“You may be sorry that you spoke, sorry you stayed or went, sorry you won or lost, sorry so much was spent. But as you go through life, you’ll find you’re never sorry you were kind.” (Herbert Prochnow)
Kindness isn’t always tidy and straightforward. It certainly isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s awkward, bumbling, or misunderstood. Sometimes all we can do is guess, and hope that our kindness will have the result we intended. We can put it out there—how it is received or perceived is out of our control.
True kindness might also sometimes be false kindness in the sense that to be truly kind means extending kindness even when we don’t feel it, and, in fact, when what we really want to do is say the snarkiest thing imaginable. Or when we just want to let the moment pass and pretend we didn’t see the opportunity to be kind. This is when choosing kindness really means something.
Just as it’s easy to be happy when the sun is shining and everything’s going our way, it’s easy to be kind when our kindness takes little effort … or when we know it will be appreciated … or when the recipient of our kindness is someone we know and like.
The key to true kindness—like the key to true happiness—is managing to maintain our attitude or keep our resolve when all hell is breaking loose. When the cat throws-up all over a favorite sweater, the car is making a strange and worrisome noise, you’ve been on and off hold with customer support for over an hour, and a neighbor yells at you because all the leaves from your big tree blew into his yard.
When it’s simply a crappy day, is just holding it together the best we can do, or can we move beyond our instant, emotional, and sometime automatic response and consciously choose the hard response, the one that we want to define us: the kind response?
Michael Broome put it well: “Character is when we have the discipline to follow through with the goal after the mood in which the goal was set passes.”
I had a realization about halfway through this year of living kindly that my most important job—even more important than the one that has sustained me for more than 30 years—is to be kind. That’s why I’m here, on the planet. With that awareness, I see that the biggest kindness challenge is to be kind when I may not feel it.
Kindness may be simple, but it sure ain’t easy.
Learning to Pause Is Essential to Kindness
I recently read that when we feel threatened or angry we drop into our “reptilian” brain, which is where our survival responses are. These include attack, aggression, revenge, fear, and territorial behavior, among other responses. Once in that primitive, reptilian state, it takes about 20 minutes to shift back to our thinking and coping frontal lobes. And being kind from that reptilian state may not be possible.
My friend Ann Macfarlane of Jurassic Parliament—who expertly and enjoyably teaches people how to have successful meetings—describes this state as “amygdala hijack,” when our brains respond to perceived threat with anger and rage.
Whether our higher brain is hijacked or taken over by reptilian instincts, we do have the ability to choose. We don’t have to react instinctively or act on the first snarky impulse. If we can just learn to pause, we can choose who we are going to be in the next moment, and then the one after that. And we can always choose kindness.
Also Essential: Maintaining Awareness
If we pay attention, we can probably avoid amygdala hijack or attack of the phantom reptile. And then we can choose kindness, and the wonderful thing is that the experience of our own kindness will usually lift us out of our funk or fury.
Another element of awareness is understanding why we want to be kind, and how we want to respond to unkindness. Am I being kind to this person who was appallingly rude to me because I want to show them that I am better and more highly evolved? … that they are wrong? … that I will not stoop to their level? Or am I being kind to this person because I want to be kind no matter what and because my kindness serves life—which is perfect in its imperfection? More and more, when kindness is hard and I choose it anyway, it’s for the latter reason. Life is sacred and no matter where I am, or however small I am, I can serve it.
Another form of unkindness that we can avoid by paying attention is indulging in the practice of gossip. It can be tempting to dish the dirt—we’ve all done it—talk about the absent colleague, the weird neighbor, the flakey relative. But it never feels good later—in fact, to use a technical term, it feels icky. Instead, the kind response is to interrupt the spiraling cycle of gossip by saying: “Let’s not talk about Genevieve behind her back,” or “She handled that unhappy customer so well last week—I was really impressed by her professionalism, weren’t you?” Or, at the very least, we can say, “I’m not comfortable with this conversation,” and leave the room.
Sometimes we find ourselves in the middle of these sorts of conversations without realizing how we got here. That’s where paying attention comes in. As soon as we start to get that uncomfortable feeling—for some of us it’s in our stomachs, for others in our shoulders or neck, or elsewhere—we need to think about what’s not right here: Is this a conversation that diminishes rather than builds? Am I overlooking an opportunity to be kind? Am I stuffing my real feelings to be part of the group?
As I’m approaching the end of this year of living kindly, I have a growing awareness that my ongoing task is to keep learning how to be kind when kindness isn’t easy: when I don’t feel like it, or when I’m responding to rudeness or unkindness.
On this never-ending path, the true challenge is to appreciate the moments when kindness is hard or the object of our kindness pushes every one of our buttons—for these are the times when we can fully own our commitment to kindness, when we can say, “Choosing kindness wasn’t easy … but I chose it anyway.”
“Kindness is an inner desire that makes us want to do good things even if we do not get anything in return. It is the joy of our life to do them. When we do good things from this inner desire, there is kindness in everything we think, say, want and do.” (Emanuel Swedenborg)