About Donna Cameron

After many deeply-satisfying years of non-profit management, I’m spending some time exploring the good life that Rachel Remen describes as “pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.” Always looking for ways to convey the power of stories in our lives…. I'm blogging about this year that I've dubbed "a year of living kindly." It's at: https://ayearoflivingkindly.com/

When Kindness Is Needed, There Are No Small Kindnesses….

“Wherever there is a human in need, there is an opportunity for kindness and to make a difference.” (Kevin Heath)

Participate in the Hand In Hand Telethon on September 12 to benefit hurricane relief efforts

For people directly involved in hurricane response, as well as those of us watching it on our newsfeeds, there comes the danger of compassion fatigue—it’s what we might feel after lengthy and constant bombardment of distressing news. When we are fed a daily diet of news about natural disasters, crime, poverty, nuclear threats, and corporate malfeasance, after a while despair settles in and we may feel a loss of hope. Pretty soon, we just stop feeling anything when we hear of another hurricane, another shooting, another crooked politician, or another starving child.

Sometimes it’s good to look not at the disaster itself, but at those little stories of people helping others, to remind ourselves that there’s good news to balance the bad.

Acts of kindness—big or small—can be overlooked in the midst of tragedy or overwhelming catastrophe. Over the last week, I’ve been hearing stories of kindness and generosity as people respond however they are able to the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. We have seen people at their best in the worst of times. Unsung heroes who just want to help, and don’t ask or care if the person they’re helping is conservative or liberal, Christian or Muslim, black, white, or brown. Likewise, those being rescued or receiving aid don’t care about the background or beliefs of their rescuer—they are grateful to be seen and helped.

I don’t need to write a post saying, “this is how we’re supposed to care for one another … this is who we are.” Those who agree already think so and those who don’t 1) aren’t likely to change their minds, and 2) aren’t likely to be reading.

What I want to do is just share a few stories of kindness that came out of Hurricane Harvey. They warmed my heart and gave me hope, and they reminded me that when we want to, we can be much better at this business of being human than the daily news might lead us to believe.

  • A group of neighbors formed a human chain to rescue an elderly man trapped in his flooded car. Elsewhere, another group of neighbors also formed a human chain to rescue a woman who went into labor while trapped in her apartment. Their maneuver helped the woman through the floodwaters to a rescue vehicle.
  • Dr. Stephen Kimmel, left his own flooding home and canoed through floodwaters to reach a hospital where he performed emergency surgery on a teenage boy.
  • Jim McIngvale, known as “Mattress Mack,” opened up several locations of his furniture store to Houstonians displaced by the hurricane. He sent out his big box-trucks to pick up more than 200 people who were stranded by floodwaters. More than 200 others found their way to his stores where he urged them to make themselves at home on the beds, mattresses, chairs, and sofas. “To hell with profits, let’s take care of the people,” said McIngvale. His furniture stores also became a place to crash for exhausted National Guard troops who were deployed to Houston.
  • Three young men were on mission to rescue stranded hurricane victims when their boat hit a bridge and capsized. One man was rescued, but two, Alonso Guillén and Tomas Carreon Jr., drowned. Guillén was part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, created under the Obama administration to protect from deportation undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. The current Administration has called for the end to DACA. “He died wanting to serve,” said Alonso’s brother, Jesus Guillén. “He could have stayed home watching the news on television, but he chose to go help.”
  • Nick Sheridan drove his truck 200 miles to participate in rescue efforts. Along with two other big-rig drivers, he rescued more than 1,000 people. “We worked together. We drove through the streets in teams so that if one of us got stuck we had each other to keep moving…. I was really able to put my equipment to use here being a freelance rescuer.”
  • Teams of medical professionals from all over the country have gone to Houston to help with the medical response. University of Washington professor and emergency physician Stephen Morris is part of one disaster medical assistance team from my own state working in a field hospital just outside the city. Dr. Morris notes that his team is addressing significant numbers of wound cases, high blood pressure, medication issues, and severe distress related to loss of homes and livelihoods.
  • There were also countless stories of animal rescues. You may have seen the film of two men riding horses through the flood waters to save livestock, including a penned-in horse that was standing in water up to its neck. A national effort was undertaken by the Humane Society of the United States and several other animal rescue groups to transfer animals in shelters to facilities in other parts of the country, where they hope the animals will be adopted. Texas shelters are expecting a large influx of lost pets and abandoned animals in the wake of Harvey.

These are just a few of the innumerable stories of kindness, compassion, and heroism that have come out of Hurricane Harvey. It appears that we’re likely to see more in the wake of Hurricane Irma as she devastates parts of the Caribbean and approaches landfall in Florida and potentially other parts of the Southeastern U.S.

We saw twelve years ago with Hurricane Katrina that recovery from a disaster such as this does not come quickly. It may take years. People tend to be great at responding immediately to disaster, but we have short attention spans. It’s too easy to forget that people who have lost their homes, or whose homes are badly damaged, will be dealing with the stress and expense of recovery for a long, long time.

Let’s all remember to be supportive for the long-haul, in whatever ways we can. One great way to be supportive and also to provide a bit of relief for any compassion fatigue you may be suffering is to join the September 12 Hand In Hand telethon, helmed by a number of caring celebrities to benefit those affected by Hurricane Harvey. It’s now been expanded to include Hurricane Irma victims, too.

Alarmingly, Hurricanes Jose and Katia are not far behind….

“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” (Paulo Coelho)

 

Are Wealthy People Less Compassionate?

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

Attribution: Donna CameronSome time ago, I came across an article citing research that I found fascinating. I wanted to write about it in YOLK, but was deterred by a concern that it’s just one more thing that divides us . . . and there’s already way too much of that.

Still, I think it’s important information and perhaps if approached with curiosity and a desire to inspire change, instead of finger-pointing or rebuke, it might be beneficial rather than divisive.

U.C. Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner conducted several studies examining whether social class affects how people think about and treat others. They defined social class by such measurements as wealth, education, and professional prestige.

In one study, they observed motorists at four-way intersections and reported that drivers of luxury cars were more likely to cut off other drivers, rather than wait their turn at the intersection. Interestingly, I had noted this phenomenon first-hand several years ago when I traveled to California’s wealthy Marin County for a business conference (confession: I grew up in Marin, but escaped in my 20s). At a four-way stop in the affluent town of Mill Valley, my lowly rental Taurus was cut-off first by a Maserati and then by a Mercedes convertible. At another intersection, I stopped, but a Lamborghini breezed through the stop-sign as if it didn’t exist. Piff’s and Keltner’s research confirmed this behavior in luxury car drivers regardless of time of day or density of traffic. They also found that these drivers were more likely than others to ignore a pedestrian trying to cross at a crosswalk.

In a different, but equally fascinating study, these same researchers manipulated class feelings to examine selfish behaviors. They asked people to spend some time comparing themselves to others who were either better or worse off financially. Then they offered the subjects a jar of candy and told them they could take as much as they wanted and that the remainder would be given to nearby children. Interestingly, the participants who had spent time thinking about how much better off they were than others took significantly more candy than those who viewed themselves as less well-off.

Yet another study by the Berkeley researchers showed that people with lower income and education levels had more compassion for children being treated for cancer than did people at higher levels educationally and economically.

It’s hard to hear about studies such as these and not conclude that wealthy people have a rather warped sense of entitlement and privilege. In a New York Times article, Keltner and Piff postulated that their research may explain why elite financial institutions, such as Goldman Sachs, have been rife with greedy and unethical behaviors. Greed can become morally defensible for those who enjoy wealth and abundance. Further, according to the researchers, the less people have to worry about their own wealth and position, the less they think about others or care about the feelings of other people. “Wealth gives rise to a me-first mentality,” they concluded.

While it would seem logical that those who have little would be disinclined to give, the opposite seems to be the case. The disadvantaged give generously. And those who are prosperous seem less inclined to care about people who are less fortunate. Author Daisy Grewal notes that this is important because people in positions of power—political and economic power—tend to be these privileged wealthy who are not inclined to make decisions that help the poor or the marginalized members of society. Relying on those in power to care for the rest of us is probably a false hope. Greed, says Grewal, “may have the strongest pull over those who already have the most.”

I find this research fascinating. Having spent my career in the non-profit world, I saw abundant research showing that those most generous in donating to causes or supporting charitable endeavors were often those least able to afford it. On a percentage-of-income basis, those with lower incomes tended to be substantially more generous than those in the higher brackets.

Generalities are dangerous, though, and we must be careful not to make blanket statements or assumptions that serve only to widen the rift between those with privilege and those without, or between classes, cultures, or communities. There are enormously generous people with wealth and power (think Melinda and Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, Lady Gaga, Paul Allen, and many more).

Recently, I found it eye-opening (but not surprising) that when presidential press secretary Sean Spicer left the White House, the parting comment for him was not a wish that he would find a new position that challenged and fulfilled him, or that he would find a new way to contribute to society, but that he would “make a tremendous amount of money.” Of course, what is to be expected from the administration of a president who has declared, “You have to be wealthy in order to be great” (as demonstrated so clearly by Gandhi and Mother Teresa…)?

It saddens me that for so many people, success and value—their own and others’—are measured only by wealth. You can’t be successful unless you make a lot of money. And for many, that translates to whatever you need to do to accumulate wealth is justified, because wealth is all that really matters.

Until collectively we can start measuring people by a new standard, it’s unlikely that the growing inequality we see will change. The question becomes: how do we change that standard? How do we stop seeing wealth—or lack of it—as a determiner of value, and see instead such factors as generosity, compassion, benevolence, action on behalf of others, and, yes, kindness? Given the current state of American politics, that change isn’t going to come anytime soon, but each of us can stand up for the values that we choose to be measured by.

We can stop admiring wealthy people just because they’re wealthy. We can stop publishing and reading articles about “the world’s richest people” or “how much do they earn” (how about articles on the most generous, or the most compassionate?). We can stop clicking on “news” that tells us about rich celebrities whose only claim to fame is their wealth and their celebrity. We can put our attention and our support—financial or otherwise—behind people and movements that seek positive change and promote values like equality, justice, and compassion. Where we put our attention should align with our intention.

Times change. People change. People can instigate change. What we’re seeing today doesn’t need to be what we see tomorrow.

“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment. We can start now, start slowly, changing the world. How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make a contribution toward introducing justice straightaway. And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!” (Anne Frank)

 

 

What Are We All So Afraid Of?

“Be not afraid.  A kind life, a life of spirit, is fundamentally a life of courage—the courage simply to bring what you have, to bring who you are.” (Wayne Muller)

Attribution: Donna CameronAs I continue to re-examine some of the key ideas that emerged during my initial year of living kindly, I note how often fear emerges as a barrier to kindness—both to our expressing it and to our receiving it. And beyond inhibiting kindness, fear is also very often at the root of unkindness and incivility.

Why is fear such a big factor in keeping us from being our best selves?

Extending Kindness

We’re often hesitant to extend a kindness because we fear the result. Is it the right thing? Will I say the wrong words? Is it enough? Is it too much? Will it be rejected? Will I be rejected? If I offer assistance to someone, will they take offense that I perceived them as incapable? Fear can be paralyzing and our opportunity to express it passes by swiftly.

We also fear embarrassment. Kindness may take us out of our comfort zone; it may ask us to do something new. Perhaps we’ll be clumsy or awkward, or we’ll call attention to ourselves in an unwelcome way. If I stop to hand a couple of dollars to someone in need, will my companion scold me and call me a bleeding heart?

The question we all too often fail to ask is, “Could my kindness here make a positive difference?”

Receiving Kindness

On the receiving end of kindness, we may fear being perceived as weak or needy. Or perhaps we want to maintain a distance between ourselves and the giver; we fear strings may be attached to the proffered kindness. Receiving can be just as awkward and clumsy as giving—maybe we fear we don’t deserve the kindness, or it is out of proportion to our own smaller generosity. Maybe we’ll embarrass the giver, or ourselves. Accepting the kindness of others with grace and appreciation is itself an act of kindness. And a pretty easy one, at that. But it takes practice. Whether you are offered a material gift, assistance, or a compliment, do your best to receive it courteously and savor the kindness.

Perhaps the question to ask here is, “What’s the most gracious response I can offer?”

Behaving Unkindly

When we see unkindness, at its root is often fear. When someone lashes out at another person, it may not be for anything the person has or hasn’t done. They are simply the nearest individual on whom to deflect blame, embarrassment, or anger. Not so long ago at a downtown hotel parking lot, a number of people were in line at the payment kiosk. The person who was trying to pay could not get his credit card to work. He turned it one way, then the next, he inserted it slowly, then quickly. He tried a different card with the same result. People behind him were beginning to get impatient, though they tried not to show it. Finally, someone suggested pushing the button that would summon an attendant. When the attendant arrived, he helped the fellow process his payment in less than 30 seconds. Instead of being grateful, the man just got angrier. He berated the attendant for the machine’s poor quality, and for the exorbitant price of the parking, and finally for the inconvenience he was subjected to. Perhaps he was angered over the inconvenience, but it appeared more likely that he was embarrassed and feared the judgment of people waiting behind him to pay. Were they thinking he was incompetent? After all, none of the people ahead of him had experienced any problem with the machine.

Many of the things we fear are threats to our pride, to the image we have of ourselves. When our pride is threatened, when we fear that others—or even ourselves—will see that we are not as strong, smart, capable, or lovable as we believe ourselves to be, we often strike out or strike back. We act unkindly.

The question to ask here is, “What am I afraid of?”

I think one of the best moments of our lives is when we stop worrying about what other people think of us or how we are being judged. The truth is that most people are far too concerned with themselves to spend much time appraising others. And those who do want to belittle, snicker, and sneer simply aren’t worth worrying about!

Change the Question

When I first wrote about how fear inhibits our kindness, I suggested that the question we often ask ourselves in the face of fear, “What’s the worst that could happen?” is the wrong question to ask. I still believe that’s true. Much better is to ask, “What’s the best that could happen?” Focusing on best enables us to see the potential our kindness holds—to brighten a life, to alter the tone of an encounter, to change the world. We need to remember that kindness has ripples far beyond our awareness. A seemingly small action could trigger others, which trigger still more, and, ultimately, might be the tipping point that transforms the world.

Focusing on best diminishes our fear and also keeps our desired goal front-and-center in our mind. If we focus on worst, our subconscious points toward it. If we focus on best, all our capacities conspire to make that happen. All it takes is practice and confidence that the path of kindness will lead us where we want to go.

The Power of Kindness

Many people still choose to see kindness as a sign of weakness. They erroneously equate it with being wishy-washy or a pushover. If I exhibit kindness, I’ll be inviting others to take advantage of me. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kindness takes strength, it takes resolve and courage, and the willingness to be vulnerable.

When fear threatens to deter our kindness, or to incite unkindness, we need to remember that kindness has the ability and power to vanquish our fears. Then, step past the fear and claim our kindness.

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” (Amelia Earhart)

Let’s Pause for a Moment of Kindness

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” (Victor Frankl)

attribution: Donna CameronA lot has happened since I embarked on this journey to explore, experience, and express kindness. January of 2015 might as well be another era—and maybe even another planet—given how much the world has changed. When my year of living kindly started, the 2016 presidential campaign was embryonic. There were few candidates and they had yet to commence behaving like spoiled children and slinging mud or lies. Societal expressions of bullying and bigotry—while always present—had yet to become a badge of honor, proof of manliness, and source of pride for so many.

By the end of 2015, denigration, name-calling, and lies for the sake of expedience were rampant. My feeble attempt to shine a light on kindness was no match for incendiary politics or blatant socio-economic oppression. But the need for kindness was greater than ever and I saw that living kindly was not something one does for a year and moves on (“How about a year of learning to vacuum and close cupboard doors,” my husband suggested hopefully, knowing all the while that I could grasp neither concept). Living kindly was both path and destination, so one year stretched to two, and now two-and-a-half.

I’m called to revisit earlier explorations—to see if two years later I see things any differently. What did I get right, what did I miss?

The Power of the Pause

For me, one of the biggest lessons of kindness was the power of the pause. Recognizing that a knee-jerk response to perceived slights or bad behavior is neither necessary nor wise was a life-changing insight. Such impulsive reactions are not always an expression of my best self. A pause gives me an opportunity to consider:

  • Did that person mean for their words to come out this way? Might there be a kinder interpretation?
  • Even if their words were intended to hurt or belittle, why must I react in kind? Is my aim to create more conflict or improve the situation?
  • If I say something snarky, will I feel good about it later?
  • What is the kind response here?
  • Is a response even needed or is silence golden?
  • Why am I reacting as I am?

Pausing is a lesson I learned, but also one that continues to challenge me. Since last November’s election, I have needed to relearn—and re-examine—the pause. When I am provoked, I endeavor to pause; sometimes I stay silent and sometimes I speak my heart. There are still occasions when I mutter phrases like “incredible moron” or “clueless Neanderthal,” but I say them privately or to the television. I try to weigh whether or not my response to someone’s political commentary will move the needle—and in which direction. Pausing is a lesson politicians and pundits would do well to learn.

Since learning to pause, I find I am much quieter overall. I don’t need to be right—or righteous—and I don’t need to point out someone else’s foibles. If my husband leaves the lights on right after chiding me for doing the same, I turn the lights off without comment (okay, maybe not every time!). The more I choose to be silent, the easier it is to choose silence. Ultimately, the pause leads me toward peace.

What I learned about pausing two years ago remains true, and the connection between pausing and kindness is unmistakable. In fact, the pause is even more essential to kindness than I originally thought.

I have come to see even more benefits from the simple pause. In addition to forestalling reflexive reactions and allowing me to choose the kind response, the pause is one of the best strategies I have found for self-care. Recognizing when I need to experience quiet or take a few deep breaths—and then doing so—is an ultimate act of kindness to self. And kindness must begin with self.

A pause offers a moment to experience gratitude, to feel joy, to appreciate beauty, to recognize kindness.

In today’s world, every day brings something to be angry or frustrated about: political corruption, injustice, discrimination, the ever-widening gap between those with privilege and those without, threats to our environment, and the acceptance and proliferation of incivility. There are letters to be written, calls to be made, petitions to be signed, conversations to be initiated, and waters to be tested.

The issues that anger me and push all my buttons may not be the ones that rile you. But for each of us there are provocations that elicit our anger and trigger our activism. Thank goodness for that. Yet we also need to recognize when our responses are damaging to our spirits, our bodies, our psyches, or our relationships. As much as we need to be active and vigilant—now more than ever—we also need to give ourselves permission to rest, to say no . . . to pause. And we need to be able to claim that pause for ourselves without guilt or self-reproach.

Whether we are responding to outer stimuli or to inner angst, the ultimate expression of kindness may start with a pause . . . or end with a pause. A pause is not an empty space. It’s a space that is rich with potential. It’s where we choose who we will be and how we will live.

“Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight.” (Rollo May)

 

It Is Not My Intent to Offend Half the World’s Population….

“To belittle, you have to be little” (Khalil Gibran) 

Serena Williams wins her sixth Wimbledon singles trophy, 7/11/2015. By Azilko via Wikimedia Commons

What is it about men? Sometimes I just want to take them by the arm and squeeze it gently while I look into their eyes and say, “Dude, really, get over yourself.” I don’t want to make blanket assumptions or paint all men with the same brush, but I am coming to a conclusion that a world run mostly by males is not working out as well as it might. How about you guys take a few steps back and let women have a go? Or, at the very least, move over, stop man-spreading, and acknowledge that maybe women have something to offer.

I don’t want to offend anyone and I’m not lobbying to make men “less than” (woman all know how that feels). But how about raising women to a place of equality—real equality—not pat-us-on-the-head-and-let-us-into-the-club-if-we-promise-to-be-good “equality”?

There are a lot of wonderful and wise men who read this blog. I love interacting with them. I love reading their blogs. There are a few I treasure as dear and beloved friends, and one with whom I sleep every night. I promise you, I’m not trying to take anything away from you.

And then there’s John McEnroe. Why did John feel it was necessary to weigh in about Serena Williams’ ability and how she would stack up in a match against a male tennis player? Surely, the 58-year-old McEnroe has lived a long and rich enough life that he can find other things to say as he promotes his new memoir and seeks a few more moments in the limelight.

McEnroe, a 7-time Grand Slam champion, declared of Williams, winner of 23 Grand Slams and currently ranked number-one in the world, “If she played the men’s circuit she’d be, like, 700 in the world.”

And, of course (of course!), the player ranked number 701 in the men’s circuit, Dmitry Tursunov, had to weigh in and say, “I would hope that I would win against Serena.”

Both men were quick to qualify that they didn’t want to denigrate Serena’s ability or amazing talent, but women just can’t compete against men. “The reality” is, according to number 701, Tursunov, that “men are stronger in general.”

That may be true. Men may be stronger “in general.” But physical strength isn’t all that’s needed to be a tennis champion. Nor does it justify world dominance. And it doesn’t equate to intelligence, endurance, compassion, complexity, common sense, or a dozen other qualities that people need to navigate their lives effectively and—at the end of it—be able to say with conviction, “I’m leaving the world a better place for having lived.”

Is what McEnroe claimed true? I don’t know and I don’t care. It wasn’t necessary. And it wasn’t kind.

Serena Williams demonstrated some of those other traits of whole-hearted people—including grace—when she responded on Twitter: “Dear John, I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based” and “I’ve never played anyone ranked ‘there’ nor do I have time. Respect me and my privacy as I’m trying to have a baby. Good day sir.”

I realize that a few ill-chosen words by an aging tennis star don’t constitute proof that all men are clueless, or that the world would be in better hands if more world leaders were women. But, really, let’s think about it. And let’s try to do so objectively.

Is there anyone, anyone, who truly believes that 13 aging, rich, white men meeting in secret behind closed doors would—let alone could—craft a health care plan that would be fair to all Americans? Yes, those 13 senators believed in their own omnipotence and innate, “God-given” superior wisdom. It remains to be seen whether there are enough like them in Congress who will continue to assert white, male superiority and pass the bill that will harm millions of Americans who don’t share their power, wealth, or chromosomes.

There was a time when I had more faith in my country and the people who were elected to run it, when I would have said with confidence, “This could never happen.” And I certainly don’t believe that all women possess the qualities that would equip them to lead wisely. But the clock is ticking in a world perilously close to catastrophe. Something needs to change.

John McEnroe is just a reminder of what we’re up against if we want to change the world. Every day, millions of men say things that put women down. Every day, millions of men equate physical strength with power and entitlement. I know it’s not all men, but it’s enough.

As women, even if our physical strength isn’t equal, our intelligence, ability to reason, compassion, judgment, and endurance are. If we continue to step aside for men, if we continue to allow them to get away with saying stupid, hurtful, entitled things without calling them on it, then the world will never change. It could be so much better if instead of fearing a loss of their power, those with the power could see that by sharing it, everyone wins. Think about it.

“We can never elevate ourselves by putting someone else down.” (Donna Cameron)

The Kindness of Generous Listening…

“To be kind is more important than to be right. Many times what people need is not a brilliant mind that speaks but a special heart that listens.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Attribution: Donna CameronEvery once in a while, I come across a life-changing piece of knowledge.

Sometimes it’s something I want so much to be true and then discover that it actually is: Dark chocolate is good for you. So’s an occasional glass of red wine. Dark chocolate and red wine together are a truly splendid and healthy combination.

Sometimes it’s something I should have known but somehow never learned: Like the actual lyric to Elton John’s song, Rocket Man, is, “Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone,” not “Rocket man, burning all the trees off every lawn.” [Irrelevant aside: this is a mondegreen, a misinterpretation of a phrase or lyric that alters the meaning. One of my favorites: “The girl with colitis goes by” rather than “The girl with kaleidoscope eyes,” in The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.]

Returning to relevance…. Sometimes it’s something that completely changes the way I look at the world: Many years ago at a conference I was attending, a neuroscientist was reporting on how we learn. She said it’s very important to listen to people who are trying to explain something to you, but, unless, you need the information for your job, or it’s something you really want to know, don’t feel obligated to understand what they’re telling you.

I was sure I’d misunderstood her. I raised my hand and asked her to repeat it, and then after her talk I went up to her and asked her for more explanation. When she finished explaining I wanted to kiss her, or buy her dinner. A weight had been lifted from my shoulders. A cauldron of churning guilt evaporated.

My husband is a physicist. He reads books about quantum mechanics, electrodynamics, and advanced mathematics for pleasure. He subscribes to science magazines and solves calculus problems for fun in his leisure time. I majored in Russian literature and philosophy, and spent my career in nonprofit management—it’s a wonder we’ve kept the conversation going all these years. Fortunately, we both love The Dick Van Dyke Show.

When Bill gets excited about something he reads, he comes and finds me and explains it to me. He explains it in great detail and then describes the implications this new bit of knowledge holds for the future of science, or the future of the planet. Up until I heard the neuroscientist speak, I felt terrible that I didn’t understand a word of what he was telling me. I felt I was letting him down. I’d try to ask intelligent questions, but often the concepts were so foreign and abstract that I couldn’t even formulate a question. I just smiled and nodded, and felt inadequate.

Turns out that’s okay! Bill reinforces what he learns by explaining it to someone (me). That someone (me) doesn’t have to understand. Whether or not I comprehend what he’s telling me doesn’t affect the imprinting on his brain one way or another. As long as I’m willing to smile and nod, I’m holding up my end of the conversation just fine.

That was a huge revelation, and it removed years of guilt over the fact that I really don’t understand physics and probably never will.

Best of all, it works both ways. If I’m reading about nonprofit board dynamics, or designing a training module, I can sit Bill down and explain what I’m learning or what I’m trying to do. Sometimes he asks a great question or makes an astute suggestion. Often, he just smiles and nods. I always walk away with new insight and a grounding in something that lacked clarity before.

It was liberating for both of us to learn that we didn’t have to understand the other’s passion, or even pretend to understand. Bill still doesn’t really get what I do, even after I’ve been doing it for more than 30 years. Nor does he share my fervor for all things Dostoevsky. And I don’t fathom physics and can’t begin to wrap my brain around advanced calculus.

This permission to not understand isn’t a “pass” to stop trying to comprehend people who think differently than ourselves. We still need to extend effort to understand alternative points of view or opinions, and to engage in respectful discourse. That’s a basic tenet of civilized society—though one that is facing its own challenges these days. To do otherwise is to cease learning and close off our minds. It fosters ignorance, invites prejudice and ultimately even violence. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

While listening and understanding is ideal in our conversational relationships, when understanding is absent, the gift of generous listening is often sufficient. Think about that next time your spouse or child wants to explain something that’s outside your ken. And think about it, too, if you want to reinforce new knowledge and worry that your listener may not understand or be interested. It’s okay—neuroscience says so.

The weird thing is that after more than three decades of listening to Bill explain physics to me, every once in a while I grasp some of what I’m hearing and I ask a truly intelligent question.

I don’t know which of us is more surprised.

“What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” (Jean Jacques Rousseau)

Driving Miss Crazy

“Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn’t block traffic.” (Dan Rather) 

Over the last few years of exploring kindness, writing about it, and occasionally talking about it, one of the most frequent comments I encountered from others was along the lines of, “I think I’m a pretty kind person—except when I’m behind the wheel.”

What is it about driving that can turn a pacifist into a warrior, or transform Prince or Princess Charming into Freddy Krueger? As much as it pains me to say it, there are always going to be some people who will be aggressive jerks under any circumstances—and driving just magnifies that jerkiness to cosmic proportions. But there are also kind and good-natured individuals who transform before our very eyes into sneering auto-crats with the vocabulary of a Quentin Tarantino thug.

Clearly, there is no single reason for the metamorphosis that occurs when an otherwise splendid human being gets behind the wheel of their vehicle—be it a Ford F-150 pick-up, a BMW, or a Toyota Prius.

Some studies cite the protection and the anonymity offered by a heavy vehicle moving at high speed. Surrounded by a few thousand pounds of steel, we can name-call and chastise, knowing that similar behaviors directed back at us can’t actually penetrate the armor of our vehicles (unless the other driver is both psychotic and armed, then all bets are off).

I think the fact that we’re nearly always in a hurry is a big factor, too. We’re just trying to get from here to there and aggressive or oblivious drivers slow us down. They get in our way and then they won’t get out of our way. All the while, the clock is ticking.

There may also be a connection to a condition called “illusory superiority,” a cognitive bias whereby individuals overestimate their own qualities and abilities, relative to others(think Lake Wobegon, where, famously, all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average). In a famous study conducted some years ago, 93% of American participants rated themselves as above-average drivers. Even with my limited mathematical prowess, I recognize this to be a statistical impossibility. The same study also included Swedish drivers, for whom—somewhat more humbly—only 69% claim to be above average.

So, if 93% of Americans are driving around feeling superior to other drivers, who’s to blame them if they express their superiority by refusing to yield, tailgating, speeding, flashing their lights, and honking their horns. And why should they use turn signals—they know where they’re going, why let the rest of us in on it?

I’ve heard it said that if you really want to get to know someone, just watch how they drive. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. There’s something exceptional about driving—it takes certain people out of their day-to-day tranquil reality and drops them in a dystopian battlefield where they become someone else entirely, someone they’re really not all that proud to be. Again, I exempt the true jerks (jerkus americanus) from this acquittal, because they revel in letting their true colors fly as they terrorize the highways, speed the side streets, and assert their dominance across parking lots.

I came across an interesting study that ranked all fifty states and the District of Columbia by the rudeness of their drivers. It also noted what other state held each state in particular contempt for its driving. Surprisingly (to me at least), Idaho drivers were ranked as the rudest of all, and they are especially hated by drivers from Arizona (a state which is ranked 34th and has as its nemesis the state of California). My own state, Washington, comes out pretty well, ranking 43rd in rudeness, and disliked most by our neighbor to the south, Oregon. Washington drivers don’t seem to hold particular animosity for any other drivers, while California drivers appear to hate nearly everyone. Given how highly-caffeinated Washington State drivers are, our ranking comes as a bit of a surprise. But, then, based on the number of venti Starbucks cups I see in drivers’ hands, I suspect we are all just looking for the next easy-access restroom.

In yet another study of rude driving (there are many!), the author concluded that good and courteous drivers are “turned bad” by rude drivers. The courteous ones mistakenly believe that by venting their frustration they will let offending drivers know they have behaved poorly, so that they will not repeat the behavior in future. “It’s a contradiction,” says road safety researcher Lauren Shaw, “good drivers are using rude and unpleasant bad behavior to teach other drivers how to be better drivers.” All that does, she concludes, is confirm to aggressive drivers the bad behavior of all drivers.

Is there way to conquer our own aggressive driving and not be provoked by the hostile or foolhardy driving habits of others? I think there is, but I suspect few people will like it. Here goes anyway: Let go of needing to be right (or righteous)—even when you know you are. Even when you’re absolutely, positively, without any doubt, certain you are right. Let it go.

Maybe we could take a cue from some of the street signs we see all over (and often ignore):

Yield. Let the other guy in—whether he’s merging onto the highway, trying to change lanes, or snatching up the parking place you had identified as your own. Even if it clearly was your space, or if he jumps in without signaling or waving thanks, what does it cost to acquiesce, and to do so without cussing and name-calling?

Stop. Before you act aggressively or react to another driver’s idiocy or belligerence, pause and ask yourself if that’s really who you want to be and whether you will feel better or worse after yelling an obscenity or making that universally recognized hand-gesture. A pause offers us the option to be gracious and to put an end to escalating rudeness.

Seek Alternate Route. Remind yourself that you always have a choice, and when you make the choice—rather than allowing someone else’s behavior to make it for you—you’re not only exhibiting maturity, you’re modeling good behavior for others on the road or in your own vehicle.

I don’t have the slightest idea what this sign means. But maybe it’s a reminder that we can’t always know what’s going on in someone else’s life that has made them behave aberrantly. Maybe they’re a brand-new driver and they’re terrified … perhaps they’re rushing a loved one to the hospital … possibly they’re lost…. Why not give the benefit of the doubt?

Some people will never change. But if driving is one of the few places where you lose control and succumb to unkindness, challenge yourself to take another route the next time you get behind the wheel. See if you can find the road that leads to inner peace.

“When you argue with a fool, make sure he is not similarly engaged.” (Proverb)

 

 

Kindness Withheld is Kindness Lost Forever

“It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.” (Moliere)

Attribution: Donna CameronLast week, I had the pleasure of speaking at a conference about kindness in business—its benefits to the workplace, to the bottom-line, and to both business owners and employees. It was a receptive group and we had a lot of fun (well, at least I did!). Afterward, a number of people came up to me to share their stories of kindness—kindnesses extended, kindnesses received, and kindnesses witnessed. There were stories of roadside assistance, found wallets, Starbucks’ gift cards, and neighborly sharing.

I was struck once again by a notion that is both obvious and subtle: Most acts of kindness are easy to do, but they’re also just as easy not to do.

It’s easy to dismiss the idea as either gobbledygook or a statement of the glaringly obvious, but to my simple brain, it’s also somewhat profound.

Nobody’s ever going to know or notice if you don’t stop to assist someone whose car is stuck in the snow. Or if you don’t offer to help someone who’s struggling to carry a heavy load. Or if you don’t stop to chat with the homeless guy and hand him a couple of bucks. Nobody’s likely to comment on its absence if you don’t smile, or if you don’t speak some words of appreciation to the waiter or the cashier. What we don’t do is lost forever and the potential it held to begin never-ending ripples of kindness is lost to the world. Who knows where those ripples might have reached and what difference they might have made?

I wonder if that’s why some people pooh-pooh kindness as feeble and inconsequential. How could anything as simple as smiling, holding a door, or offering a compliment make any difference in a world where countries are on the brink of war, where city streets could erupt in violence at any moment, and where inequality and mistrust divide us every which way?

I am reminded of the many times in my life when I was buoyed by a kind word or inspired to be a better me after witnessing the kindness of others. I can also recall times when I held back—afraid of how my words might be received, or reluctant to draw attention to myself. The ease of not doing or not saying offered me a safe haven…but at what cost?

Even this post, describing the simplicity of kindness and the allure of inertia, offers a similar choice. No one would ever know if I hit delete, fearful that the inanity of the obvious will be received with a roll of the eyes or a sigh of impatience. But, if I put it out there, maybe one person (maybe me!) will choose to extend a kindness they might otherwise have allowed to slip away. And who knows where that could lead?

Only one way to find out….

“If you want to be a rebel, be kind.” (Pancho Ramos Stierle)

 

 

Resurrecting “The Pusher”

Attribution: Donna CameronEarlier this week, a post in The Green Study, one of the most intelligent and articulate—also compelling—blogs in the ‘sphere, triggered in me a spark of a long-forgotten poem. I searched for it on the Internet and was surprised to see that it’s not easy to find—anywhere. I finally found it buried in a couple of old documents from the ‘70s. One attributed the poem to Barry Stevens; another printed it with no attribution. Elsewhere, I found a reference to the poem, saying that it was written by Peter Goblen and first appeared in Barry Stevens’ 1970 counterculture book, Don’t Push the River (it flows by itself). I think this latter attribution is correct. I considered the poem wise when I was in college, and still do.

It troubled me that the poem is virtually lost to us and I wanted to re-introduce it to intelligent people who might appreciate it. I originally viewed it only as a warning about religious extremism, but I see today that it speaks to religious, political, ideological, and even lifestyle zealotry. Maybe you’ll find it thought-provoking, too.

The Pusher

Beware the seeker of disciples
the missionary
the pusher
all proselytizing men
all who claim that they have found
the path to heaven.

For the sound of their words
is the silence of their doubts.

The allegory of your conversion
sustains them through their uncertainty.

Persuading you, they struggle
to persuade themselves.

They need you
as they say you need them:
there is a symmetry they do not mention
in their sermon
or in the meeting
near the secret door.

As you suspect each one of them
be wary also of these words,
for I, dissuading you,
obtain new evidence
that there is no shortcut,
no path at all,
no destination.

~Peter Goblen

Kindness and Common Sense Often Go Hand-in-Hand

“There are few problems in life which kindness and common sense cannot make simple and manageable.” (Mary Burchell)

Attribution: Donna CameronI’ve been invited to speak at a conference later this month on the importance of kindness in business and the workplace. Working on my PowerPoint (of course, there must be a PowerPoint!) and putting some notes together this last weekend, I kept thinking how obvious it is: kindness is one of the keys to success in business—both individual success and organizational success. It seems like a no-brainer.

I’m old enough that I remember the days of “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap and a proliferation of business books about Winning Through Intimidation, Looking Out for Number One, and Nice Guys Finish Last. There really was a time when “profit at any price” was a prevailing business philosophy and when ideals like kindness, compassion, and even teamwork were viewed as soft, squishy, and oh-so-weak.

Managers believed—they were even taught—that they got the most effort from their employees through bullying, browbeating, and coercion. They overlooked the obvious—that those behaviors resulted in low morale, resentment, and high turnover.

In recent years, there’s been a whole lot of research on kindness. As I’ve noted in many earlier posts, there are health benefits, wealth benefits, relationship benefits, and, yes, many, many business benefits. Just as there were once many books on cutthroat business practices, there are now numerous books on compassion as a successful business strategy. Among them:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unlike the others, this last one isn’t a recent book. It’s 20 years old, but still one of the best business books I know. Certain ideas are timeless, and you’ll find them in this and other books by Lance Secretan.

 

Here’s just a sampling of some of the recent research on kind and compassionate workplaces, found in these books and elsewhere:

Employees of companies described as having kind cultures:

  • Perform at 20% higher levels
  • Are 87% less likely to leave their jobs
  • Make fewer errors, thus saving their companies time and money
  • The companies themselves have 16% higher profitability
  • And if they’re publically traded companies, they have a 65% higher share price.

Research has also shown that compassionate business cultures consistently have:

  • better customer service
  • healthier employees and fewer absences
  • far less turnover and an easier time replacing employees when they do leave
  • higher productivity
  • greater employee engagement and commitment, and
  • an atmosphere where learning, collaboration and innovation are more likely to flourish.

In business, kindness is your competitive advantage.

It helps to have some common sense, too.

Which brings to mind United Airlines’ recent incident. I’m sure you’ve heard the story: Passengers were bumped from their seats and removed from a plane to make room for United crew members who needed to get to the flight’s destination. One bumped passenger, a doctor of Chinese descent, was forcibly removed when he refused the bump, telling airline personnel he had to get home to see patients. Security dragged him from his seat and pulled him by his arms and on his back down the aisle; his face was battered and bloodied in the process. What did United gain by this? Well, maybe they got their flight crew to their destination, but it cost them millions of dollars (one estimate I saw said easily a billion!) in bad press, lost passengers, and worldwide contempt. In China, where United is among several airlines competing for a share of the huge travel market, videos of the incident have gone viral at record rates, and Chinese travelers are vowing never to fly United. The monetary and P.R. costs to the company are incalculable.

Common sense and a compassionate mindset would have told United there were numerous other options: buying tickets for their crew on another airline, seeking a back-up crew, allowing the stranded crew’s flight to be delayed, approaching passengers without the confrontational, stormtrooper tactics…they could even have chartered a small plane. The relatively small cost of any of these options would have been preferable to the “nuclear option” they chose.

But if kindness and compassion—and, let’s face it, common sense—aren’t part of a company’s culture, these are the sorts of things that happen. I’m guessing other airlines, and other businesses in general, are using the United story as a teaching moment for their executives and employees. Let’s hope United has the good sense to be one of those companies.

If they’re interested, I can recommend some good books….

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.” (Jimi Hendrix)