“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)
Have 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)