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/

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)

To Give or Not to Give

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

Attribution: Donna CameronOver these last couple of years of writing and talking about kindness, a consistently controversial topic of conversation has been whether or not to give money to panhandlers and homeless people. I know people who always try to carry a stash of dollar bills to hand out when they can. An acquaintance keeps socks and hygiene products in her car and offers them to people who appear to be in need.

I also know people—good people—who are vehement that such handouts are wrong-headed and counter-productive. They say the people seeking our dollars are just lazy; if given money, they’ll use it for drugs or alcohol. We’re just enabling them, they tell me.

While attending a conference in Washington, D.C., several years back, I was walking to dinner with a colleague after a long day of meetings. We were stopped on the sidewalk by a young man who asked if we could help him out with any spare change. I reached into my wallet and handed him a dollar. He walked on and so did we. However, for the remainder of our walk and well into our dinner, my friend scolded me for giving the man money. She said he was probably a freeloader who didn’t want to work and made his living conning and begging tourists and bleeding-hearts like me. How did I know that he was really in need, or that he wouldn’t spend the money on drugs or alcohol? She said I was just making the problem worse by handing him money on the street. If he was really in need, there were social service agencies that could help.

I was surprised by her vehemence—I knew her to be a very kind person. She was a nurse, for heaven’s sake! I may have tried to defend my action, but mostly I was just embarrassed. Not embarrassed to have given money, but embarrassed to be scolded like a school-girl. I think I would be more assertive and confident in my reply today.

Nonetheless, I am somewhat chagrined to admit that since that evening I rarely give anyone money when I am in the company of a friend, a business colleague, or even my husband. I’m not proud that I have allowed my fear of embarrassment to inhibit my kindness. I’ve even rationalized it to some degree: this way, when I give someone money, I am freer to stop and exchange a few words with that individual and I don’t have to feel rushed or worry that I’m delaying my companion, or making them uncomfortable. It is a rationalization, though. I fear judgment.

My friend Nancy recently sent me an editorial from the New York Times Opinion Page, entitled, “The Pope on Panhandling: Give Without Worry.” It quotes Pope Francis as saying that it’s “always right” to give to those in need.

When questioned about people who may use the money for drink, Pope Francis said, “[If] a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s OK. Instead, ask yourself what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” (I confess, Your Holiness, it’s chocolate.) He also explains that those of us who are “luckier”—who have homes, and families, and jobs—have a responsibility to those less fortunate. Clearly, this is a view not held by all, but it’s one that fills me with hope.

Further, the Pope explains, what counts as much as giving is how we give. It’s not a matter of dropping money into a cup or quickly handing over a dollar and rushing on, but “looking them in the eyes and touching their hands.”

It’s also exchanging a few words. Even if our own pockets happen to be empty, we can always give the gift of seeing someone, respecting them, and acknowledging our shared humanity.

A couple of years ago, I attended a weekend conference in Pittsburgh. It was late May and the weather was glorious. I had a free afternoon, so I walked to a nearby park and sat on a bench with a book. I divided my time between reading and appreciating the sights around me—children playing on the lawn, couples strolling hand-in-hand, squirrels, dogs, flowers, and endless varieties of trees and birds. I remember feeling the overwhelming sense of how fortunate I was to be able to experience it all. For a time, gratitude filled every pore.

After a while, I walked to a local restaurant and ordered lunch, still able to watch the activity of the park and the busy street outside. I asked the waitress to box up my fruit salad and the remaining, untouched half of my sandwich, thinking they would make a fine dinner. Walking back toward my hotel, I felt the fullness of my life and the amazing privilege of when, where, and how I am living. A block or so from my hotel, I noticed an elderly man slumped in a wheelchair. At his side was a can with a few coins in it and a small cardboard sign with lettering that said, “Please Help.”

I stopped and greeted him. Then I said, “I have a half a turkey sandwich here and some fruit salad. Would you like them?”

His eyes widened and he said, “I surely would.” I handed the restaurant bag to him and also reached into my purse for a couple of dollars, which I also handed him. We talked for a minute or two and I noticed how his eyes held a lively twinkle. When I resumed my walk toward my hotel, I felt even lighter and happier than I had before. My brief interaction with the man had felt good. While I’m sure he appreciated the sandwich and the few dollars I handed him, I sensed that even more, he appreciated being seen. He was used to people averting their eyes, ignoring him as they quickly walked by, even occasionally dropping some change or a couple of dollars into his can, but then rushing off without a word.

I think my own gratitude that day opened me to extending a kindness and offering not just the gift of food or money, but the gift of my genuine attention. I received a cherished gift that afternoon.

And maybe that’s a way of thinking about the question of whether or not to give to panhandlers and homeless people. Does your small gift of money, kind words, or attention offer you a gift, as well? Does it make your heart just a little bit bigger…and do you hear it sing just a bit sweeter?

What are your thoughts on giving to street people and the homeless?

“A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives the rose.” (Chinese Proverb)

 

What Are You Holding Back?

“Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.” (The Dalai Lama) 

Wikimedia CommonsMy talent as a cook is about equal to my interest in cooking—random and fleeting, sporadic at best. Fortunately for me and our friends, my husband is a good cook, and a venturesome one. He does the lion’s share of the meal prep in our household.

Many years ago, he decided he wanted to master potato salad. He tried several recipes, but never found one that excited him. His stepmother made an exceptionally good potato salad and that’s what he was aiming for. So he asked step-mom for her recipe. She refused.

For whatever reason, she didn’t want anyone else to have her recipe. I wish I could say I was surprised, but she was one of those people who held tightly to everything she had. She had neither open hands nor an open heart. A few years later she died, taking with her the secret to her great potato salad. Sadly, the loss of the salad was probably mourned more than the loss of the woman.

Bill did finally find a great potato salad recipe, shared by TV personality Joan Lunden. We appreciate her generosity every time we enjoy the salad and make it for friends.

As previously noted, my own cooking is generally mediocre and uninspired, but on those rare occasions when someone asks for one of my recipes, I am elated and eager to comply. I have even been known to inflict unrequested recipes on my dinner victims guests. And, fortunately, my friends—who are all fabulous cooks—are always generous in sharing their recipes.

I’ve never understood people who are unwilling to share their recipes. What is it they’re holding on to? Does it give them a sense of superiority to know that no one else will ever be able to replicate their Chicken Marsala or Cherry Chocolate Walnut Cream-Cheese Pie? How much better it would be to know there are people preparing our recipes and thinking of us fondly as they do.

Refusing to share a recipe is just one example of how we sometimes senselessly withhold things in our lives—from recipes, to compliments, to knowledge, to assistance.

In my professional life, I occasionally saw this behavior exhibited by colleagues who somehow felt that holding information close to their vest gave them an advantage. I would see them strategically spring their information in a board or committee meeting, often blindsiding other colleagues who would have welcomed the knowledge earlier. Sometimes this resulted in needless scrambling to adapt to new information that should have been provided sooner. While the individual who withheld the information may have been perceived as smart or powerful, they were acting in their own interest rather than the group’s or organization’s.

Writer Annie Dillard has addressed this more eloquently than anyone I know:

“The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

How many of us are guilty of saving things for special occasions, realizing only much later that we never actually enjoyed having them. Maybe it’s a piece of clothing, or a delicate china tea-cup, or a journal so beautiful we hesitate to write in it. Often those special occasions never come, and we die with our treasures neatly tucked away, wrapped in tissue paper.

A story to illustrate this made the rounds of cyberspace many years ago. The author writes about how she and her brother-in-law found an exquisite and expensive silk and lace slip among her sister’s things after she died. It had never been worn—she had been saving it for years for just the right “special occasion.” They had her buried in it.

As writers, we are sometimes guilty of holding onto our ideas, saving them for just the right time, waiting for the ideal place to share them, or the perfect time to tell our story. We delay so long that sometime those stories never get told—and we were the only one who could have told it in just that way. What were we waiting for?

What we love and treasure is not meant to be hoarded or held back, but to be used, shared, enjoyed, and savored. More will come, it always does. Likewise, what we have or know and can give to others is meant to be offered.

Is there anything in your life that you’re holding back—either not sharing with others or not allowing yourself to enjoy? What are you waiting for?

“Don’t die with your best song still unsung.” (Anonymous)

Words Matter

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak but their echoes are truly endless.” (Mother Teresa)

power-of-wordsI’ve always loved words. There’s a magic to the fact that we can take 26 letters, combine them into sounds with distinct and nuanced meanings, and then combine those into sentences, paragraphs, and ultimately powerful documents, essays, poems, songs, stories, or novels. We can use words to transact business, fall in love, and engage in deep conversation. We can use them to comfort, connect, instruct, inspire, and control.

I knew the first time I picked up a book that words would open up my world. Later, when I read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Edith Wharton, Robertson Davies, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Jane Austen and Albert Camus, I saw how books could change not only my life but also the world. I can’t imagine a life where I don’t engage with words—my own words and the words of people who use them with far greater eloquence and wisdom than I.

Words, to me, are organized religion.

Sometimes we underestimate their power. Words can hurt or elevate. They can enlighten or deceive. They can, quite literally, alter our brains. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, MD, in his book Words Can Change Your Brain, writes that “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.” He explains that positive and optimistic words—words like “love” or “peace” or “kindness”—can lower our stress, improve our health, motivate us, and build resilience. Negative words, on the other hand—words like “no” or “hate” or “stupid”—can release multiple stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters; they can interrupt the functioning of our brains and diminish our logic, reasoning, and language capacities.

Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Newberg, along with Mark Waldman, advises us to choose our words wisely. Negative words lead to negative thinking, which is “self-perpetuating, and the more you engage in negative dialogue—at home or at work—the more difficult it becomes to stop.”

Our negative talking influences not only our own mood, attitude, and health, but also those same characteristics of anyone listening to us. “The listener will experience increased anxiety and irritability, thus undermining cooperation and trust. In fact, just hanging around negative people will make you more prejudiced toward others.”

They caution parents: “…the same holds true for children: the more negative thoughts they have, the more likely they are to experience emotional turmoil.” But if we teach them to think and speak positively we can turn negative feelings and attitudes to positive ones. And, of course, we teach our children by modeling the speech and behaviors we want them to embrace.

Because our brains are wired for survival and self-protection they respond more rapidly and dramatically to negative thoughts and negative words than to positive ones. For that reason, Newberg and Waldman contend that “to overcome this neural bias for negativity, we must repetitiously and consciously generate as many positive thoughts as we can.” They cite several other psychologists and researchers who believe at a minimum “we need to generate at least three positive thoughts and feelings for each expression of negativity.” And “to really flourish,” the ratio of positive to negative should be five-to-one.

Those of us who love words and who recognize their power have an opportunity here…perhaps even an obligation: We can consistently model positive language and perpetuate positive expression and behavior. As incivility mounts across our country and across the world, and as many of us perceive our deepest values to be threatened, we are learning to be activists; we are choosing to be more vocal than ever. Let’s get it right. Let’s remember that words matter.

“I simply do not think that yelling, swearing, threatening or belittling will get you to the place you want to be faster than kindness, understanding, patience and a little willingness to compromise.” (Rachel Nichols)