“If you want to be a rebel, be kind.” (Pancho Ramos Stierle)
[In part one, we looked at the epidemic of incivility that surrounds us and promises to get worse in the days leading up to—and following—the November 3rd election. We talked about the courage it takes to be a kind person and how bold and insistent kindness is what the times call for. Today, we’re going to look at how to exercise that ferocious kindness in service to the world. Here’s part two.]
Marcel Proust wisely observed, “Unkind people imagine themselves to be inflicting pain on someone equally unkind.” We reinforce that belief when we treat such people with the same discourtesy they showed us. When we change the dynamic, we may not change that individual, but we offer witnesses a clear choice, and we fortify our own values. In choosing kindness, we are the ones determining the rules of the game.
Extending kindness only to those who are “worthy” is not being our best self. We don’t have to like someone—or even respect them—to be kind to them. We are kind because of who we are, not who they are.
OK, but how do I do that?
Remember the old joke about the tourist in New York City asking how to get to Carnegie Hall? And the answer: Practice, buddy, practice.
Like anything we want to do well, it takes practice. We’re gonna have plenty of opportunities to practice in the coming weeks and months.
Think about a time when someone spoke rudely to you, or belittled another person in your presence. Did your response to them reflect the best of who you are? Now, think about how else you might respond, what you could say that reflects your values and upholds courageous kindness.
Think not only about what you might say, but how you will say it. Your tone of voice. Your facial expression. How you stand to convey your strength and resolve. Then practice doing it, saying it. Experience what it feels like to be strong and kind. Then, when you find yourself in such a situation, you will know how you want to respond and will have the skill and the courage to do it.
Practice saying aloud such phrases as:
“It sounds like you’re having a bad day,” spoken without judgment but with empathy.
“I’m sorry if I offended you,” said with sincerity.
“It’s been a tough day,” said with recognition.
“I wish we could have a respectful conversation,” said with a genuine desire to understand and no trace of judgment.
“I hope the rest of your day goes well,” said with a smile.
With practice, we can summon these phrases when they’re needed. If they sound stilted or artificial at first, remind yourself that you’re still learning. Keep practicing.
Another strategy for claiming your kindness is to kindle your curiosity. Pause to wonder why someone behaved as they did. Were they being deliberately offensive, or might there be another reason? A problem or worry we’re not aware of? Are they responding out of fear? Or perhaps they simply misread the situation and said or did something they now regret. Instead of judgment and disapproval, can you offer the benefit of the doubt? Curiosity allows us to turn judgment or aversion into an opportunity for understanding and even assistance. Curiosity leads us to kindness.
But what about the unrepentant jerks among us?
Yep, they exist. And all the more reason for us not to be one. If we sink to their level, they’ve won. That’s worth repeating: if we sink to their level, they’ve won. That may be the only way they know how to behave. Maybe it makes them feel powerful or important—but we know better. They haven’t yet learned that it takes more courage and strength to be kind than to be a bully. Our job is not to try to change them, but to live our values and stand up for anyone they may be harming.
Nothing says we have to interact with bullies or malicious people. Being kind doesn’t mean being a pushover. There are people who fortify themselves by baiting others. They say outrageous and hateful things for the attention it garners them and the momentary and fleeting feeling of superiority. Their minds will not be changed, not by reason, nor by data. Such people are fueled by hate and discord. Instead of feeding their craving for attention and fueling their bigotry, your kindest strategy is to turn and walk away.
In doing so, we honor our personal worth and our own need for self-care. Kindness begins with self, and that may mean choosing not to interact with people who are malevolent, or entrenched in hatred and intolerance. Making that choice is not only a kindness to yourself, it’s ultimately a kindness to the world.
“The common mistake that bullies make is assuming that because someone is nice that he or she is weak. Those traits have nothing to do with each other. In fact, it takes considerable strength and character to be a good person.” (Mary Elizabeth Williams)
[Part 3 will look at dealing with those we can’t avoid and those whose political views repel us, as well as the commitment we must make to model the world we want to live in.]