Kindness Requires Presence

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

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Blue Moon at Storm Lake, July 2015

Remember how annoying it was as a child or adolescent to hear teachers repeatedly admonish their students to “Pay attention”? Sometimes it was code for “this will be on the test.” Other times, it was said over and over because the teacher had lost the students’ interest and instructing them to “pay attention” was probably easier than exploring new ways of making geometry or 18th century European history exciting. The best teachers rarely said “pay attention”—they didn’t need to.

All these years later, I keep a little slip of paper bearing the words “Pay Attention” taped next to my desk. I think it’s one of the secrets of a good life.

I’ve also come to see that it’s one of the requirements of a consistently kind life. If we are unaware of what’s going on around us, it’s so easy to miss opportunities to be kind. It might be something simple like holding a door for a stranger, making eye-contact and smiling, or offering to help someone who is struggling with heavy packages. Or it may not be so simple—it might be recognizing despair on a friend’s face and taking time to listen to their story, or thinking about just the right words to say to help a child deal with disappointment or rejection. If we’re oblivious, we miss all these opportunities to make a difference.

Opportunities to extend kindness are all around us, but they’re also easy to miss if we aren’t paying attention. And these days we’re all so distracted by technology that we lose awareness of what is going on around us.

Choosing Presence

people textingMeetings are a major component of my profession: educational seminars, conferences, board meetings, committee meetings, breakfast/lunch/dinner meetings. It’s how we learn, how we network, how we get the business of our non-profit organizations done.

It used to be that during breaks at meetings and conferences, people would help themselves to a cup of coffee and chat with others attending the meeting. Now, people still grab the coffee, but then they stand in solitude at a distance of about four feet from one another and they stare intently into their devices. They check email, they text, they surf the net. What they do very little of is connect with other people in the room. I’ve had people admit to me that sometimes they pretend to check emails because it’s what everyone else is doing and they feel self-conscious just standing there with no one to talk to. If I’m going to be completely honest, I’ll admit that I’ve done it myself.

That person-to-person networking of days gone by was often as valuable as the formal education of the meetings. It’s where practical, informal learning took place, not to mention cultivating business connections and making friends. Have we all really become so important and indispensable that we can’t disconnect for two or three hours? And if it’s true that we are expected to be constantly connected, is that a good thing? I don’t consider myself a Luddite—though some may call me one after reading this—but I do think we’ve become too connected to our electronic devices—to the detriment of connection with our fellow humans.

I think we’ve lost sight of our own capacity to set boundaries. We’ve let the devices rule us, when it should be the other way around.

At the park near our house I see parents absorbed in their smartphones, oblivious to their children’s exuberant cartwheels or triumphant heights on the swings. I wonder whose loss is greater here….

I see couples in restaurants, apparently on a date, but both of them repeatedly checking their phones and responding to texts or emails. I see people walking along busy streets and sidewalks, oblivious to everything but the phone in their hands. At the symphony, I saw the glow of many hand-held devices—their operators oblivious to the magnificence of a Sibelius concerto. What are we missing when we choose not to be fully present to our lives?

When I lead groups in strategic planning I remind them that everything they say “yes” to means there is something else they must say “no” to—so they need to think hard about what is most important to them. It’s the same for us as individuals: what are we saying “no” to as we say “yes” to perpetual connectivity?

Mindfulness Fosters Compassion

There is research from Jon Kabat-Zinn and others that mindfulness cultivates compassion and altruism. Experiments have shown that mindfulness training makes people more likely to recognize and help others—even strangers—in need. It doesn’t seem like rocket science: if we’re present for our lives—paying attention—we’re going to recognize when our gifts are needed: a smile, a word of kindness, a proffered hand.

I suspect it works for self-kindness, too. If we are aware and awake to our lives, we are more likely to recognize that we are tired and we need to rest, or we are stressed and need to pause. As we cultivate awareness of our own lives, we will be better able to recognize and respond to the needs of others. We can’t live a life of kindness toward others if we are not kind to ourselves.

And it all begins with the simple act of choosing to be present, and choosing again and again what we will pay attention to.

“Every day, we are given countless opportunities to offer our gifts to those at work, in our families, our relationships…. If you give less than what you are, you dishonor the gift of your own precious life.” (Wayne Muller)

Being Kind To People We Don’t Like

“Treat everyone with politeness, even those who are rude to you – not because they are nice, but because you are.” (Author Unknown) 

Attribution: Donna CameronTry as we might, there are probably still going to be people we just don’t like and probably never will. I’m not talking about the crooks, criminals, and psychopaths whom we wisely disdain and avoid, but the everyday disagreeable creatures, nuisances, and scalawags who populate our lives and challenge us in unwelcome ways.

We encounter them occasionally—the ornery neighbor, the obstinate board member, the know-it-all acquaintance, the perpetually petulant client. We can ignore them to the degree possible, but even then they’re still present, a plaguing irritation that brings clouds to otherwise sunshiny days.

Radical Kindness

What if we engage in radical kindness to not only tolerate our encounters with taxing people, but to learn to see them as likable and even admirable? To feel gratitude for these people in our lives?

If we approach our encounters with the irritants in our lives with a spirit of inquiry and openness, we may be surprised to learn that the everyday jerks we encounter have some pretty good qualities. We may also recognize that there are likely to be people who see us as the everyday jerks in their lives.

I have noted many times before that I am a firm believer in the notion that what we look for is generally what we see. So those people who spend their days looking for things to criticize find them everywhere, and people who look for the good find good at every turn.

What would happen if instead of avoiding or grudgingly accepting the annoying people in our lives—the ones we’ve never learned to like—we deliberately look for their kindness? Maybe it’s not evident on the surface, but if we look deeper, we’re going to find it. Maybe that board or committee member who sets everyone’s teeth on edge with their negativity and self-promotion does pro-bono work in underserved communities. Or maybe we can appreciate their commitment to the organization even if we struggle to appreciate their methods. Maybe that neighbor who complains about everything and yells at kids for making too much noise loves animals and takes care of wounded birds. And maybe his kindness is masked by shyness, fear, or social ineptitude.

What if, knowing our path is going to cross with a person we have not been able to like, we determine that we will look for their kindness and find a way for their kindness and ours to intersect? We will go beyond merely gritting our teeth and tolerating the person to recognizing their kindness and welcoming them into our lives.

I’m lucky that there are very few people in my life whom I dislike. Over the years I’ve seen that people I may initially feel some aversion toward become quite likable once I get to know them. They didn’t change, I did. Everything changes once I turn off that judge-y part of me and recognize that a behavior I find displeasing may be the result of fear, uncertainty, or clumsiness. We’re all just doing the best we can, and for most of us our best will always be imperfect, since we are a work-in-progress until the day we die.

To overcome any dislike I may feel, I’ve been trying to look for the kindness in those few objectionable people I encounter. Kindness is there—in nearly everyone—and it’s surprisingly easy to find. What I’m learning is that I am better able to separate the person from their behaviors. So I can say now I appreciate that person, even if I don’t like or understand some of their actions. There are exceptions to every rule and I am finding Donald Trump to be that exception. I’m sure he has likable qualities—he’d be the first to say so—but appreciation for him has not been easy to muster.

There are bound to be some people who seem to defy all efforts to be seen as likable. They’re in our lives for a reason, and an important one. From them, we learn tolerance, or perhaps patience, or perhaps we recognize some quality of our own which in them is magnified to a degree that is instantly offensive. If nothing else, perhaps we can appreciate them for their role as being a warning to others to not behave this way (thanks, Donald!). With these few individuals our choice then becomes whether to let them negatively influence our behaviors and beliefs, or to look harder for their kindness, and to extend kindness as best we can and be grateful for what we have learned from them.

We never go wrong if we look for the kindness.

“I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind.” (Khalil Gibran)

Thinking About Our Legacy

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

• PEARLS BEFORE SWINE © 2015 Stephan Pastis. Reprinted by permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK for UFS. All rights reserved.

• PEARLS BEFORE SWINE © 2015 Stephan Pastis. Reprinted by permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK for UFS. All rights reserved.

In the preface to his recently published book, The Road to Character, David Brooks talks about the difference between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” Brooks describes the former as the skills and proficiencies you list on your resume—those abilities that help you land a job and be successful in your profession. He describes eulogy virtues as the qualities that are likely to be mentioned at your funeral, “the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.” Brooks admits that for much of his life he gave priority to resume qualities rather than eulogy ones.

I don’t suppose many of us want to think about our funerals, or what people are going to be saying about us as they stand somberly at the podium or nosh on Swedish meatballs and potato salad later. But it’s probably a safe bet that they’re not going to be talking about the wealth or possessions we accumulated. And they’re not going to be lauding our knack with PowerPoint or Excel, or our ability to sell cars, write code, or design heating systems. And if perchance they do, it won’t be about the skill itself, but about the heart and soul that we brought to that ability.

Maybe they’ll talk about the passion we brought to our job, the humor, the patience, the integrity, the kindness. And separate from our jobs, they’ll talk about the qualities that stood out to them. For each of us, those will be different and they may include courage, loyalty, reliability, devotion, compassion, commitment. Each friend and colleague will likely see us differently: to one we were a mentor, to another a buddy, and yet to another we were a sociable neighbor or a wise-cracking cubicle-mate. Each will recall different special qualities depending on the relationship and their own needs and interactions. Yet each of us probably has a few overarching qualities that others recognize as our legacy.

Even for those whose jobs contributed significantly to the community’s, or perhaps the world’s, wellbeing—doctor, statesman, author, scientist—it’s not necessarily the skill or the accomplishment that will be cited, but the dedication and intentionality that accompanied that accomplishment. Equally important as the surgeon’s skill with the scalpel is the compassion she brings to her patients and their families, and to her colleagues in the operating theater. And if the author who pens the greatest literary work of the 21st century is seen off the page as one of the biggest jerks of the century, too, he has earned—at best—hollow tributes.

It bears thinking about now if we want to leave behind us a legacy of friendship, or courage, or faith … or kindness. I have always loved the short poem purported to have been written by the great Raymond Carver just hours before his death:

last fragment

That describes a life that didn’t end in regret.  As we cultivate our skills in order to achieve professional or creative success, we need also to cultivate the qualities of personal success, those that go beyond our technical or career proficiencies. Think about what values or virtues you want to don each morning when you rise, wear throughout your day and tuck under your pillow when you sleep. Whether it’s faith, kindness, integrity, friendship, courage, or all of the above, choose to live your eulogy every day.

It’s either that, or learn to be a damn good parallel parker….

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

Choosing Between Bystanding and Standing Up for Kindness

“It is only with true love and compassion that we can begin to mend what is broken in the world. It is these two blessed things that can begin to heal all broken hearts.” (Steve Maraboli) 

Attribution: Donna CameronThe vast majority of young people are not bullies and are not the bullied. They’re bystanders, and this, I suspect, is where efforts need to be focused to make bullying a thing of the past.

It’s true with adults, too. We see bullying in the workplace, or perhaps on the sports-field or the grocery store parking lot, and we don’t like it but we don’t know how to intervene.

In the discussion of bullying—whether children, adolescents, or adults—the key to countering the abuse is motivating bystanders to step in and act in support of the person being bullied.

According to Megan Kelley Hall, co-editor of Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories, “The bystander definitely has the power to help change the climate—with adults and children. In bullying cases with children, almost half of all bullying situations stop when a bystander gets involved.” She further explains that getting involved “doesn’t mean taking a stand or getting into the bully’s face, sometimes just the simple act of not giving the bully an audience or just taking the side of the victim is enough to get your point across.”

Helpful and Hurtful Bystanders

The website www.eyesonbullying.org describes both hurtful and helpful bystanders. The former instigate or encourage the bully, or sometimes they join in once bullying has begun. Sometimes they may not actively support the bullying behavior, but through their passive acceptance they condone the torment and offer the bully the audience he or she craves.

Helpful bystanders assess the situation and then directly intervene by defending the victim or redirecting the situation; or they get help from others present to stand up to or discourage the bully, or report the bullying to someone in authority who can intervene.

Why We Don’t Step Forward

The site also describes some of the reasons why bystanders don’t intervene. Among them:

  • They fear being hurt or becoming the target of the bully themselves;
  • They feel powerless to stop the bully;
  • They think it’s none of their business;
  • They don’t want to draw attention to themselves;
  • They fear retribution;
  • They fear that telling adults won’t help and may make the situation worse;
  • They don’t know what to do.

What to Do

The bystander’s reaction will set the tone for other witnesses and may serve to enlighten the bully without embarrassing or shaming them. Perhaps it will give them a means of exiting the encounter without feeling put down. Maybe—just maybe—it will teach them that there are more effective ways to behave—ways they haven’t learned at home and aren’t likely to. Silence and inaction sustain bullying. Whether the setting is the schoolyard, the workplace, social or recreational situations, or cyberspace, bullying must be nullified. For the vast majority of us who are neither bullied nor bullies, we have the responsibility to step in when we see bullying or other forms of cruelty. We need to say “no more” and model the world as we would like it to be.

It’s good to remember that everyone—bully, victim, and bystander—carries an invisible and heavy load. Perhaps one of the best reasons we are all here on this planet is to help others shoulder the weight of their load—even if we can’t see it and don’t know what it is.

The website www.bullying.org offers some excellent advice on what kids should do if they see someone else being bullied. Much of that advice is directly related to kindness. It suggests befriending a child who is being bullied—walk with them, eat lunch with them; involve or extend an invitation to the new kid in school or the kids who often seem to be alone. Don’t try to respond in kind to a bully—don’t fight them, make fun of them, or say mean things back at them—it usually makes things worse.

This is where parents and schools, and even the media, can help. If we have discussions about what to do when we witness bullying, we’ll be better prepared to act, rather than to be paralyzed by fear, confusion, or uncertainty. If kids—or adults—know that they can make a difference and are aware of strategies for intervening, they will be much more likely to do so.

Bullying Is Not a Rite of Passage

Jenny Hulme, author of How to Create Kind Schools, notes that bullying is not and should not be just part of growing up. “Bullying brings no benefits at all—either to the bully or the bullied. It can, instead, trigger a cycle of victimization that can last a lifetime. Studies have shown victims of bullying, including very able children, stand a much lower chance of doing well at school and are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and poor physical health as adults.”

According to Hulme, “Research into ‘bystanding’ demonstrates that people who are given a seminar on compassion, or were empowered to help others, are more likely to go against the majority” and step in to help someone who is being bullied.

Education is Key

Kids need to learn that bullying isn’t cool and it isn’t acceptable. They need to learn it at home, at school, from the media, and from their peers. And kids who are the target of bullies need to understand that there’s nothing wrong with them, and there’s nothing wrong with being different—it’s the bully who has the problem and the bully who needs fixing.

Schools and parents need to take seriously their responsibility to teach kids that it’s not enough not to be a bully, we must all be willing to step in when we see bullying, and let the perpetrator know it’s not acceptable. That takes courage, and courage—like kindness—is a capacity that strengthens with practice.

A Growing Kindness Movement

While unkindness and bullying are rampant, there also seems to be a growing movement to bring awareness of the issue, and growing efforts to both prevent bullying and nurture kindness. And, wisely, it’s often kids who are leading the charge.

Schools all over America—and in many other countries, as well—are building kindness into the curriculum, from K-12. Numerous programs have been launched to counter bullying—many created by and for kids. Among some great resources:

  • Kind Campaign – focused on helping eliminate unkindness between and among girls
  • The Great Kindness Challenge – with educational and “global” sites, it offers strategies and suggestions for practicing kindness in our everyday lives
  • Kidscape – a 30-year old U.K.-based anti-bullying organization focused on preventing bullying and protecting children
  • Bystander Revolution – lots of celebrities involved in this organization formed to counter bullying by focusing on kindness, courage, and inclusion.
  • www.stopbullying.gov
  • www.bullying.org

As we saw in an earlier post, “Adult bullies were often either bullies as children, or bullied as children.” It’s a cycle that must be broken. If you’re a parent, think about having a talk with your child about bullying and help him or her strategize how they will respond the next time they witness bullying. And do the same for yourself—whether you encounter it in the workplace, on the bus, or at a community meeting. Knowing in advance how we want to behave helps us to follow through when the circumstance arises.

Instead of standing by, let’s all stand up for what’s right.

“When we make judgments we’re inevitably acting on limited knowledge, isn’t it best to ask if we seek to understand, or simply let them be?” (Jay Woodman)