Bothered and Bewildered…

“Conquer the angry one by not getting angry; conquer the wicked by goodness; conquer the stingy by generosity, and the liar by speaking the truth.” (Gautama Buddha)


It’s summer.  I should be thinking about when blueberries will be ready for picking, peach ice cream, or the perfect beach read.  Instead, I’m pondering the difference between malice and evil, and what tips the scales from being unkind or unpleasant to being cruel, immoral, or criminal. Does someone who does rotten things have a line they will not cross? At what point do they say, “This far and no further”? And where does hate fit into all of this? Clearly, this is not a week for sunny, summer chirpiness.

Sometimes, I find myself wondering if I am impossibly deluded to believe in the power of kindness. In my heart, I know I am not, but sometimes, you gotta wonder…

Proust said “Unkind people imagine themselves to be inflicting pain on someone equally unkind.” The more I think about that quote, the more profound it seems.

I am often mystified to read or hear about deliberate and premeditated unkindness. What motivates people to act that way, and what do they tell themselves to justify their behavior?

I know that people can often act unkindly out of reflex—a response to embarrassment, or a fear of rejection.  And sometimes it’s because they are oblivious to the situation or the other person’s feelings, or perhaps their action is governed by a sense of entitlement (I deserve this and you’d better not get in my way!).

But it doesn’t seem that those conditions fully explain calculated and intentional unkindness. I want to believe that kindness is stronger that unkindness, and that kindness will (eventually) counter meanness or cruelty. But then I answer the phone and again I wonder…

Not What Alexander Graham Bell Intended…

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received several telephone calls claiming to be from Microsoft’s Windows Service Center, saying that my computer has been hacked and they just need to ask me some questions and then they can help me fix the problem. I know these calls are scams; they want to get personal information and direct me to some site that will plant a virus on my computer. Bill says just to hang up. But a couple of times, I tried to engage the caller.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Ma’am, I’m calling to help you fix your computer problem.”

“You and I both know that’s not true. Why do you do this? Is this really who you want to be?” I try to ask kindly.

At this point, they hang up on me. I wish they wouldn’t. I really would like to know. Maybe it’s the only job they could get and they are desperate for money. Maybe they really don’t understand the harm they are trying to inflict. Presumably, they just don’t care.

That brings me back to Proust. Perhaps if one assumes that all people are cruel or dishonest, they can justify their own cruelty or dishonesty.

I think most of us are the opposite. We assume people are pretty much like we are—eager to help, honest, trusting, and generally kind. And we’re always surprised to encounter people who are not.  Short of stuffing the phone down the garbage disposal (oh, so tempting!), it appears such surprises will persist.

In addition to the fake Microsoft calls, last week I had a robo-call telling me my Banner Bank credit card had been frozen for possible fraudulent activity and to “press one” to talk to a service representative who would take the information needed to “unfreeze” my card. That was another easy one: I don’t have a credit card through Banner Bank, but if I did, I hope I would have been smart enough to ignore the call.

I also had a call from a company claiming that it had been three years since they last serviced our furnace, thus it was overdue for servicing and they’d like to schedule an appointment. I happened to know the name of the company that services our furnace and this wasn’t it. I asked the caller why he was telling me we’d done business with his company when we hadn’t. Why not just tell me they do great work at reasonable prices and see if we need their services? He hung up on me. I really am curious. I imagine he gets paid—or bonused—on the basis of how many service appointments he can schedule, so he thought trickery might be more profitable than the truth. Perhaps his boss told him that people would fall for the lie. Perhaps they do.

Most troubling of all, I read this week about the growing prevalence of what is called the “Hello, Grandma” scam. This involves calling elderly people and claiming to be a grandchild in trouble and needing money to get home or get out of jail. The worried elder wires money to the scammer. The story I read described an 83-year-old woman in Colorado who was bilked of $23,000 in such a scheme, and a 93-year-old woman who lost $69,000 trying to help a fictitious grandchild.

Estimates are that elderly American’s are robbed of nearly $3 billion a year through scams such as these. They are trusting, they may be confused, they fear for the safety of a family member—they make an easy target. But, who does this sort of thing and how can they look at themselves in the mirror each day?  Where do they draw the line on their bad behavior? Do they really believe, as Proust postulates, that these trusting seniors are as unkind and dishonest as themselves?

If so, answering their unkindness with equal unkindness just reinforces their belief and justifies their unscrupulous actions. Responding with kindness may have no immediate effect, but perhaps like a stone being polished by the river, eventually it will make a difference.  Or maybe I’m just a schmuck to think so.

Perhaps it is naïve to think that dishonest or unkind people can change. I hold no illusions that kindness will transform the psychopath or sociopath. But I am enough of an optimist that I hold out hope for the fearful and angry people who simply haven’t yet learned the power of kindness.

“If a person seems wicked, do not cast him away. Awaken him with your words, elevate him with your deeds, repay his injury with your kindness. Do not cast him away; cast away his wickedness.” (Lao Tzu)


Kindness – An Evolution or a Transformation?

“Be kind to people and don’t judge, for you do not know what demons they carry and what battles they are fighting.” (Vashti Quiroz-Vega)

Little FriedaHave you ever been adopted by a stray cat? It prowls the porch for a few weeks; then you put out some water and maybe a smidge of tuna, and before you know it, you’re hand-feeding him Chicken Marengo from the dinner table and making him a bed on the best chair in the bedroom.

That’s how kindness sneaks up on you. You start small and pretty soon it’s an habitual practice and it’s made a home in your life.

I’m a big believer in incremental change. Maybe that’s because attempts to make lofty changes all at once have never worked for me. Whether it’s exercise, writing, or keeping my office clean, an attempt to go from zero to sixty in one big leap always resulted in failure.

After years of thwarted good intentions, I finally realized that if I start small—exercise for 15 minutes, write for one half-hour, clean one shelf of my bookcase—the resulting good feelings reinforce the action and I want to do more. And pretty soon a new habit is ingrained.

Kindness works the same way. One can’t go from being oblivious and self-absorbed to being Mother Teresa’s more compassionate sister by simply saying, “From now on, I’m going to be a kind person.” As author R.J. Palacio recently stated, “If kindness were easy, after all, everyone would do it.” We have years of inattention and self-centeredness to overcome, not to mention the attendant fears of having our kindness rejected or “doing it wrong.” But we can go out of our way to perform one small kindness each day, and perhaps after a couple of weeks, perform two, or engage in a large act of kindness. As we see how good it feels, we want to do more, and pretty soon we’re approaching every encounter with the hope that there will be an opportunity to extend ourselves.

I don’t really think there’s such a thing as a small kindness. A warm smile, a kind word, a door held or a package carried—they all influence the receiver to pass it on or “pay it forward.” We have no way of knowing how far one kind action can reverberate.

On the other side of the spectrum, we can stop the reverberation of unkindness by absorbing an insult without retaliating, or hearing harsh words and not hurling them back. These small—but difficult—acts will help to slow the epidemic of unkindness. That’s hard to do, especially when we are just itching to voice the clever retort that will put that person in his or her place. It helps to approach such encounters with the spirit of inquiry we talked about a few weeks ago, to ask what might be motivating this person to act as he does, and what burden he might be carrying that has shortened his temper and brought out the Darth Vader in him. We don’t even have to understand—it’s enough to recognize that there might be more going on than we can see, and to give the benefit of the doubt.

Kindness—like playing the piano or becoming proficient at golf—requires practice. One way to instill the practice that will lead to proficiency is to set an intention of being five percent kinder—to ourselves and to others. Just five percent—or maybe two percent, or ten. Not a lot, but just enough to notice the difference it makes. Let that small incremental change take root and flower. After a while, and with steady practice, kindness becomes both intentional and instinctive—and that’s when magic happens.

Think about it for a moment. What would you do differently if you were just five percent kinder? To yourself? To others? To the planet?

Simone Weil, the French philosopher, wisely said, “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.”

Like the stray cat who comes to stay, let kindness creep in. Feed it and make a bed for it. Before you know it, the light will flood your soul….

“When we do what we love, again and again, our life comes to hold the fragrance of that thing.” (Wayne Muller)

Choosing to Be For or Against…

“Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.” (Jose Ortega y Gasset)

EagleThese days, when I read the newspaper or listen to the news, I find myself looking or listening for stories about kindness. I like to think that I’m developing a radar of sorts—an inner honing device that seeks and recognizes kindness. I’m a firm believer in the idea that we tend to see whatever it is we’re looking for. If we spend our days looking for what’s wrong, we will become skilled at finding what’s broken, insufficient, or flawed. And if we look for what’s good and right, that’s we will find.

For a couple of decades I’ve had pinned to my bulletin board an old Ashleigh Brilliant postcard that says, “If you look hard enough for what doesn’t exist, eventually it may appear.” A few years ago, a friend noticed it and asked me why that was on my wall, when all my other quotes and cartoons were so positive. I was baffled.

I told her, “But that is positive. It tells me to keep believing, even when I don’t yet see what I’m seeking. It’s all about the power of belief. How do you see it?”

Quite differently, it would seem. She told me, “If I think my husband is cheating on me and I look hard enough, I’ll find out it’s true.”

Well, I guess that is one way of looking at it. [Spoiler alert: the marriage didn’t last much longer.]

To a large degree, I think we do make our own reality. I’ve known people who have had more than their share of loss, illness, and misfortunes, yet they maintain a positive outlook and still manage to find something good in every mishap. They are a joy to be around.

I’ve also known people who see every loss and every misfortune as proof that the world is against them and life’s not fair. More of the same is pretty much all they expect of life, and that pervading gloom is what they convey to others. Spending time with such people can be draining—I’ve heard them referred to as energy vampires.

I’m not advocating being a Pollyanna. Perpetual and mindless cheerfulness can be as tiresome as the persistent pessimist. Each of us needs to be an activist in our own life. When we see unkindness, injustice or prejudice, we must speak out and stand up for what’s right. But if our radar is focused like a heat-seeking missile on finding mistakes and shortcomings, then life is probably pretty bleak. It’s the old glass-half-full or glass-half-empty conundrum.

Mother Teresa is reported to have said, “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”

I was reminded of that quote when I read Jerry Large’s column in The Seattle Times the other day. He wrote about a woman in the nearby town of Snohomish who was being removed as a volunteer leader in Young Life, a well-established Christian organization for high-school students. Pam Elliott’s “crime” was participating with other mothers in making decorations for the Seattle Pride Parade later this month, and posting the pictures on her Facebook page. She did it in support of a friend and the friend’s gay son, and because she believes in equality for everyone.

“Love is love,” Elliott said. “I am not a big activist, I’m supporting my friend. This is what we do for each other, we love each other’s kids like our own.”

The Young Life people gave her a choice. Ms. Elliott can continue her work as a volunteer leader—work which she loves—if she retracts her Facebook posting and stops aligning herself with the gay rights movement. The choice she made was to continue to support her friend and her friend’s son … and what she knows to be right. I’m not comparing Pam Elliott with Mother Teresa, but, like Mother Teresa, Ms. Elliott chose to stand for something, rather than against something else.

The more we choose positive over negative, good over bad, kindness over apathy or unkindness, the closer we all move toward manifesting the world we want to live in, and want future generations to know without question.

That’s what I look for when I read the news…

“What we choose to love is very important for what we love leads our eyes, ears, and hearts on a pilgrimage that shapes the texture of our lives.” (Wayne Muller)

Kindness and Vulnerability

“A gift is like a seed; it is not an impressive thing. It is what can grow from the seed that is impressive. If we wait until our seed becomes a tree before we offer it, we will wait and wait, and the seed will die from lack of planting…. The miracle is not just the gift; the miracle is in the offering, for if we do not offer, who will?” (Wayne Muller)

Attribution: Donna CameronPeriodically, the universe sends me a message. It’s not some disembodied James Earl Jones voice, or a bolt of lightning that rattles my foundation; more often than not, it’s a barely perceptible tap on my shoulder that says, “Pay attention here.”

I was at a conference last week where I happened to overhear two people talking about vulnerability and about Brené Brown’s TED talk on the subject. Then, last night, I was reading an article in a writer’s magazine that spoke of the writer’s need to be vulnerable, and also referred to Brené Brown’s TED talk. I felt that tap on my shoulder and heard that inner whisper, “Pay attention.”

The wonderful and sometimes dreadful thing about modern life is that we can easily and instantly access almost anything. Within seconds and a few keystrokes on Google, I was watching Dr. Brown’s 2010 talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.”

Wow! If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth your time, I promise you. This delightful and insightful talk explored a trait that whole-hearted people share: vulnerability. It described the willingness we must have to “allow ourselves to be seen,” with all our imperfections, in order to fully embrace our lives.

I can’t do justice to her words. You want to hear them first-hand. Really.

Whether we’re committing to love, or art, or business, or kindness, we must have the courage to do it whole-heartedly, with full awareness that there will always be those who find us lacking. In a way, knowing that frees us—if we can just embrace our vulnerability—for if we stop trying to please everyone, we can focus on being who we were meant to be. And isn’t that all life is asking of us?

Of course, this talk about vulnerability got me to thinking about kindness, and the connection between kindness and vulnerability. I’ve talked before about the difference between being kind and being nice. I don’t think “nice” requires us to be vulnerable. I can be nice without risk, and without exposing too much of myself. I can be nice without making a connection, or without really caring whether or not you benefit from the encounter. Nice, while often pleasant, doesn’t require sincerity or commitment.

To me, “kind” is very different. Kind means connecting; it means being conscious and intentional about the impact my words or actions may have; it means expending energy and effort and caring about the outcome. It also means suspending judgments and accepting people as they are. Kind can be messy and may take me to places where I am awkward, clumsy, and tongue-tied. Kindness requires me to take a risk. Kindness requires me to be vulnerable.

Since starting this year of living kindly, I have tried to make a conscious effort to do things kindly that I once may have done nicely. Outwardly, there’s probably not a lot of difference. In the past, if I chose to give a dollar or two to someone who asked me for money, I would do so quickly, and hurry on, sometimes wondering if the person was really in need, or if they were just lazy and saw me as an easy mark. Now, I try to pause and exchange a few words, make eye-contact, and wish them well. In most cases—though not all—I feel a connection between me and the person I am engaged with. For a brief time, we are both vulnerable, and it feels good. I don’t worry about whether their need is genuine or whether I am being a schmuck; I just hope in some way I am helping.

There is even a vulnerability to writing about kindness and to inviting people to read my periodic musings. Am I saying too much about myself? Too little? Am I pontificating (God, I hope not!)? Has it all been said before and said better? Am I missing the point entirely?

If I allow myself to be vulnerable, the answer is it doesn’t matter. As Brené Brown eloquently explains, connection is why we’re all here, sharing this planet, and it’s what gives meaning and purpose to our lives. To make that deep connection, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. That means having the courage to be imperfect, to expose our flaws, and the willingness to be vulnerable.

Living our most authentic life, whatever that means to each of us—for me it’s choosing kindness—requires that we let go of our shield and lower our guard, and that we embrace our flaws and our vulnerability. It’s scary, but, oh, the rewards of living an authentic life are beyond measure!

“Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.” (Jean Vanier)

[Before I close, I want to encourage you to watch Brené Brown’s TED talk. I promise it’s worth 20 minutes of your life—maybe it’s even a message from the universe to you.]