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)

12 thoughts on “Kindness Requires Presence

    • Thanks, Tim! I really appreciate your reading and commenting … and reblogging is icing on the cake! So glad to hear that you agree about presence. It’s great being connected to you and your blog.


      • Thank you, Donna. It really struck a chord with me and I am pleased to be able to “boost the signal” by reblogging it. I hope you will have much success with your blog, as what you are saying here needs to be read widely.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I feel the same, Donna, about how smartphones and ‘connectivity’ stop us being present to those around us, and to our own needs. It is very sad to see couples at a restaurant, isolated and disconnected by their phones. I am glad that in the three regular meetings and social events I attend – ballroom dancing, Tai Chi and Toastmasters – people rarely consult their phones. At Toastmasters, when we take a short break, everyone is eager to talk to other members and get to know guests.It is recognised this is an important part of the meeting. Maybe organisations need to set some boundaries on phone use, and remind their members and employees of the importance of person-to-person connection.


    • Yes, Carol, if we can’t set boundaries for ourselves, maybe organizations should help us. My wise husband suggests that we consider having two breaks–one for people to check in on their devices and the second purely for connecting with people. I had to laugh at the image of people checking their phones while doing Tai Chi or ballroom dancing–let’s hope we never see that! Thanks, as always, for your wise comments.


  2. Donna, another hit out of the park. This is so sad and so true and so necessary. Thanks for saying important things that need to be said. I’m going to share your post with my own circle, as widely as I can.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Ann! I’m hopeful that the pendulum will swing back toward human connection. Maybe if enough of us just keep our devices in our purses and pockets and resist the temptation to look, we’ll rediscover the joy of relating with other people.


  3. This line resonated with me: “…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.” I read an interesting observation somewhere that we often fail to realize that while our devices can capture never-ending streams of status updates, videos, memes, news stories, etc., the human brain cannot. The human brain can, however, do something perhaps even more brilliant than process vast gigabytes of data: we can put it all into perspective. Thank you for the reminder that at the heart of finding that perspective is a simple question: what–or whom–do I truly need to pay attention to at this moment?

    Liked by 2 people

    • What a great observation and distinction, Nancy: the human brain is capable of putting all the information and data into perspective and judging what truly matters at any moment. Let’s hope we never lose sight of that! Thank you so much for reading and for your thought-provoking comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. … and, ironically, some of those people consistently checking their smart phones will be looking for networking meetings!

    I relate to what you’re saying about kindness, Donna. I established a healing centre many years ago and overtly offered services to ‘heal’ mind, body and soul. I had a robust client base for my massage service which, after time, became really exhausting.

    After four years, I sold my centre and I moved on to working at a service desk. I was always amazed at how much a simple kind comment or gesture could make a person’s day. Making comments such as, ‘The colours in your cardigan really suit you’ was just so simple. It required very little effort and the responses I received were equally as rewarding for me. There was no comparison to the time and energy it took to give a one hour massage. Who knew?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think of this every day, how disconnected and distant we’ve become from one another in this technologically “super-connected” world. In fact, I’m currently reading the book by Nicholas Carr called “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” (and highly recommend it.) More than ever, we need to make the conscious choice to be mindful and present, to say no to the distractions that estrange us from one another — and from our own selves. Thanks for this focusing and thoughtful post, Donna.


    • Thank you, Kris! As you say, it really is a conscious choice … and we do so many things out of habit these days. Thanks for the book recommendation, too. I’ve added “The Shallows” to my list. Thank you for reading and commenting, my dear friend!


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