are.  The commoditizing view of abundance whispers to us that we aren’t enough and need to acquire more to be adequate.  We hear them both … which voice resonates more deeply with you?

“He who sows sparingly will reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will reap bountifully.” (St. Paul)

Kindness Takes a Holiday…

“If you treat people right, they will treat you right … ninety percent of the time.”  (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

Attribution: Bill WiederkehrI’m not sure how kind I was yesterday.  I don’t think I was exactly unkind, but no one hearing me would have remarked on my kindness, that’s for sure.

Maybe there are times when “not unkind” is the best we can muster.

It all started Friday afternoon when a work colleague alerted me to the fact that a client’s website would not accept credit cards.  We had set up the account months ago and this was the first occasion this small client had needed to process credit cards through its website.  And the need was immediate.

Since I was the name of record on the account, it was my responsibility to resolve it.  It wasn’t clear where the problem was, so I tried to communicate electronically with the two companies involved.  Neither company would recognize the account number.  So, I got on the phone to them.  After nearly two hours of back and forth and lots of automated messages and irksome hold music, it became clear that the account I had opened had been inadvertently closed, and an account we had closed had been kept open, but was not compatible with web-processing (more information than you could ever want, sorry).

Since I had a copy of a letter in hand confirming what account they told us last November was open and what account was closed—and the reverse had clearly transpired—it seemed like a simple matter to rectify the error. However, by the time it was discovered, it was close-of-business on the east coast and I was told that I would have to call back Monday.

It was a frustrating weekend, imagining members trying to register for an event and getting continued error messages.  We put a note on the website asking them to call us if they encountered problems.

First thing Monday morning—after a fortifying cup of coffee—I took to the phone again.  All the relevant information was at my fingertips: The name of the person I had spoken to when I opened the account, and the one who had assured me in November that account “A” was open and account “B” was closed, and copies of correspondence confirming the same information, and specifically saying that it was “web-ready.”  I also had copies of all the monthly bills our client had paid for a non-functioning account.  I was prepared.

Upon finally reaching a live human (no easy feat on a Monday morning), I was shuttled to three departments before someone would acknowledge that there had been an error and it was theirs.  Then I made the mistake of asking what I thought was a perfectly reasonable question, “How are you going to fix it?”

Well, it turns out, that’s another department, and they would cancel our non-functional account (at a charge of $125) and send me the paperwork to open another account.  If they expedited it, we should be able to take credit card payments within a week or ten days.

That’s when I got cranky.  “This was my problem, but it’s now yours.  You’re not going to charge my client a cent to cancel an account that is entirely useless to us.  And this needs to be fixed today, not tomorrow, not next week.  Whom do we talk to to make sure that happens?”

She named someone in another department.  “Okay,” I said firmly, and maybe a teensy bit loudly, “get him on the line, and you stay on the line, too, until we’re all in agreement that this is resolved.”

“But once you’re in Bryan’s hands, he’ll take care of you.”

I was now well into hour four of phone wrangling (phone hours being much longer than standard hours) to resolve this issue.  Bryan might be Pope Francis’ kinder brother, but until my problem was fixed, I wasn’t going to let Elsie off the phone.

After about 15 minutes I had assurances—both oral and emailed to me—that the account would be opened within 24 hours, there would be no fees for opening or for canceling the incorrect account, and they would personally petition for the repayment of monthly charges since last November.

One of our team members had heard part of the exchange.  “That wasn’t a pleasant conversation,” she commented.

I filled her in on some of the details.  “Was I terribly unkind?”

“Not unkind.  Not kind, though.  You were rather, uh, forceful.”

I found I was okay with that. Sometimes forceful might be what’s called for.  I don’t think I was rude, and at no time did I yell or swear at a human*.  I flunked “kind,” but I got at least a passing grade for “civil.”

When I started this blog, a cynical (but lovable) friend asked me if “living kindly” meant I was going to be a pushover for everyone who wanted to take advantage of me or of my kindness.  I told him kindness and pushover don’t equate in my estimation.  Perhaps we tested those waters this week.

I know there are people who could have resolved the credit card issue and remained kind throughout.  I am not yet one of those people … and perhaps may never be.  I guess that’s why I’m here….

*Is it wicked to yell at automated messages?  If so, I confess I was unkind.  In my defense, the disembodied voices seemed not to care….

“Being kind doesn’t mean being gullible.” (Aniket Jawale)

Perform Two Acts of Kindness and Call Me in the Morning

“The little unremembered acts of kindness and love are the best parts of a person’s life.” (William Wordsworth)

Doctor Speaking with Patient --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

There is a growing body of evidence that kindness is not only good for the world, it’s good for our health.  In fact, it may just be a wonder drug.  Perhaps someday soon, instead of giving us a prescription for some unpronounceable pharmaceutical, our doctor will advise us to watch Ruggles of Red Gap and bake some cookies for a neighbor.

Kindness Increases Happiness and Reduces Depression

In an April 2014 article entitled, “The Act of Kindness and Its Positive Health Benefits,” published in Underground Health Reporter, Danica Collins reported that there are numerous scientific studies showing that acts of kindness have a positive effect on the body’s immune system, as well as on the production of serotonin in the brain.  Serotonin is a chemical created by the human body that works as a neurotransmitter, and has a calming, anti-anxiety effect.  Scientists say that an insufficiency of serotonin leads to depression.

Most interesting is the fact that not only does the performer of the kindness benefit from a boost to the immune system and an increase in serotonin production, so does the recipient, and—most surprising of all—so do persons merely witnessing the act of kindness.

Ms. Collins goes on to report that the benefits of kindness don’t stop there.  She cites research that people who are routinely kind get relief from chronic pain, stress, and insomnia, and they have increases in happiness, optimism, and self-worth.

Positive Side Effects

Scottish scientist David R. Hamilton, Ph.D., has done considerable research into the health benefits of kindness.  He notes that there are five beneficial “side effects” of kindness:

  1. Kindness makes us happier: Dr. Hamilton notes that kindness elevates the levels of dopamine in the brain, giving what he calls a “natural high.”
  2. Kindness is good for your heart: He reports that acts of kindness often generate an emotional warmth, which produces the hormone oxytocin in the brain and body, which, in turn, releases nitric oxide in blood vessels causing them to dilate and lower one’s blood pressure, acting as a cardio-protective agent. Oxytocin also reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardio-vascular system, thus reducing heart disease.
  3. Kindness slows aging: That same reduction of free radicals and inflammation slows aging in the human body. Dr. Hamilton also notes that compassion has similarly been linked to activity in the vagus nerve, which also regulates heart rate and controls inflammation levels in the body.
  4. Kindness improves relationships: Hamilton claims that connecting with one another is actually a genetic predisposition. He notes that “Our evolutional ancestors had to learn to cooperate with one another. The stronger the emotional bonds within groups, the greater the chances of survival, so ‘kindness genes’ were etched into the human genome.” As a result, kindness builds new relationships and boosts existing ones.
  5. Kindness is contagious: Just as colds and flu are contagious in a bad way, so is kindness in a good way. “When we’re kind,” Hamilton says, “we inspire others to be kind, and it actually creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards to our friends’ friends’ friends—to three degrees of separation.” As an example of that ripple effect, Dr. Hamilton tells the story of an anonymous individual who donated a kidney to a stranger. It triggered a ripple of family members donating their kidneys to others, the “domino effect” ultimately spanning the breadth of the U.S. and resulting in ten people receiving kidneys as a result of one anonymous donor.

Dr. Hamilton further finds that in extending kindness and compassion, we change our brains.  He says that acts of kindness “find their way into the chemistry and structure of our brain. If kindness becomes a habit, we can significantly alter the wiring of our brain.”  He likens it to learning a new skill, such as a musical instrument.  As we continue to practice, we bring about chemical and structural changes that establish “kindness circuits” in our brains, and we wire ourselves for more and more kindness.  We replace negative habits with positive ones, selfish ones with kind ones, hostility with empathy, and complaints with gratitude.

Best of all, there aren’t multiple paragraphs of small print warnings accompanying a dose of kindness.  Kindness has never been shown to cause nausea, constipation, diarrhea, skin rashes or drowsiness!  Nor should it be avoided if you are operating heavy machinery.

Next time you perform an act of kindness … or you are the beneficiary of one … or you simply witness a kindness, pause and notice all the good things you are feeling.  Want to feel that way all the time?  It’s easy….

“When you carry out acts of kindness you get a wonderful feeling inside.  It is as though something inside your body responds and says, yes, this is how I ought to feel.” (Harold Kushner)

Kindness, Service and Leadership

“It is not the nature of the task, but its consecration, that is the vital thing.”  (Martin Buber)

Attribution: Donna CameronI had the privilege yesterday of spending the day with a roomful of non-profit leaders—both the chief staff executives and the elected leaders of a variety of trade and professional associations.  We spent a lot of time talking about the qualities of good leaders.  We identified numerous traits the best leaders seem to have, and kindness was certainly among them.  So was servant leadership, as well as such qualities as passion, sense of humor, compassion, adaptability, and inspirational.  It seems to me the concept of leadership has changed over the three decades I’ve worked with non-profit leaders and boards.

Thirty years ago, people probably wouldn’t have identified “soft” qualities like kindness, sense of humor, or service.  They would have named characteristics like forceful, determined, powerful, and strong-willed—none of those words came up yesterday.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t times when leaders must be forceful or strong-willed, but such qualities don’t appear to define the best leaders anymore.  There are still plenty of leaders out there who seem to use fear and aggression as their motivating tactics, but they are in the minority and the dictatorial likes of leaders such as “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, notorious former CEO of Sunbeam, are fewer and farther between.

Talking about servant leadership reminded me of something Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen has talked about and written about frequently: the difference between fixing, helping, and serving.  Dr. Remen—who happens to be one of the most genuinely kind people I’ve ever met—contends that serving is a relationship between equals, but both fixing and helping are relationships based on inequality.

Helping and fixing put a distance between two people.  There’s an implied judgment that one is stronger, or perhaps more able.  Serving, on the other hand, is a relationship of equals.  When we serve, says Remen, we see the wholeness in the person we are serving and we respond to them from our own wholeness.  And wholeness—in each of us—includes not just our strength, but also our limitations, our wounds, and our imperfections.  This reverberates with the Hindu word “Namaste,” which is often translated as “the divine in me salutes the divine in you.”  How could we not be equals if we are both divine and both flawed?

I love the concept that in serving a person or people—or, for that matter, a cause—we are serving life.  Not just their life or our life, but life in its broadest and most inclusive sense.  Dr. Remen cites Mother Teresa’s message that “we serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy.”

To an outside observer, the acts of serving, fixing, or helping might all look identical, but the inner experience is different for those who are involved, and the outcomes may also be different.  Healthcare professionals are familiar with the concept of “compassion fatigue.”  This is described by the American Academy of Family Physicians as “a form of burnout that manifests itself as physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion.”  Compassion fatigue is much more likely when one feels one is always helping or fixing—these activities can be draining or depleting.  But service tends more to be renewing and even energizing.  Dr. Remen says, “Fundamentally, helping, fixing, and service are ways of seeing life.  When you help, you see life as weak, when you fix, you see life as broken.  When you serve, you see life as whole.”  Thus, service is more likely to nourish, rather than consume or exhaust.

Along similar lines, helping and fixing incur debt.  If we help someone or fix them, they feel a sense of obligation.  If we serve them, we are also serving ourselves.  There is no debt, no obligation.  We both feel similar satisfaction and similar gratitude.  Service is a collaboration.

While kindness is often a component of helping and of fixing, one can help or fix without kindness.  In fact, one can help or fix unkindly, harshly, or with a surly attitude, and in doing so, we can diminish another, or cause them to feel inadequate or incomplete.  I don’t believe we can serve without kindness.  This is what the best leaders have learned … and how they are choosing to live and model leadership.  Maybe there is hope for this world…..

“Wounding and healing are not opposites. They’re part of the same thing. It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to find other people or to even know they’re alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of. ”  (Rachel Naomi Remen)

Extending Kindness to All

“Being considerate of others will take your children further in life than any college degree.”  (Marian Wright Edelman)

Attribution: Donna CameronThere’s an old adage that “a person who is kind to you but rude to the waiter is not a kind person.”

We’ve all seen it: some clueless person who treats a waiter, or a cashier, or a laborer as if they don’t matter and are only on the planet to serve Mr. or Ms. Clueless.

Viewed from another angle: we’ve witnessed the people who fall all over themselves to be agreeable when the individuals they are dealing with are famous or “important,” but who look at the rest of us as if we were either invisible or something to be scraped off the bottom of a shoe.

True kindness isn’t selective.  A kind person doesn’t pick and choose whom to be kind to.

A few years ago, there was a story on the news here in Washington about a farmer in the Spokane area who closed his million-dollar-plus account when his bank treated him rudely.  He had gone into the bank somewhat dirty and dressed as he had been when working in his fields.  The bank personnel assumed he was a vagrant and spoke impolitely to him, making it clear they wanted nothing to do with him.  So he decided he wanted nothing to do with them.  He closed his sizable account and moved his money to another bank.  Good for him.

As the story was repeated in different news media, the moral seemed to be “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but that misses the point.  It implies that if, indeed, he had been a vagrant, then it would be okay to disrespect him.  It’s never okay to disrespect anyone.  The deeper lesson of the story is that kindness isn’t situational and it isn’t reserved for some people and not others.

Along this same vein, there have been occasions in our office when someone will call to talk to me and I’ll learn afterward that they were rude and pushy to our receptionist.  I remember one instance in particular:  a representative for a national speaker called to see if any of our client associations were interested in hiring his boss to speak at their conferences.  He bullied and badgered our receptionist, he spoke to her as if she were insignificant, and then asked to talk to me.  When he spoke with me, he was deferential and even fawning—he wanted to do business with our company and he saw me as the key to that door.  When I hung up, Alison came in to my office to ask if he had been as rude to me as he had to her.  Indeed not.  Needless to say, his boss never stood on a stage in front of any of our clients.

Robert Louis Stevenson famously said, “Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”  I suspect the food at such a banquet is far more appetizing for those who have consistently chosen kindness.

Some people seem to think they only need to be nice to people who—in some way or another—can help them achieve their aims.  Maybe it’s advancing their career, making an advantageous introduction, or helping to acquire something.  Or perhaps—like the bank personnel—they make a judgment:  this is (or isn’t) an important person and I will treat them accordingly. 

Where do people learn that they don’t have to be kind to the cashier, or the waiter, or the service worker, or the homeless person?  I suspect they learn from watching others—parents first, but then probably bosses, friends, acquaintances, strangers.  Maybe they see it on television.  Children mimic what they see others do and say, not always understanding why.  How good it would be if parents and teachers remember the Marian Wright Edelman quote above and teach children the enormous lifelong value of practicing kindness.

It’s true that there are some people who don’t see any value to being kind, unless it can get them something.  There are some people who are, let’s face it: jerks.  But most of us aren’t.  We just need reminders occasionally that kindness begets further kindness, and that we can always choose kindness.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” (Kurt Vonnegut)