Looking for Kindness in All the Right Places

“You can say any foolish thing to a dog, and the dog will give you a look that says, ‘Wow, you’re right! I never would’ve thought of that!’” (Dave Barry)

My explorations of kindness over the past three years have focused mostly on human kindness, and, on rare occasions, the lack thereof. There have been some days recently when human kindness seems to be in short supply worldwide. The daily news is filled with hostility, incivility, finger-pointing, and name-calling. Its magnitude drowns out the kindnesses all around us, for they are often subtle and spoken in soft voices. At times like these, I look to other sources for a kindness “fix.” I look to our four-legged friends.

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Seeking Peace of Mind? Stop Keeping Score

“Kindness is an inner desire that makes us want to do good things even if we do not get anything in return. It is the joy of our life to do them. When we do good things from this inner desire, there is kindness in everything we think, say, want and do.” (Emanuel Swedenborg)

I overheard a conversation at Starbucks a few days ago. Two young women who looked to be in their early 20’s were talking about Christmas shopping for their boyfriends. One said she wished she know what he was getting her, so she’d know how much to spend on him. The other agreed and said she’s always given her boyfriends better gifts than they gave her. She sounded a bit annoyed by that fact.

The exchange reminded me of an “aha” I had a few years ago. With the holidays coming, perhaps it bears repeating.

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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)

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)