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)

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)

The Surest Way to Have a Disappointing Holiday Season

snowflakeIf we want to experience joy this season, we need to stop keeping score in our relationships. I wrote and posted a message last January that seems especially relevant now, with the holidays upon us. Keeping score is the fastest way to assure disappointment and resentment. Click here to travel back in time and read the original post.

 

We Need to Start NOW Thinking About How to Heal from the 2016 Election

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” (James Baldwin)

Attribution: Donna CameronSoon we’ll be confronting one of the biggest tests our country has ever faced. We must heal from the wounds we have inflicted upon one another over the last many months. I have to believe that we as a nation can meet this challenge with wisdom and grace.

But I worry.

This year’s election has been the most angry and divisive that I can recall. Sure, there have been many rancorous presidential elections—when the Vietnam War was a dividing issue, or when differing views on the economy, civil rights, or the environment separated us. There have been elections whose outcomes I cheered, and some I deeply lamented. To be perfectly honest, we have elected presidents whose words, positions, or behaviors made me cringe, and I know that some of the presidents I liked and respected the most made other good people cringe. Maybe that’s a cynical definition of democracy: we support the will of the majority even if at times it makes us cringe. And we continue to work within the system to advocate for what we believe to be right, to be best for our country, and to be best for the future of our children and for the world.

This year, though, I worry that whatever the outcome, it will be extremely difficult to bring us all together. The wounds inflicted have been deep, and bitter feelings abound. These may not be as easy to sweep away as the remnants of political puffery that have been bombarding our mail boxes. In addition, there appears to be a small faction of people who desire to foment a wider divide and deeper rancor—they will oppose reconciliation efforts, supporting an agenda that proliferates in darkness and discord.

Most of the people I know—including myself—have strong feelings about who they want (and don’t want) to see occupying the White House next January. No matter what the outcome, a lot of people are going to be disappointed on November 9. Will those people be able to accept their candidate’s loss and move on to pursue unity as a nation? Equally important, will those on the prevailing side be able to win with grace? Can they understand the pain of losing, even if they may never have understood support for the losing candidate? Can they resist the impulse to gloat, or to smirk, or even to indulge in a happy dance of relief? Winning graciously will not be easy. There will undoubtedly be people on both sides who have no desire to model civility. But we must remember that our children will be watching and learning from how adults respond—whether to victory or to defeat. That responsibility is one we must take very seriously.

We have to ask ourselves now, before we know the outcome of the election: Do we want a united country? Are we still capable of coming together to productively and positively address the complex issues that have divided us: equality, poverty, violence, the environment, economic and social equity, foreign relations, infrastructure, education, health care, and so much more? Of course, we will not agree on how to address these issues, but can we agree to seek civil solutions and respectful engagement? If we focus on what’s best about our country and the values that have been our foundation for nearly 250 years, perhaps we can overcome the schism of the last 18 months.

On November 9, can we take a day, or maybe two, to mourn our loss or quietly celebrate our victory and then come together humbly, without rancor or righteousness, and pledge to be a people united in our commitment to justice, equality, and opportunity for all?

We are Americans. We can do this.

“Speak only if it improves upon the silence” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Umm…Let’s Talk About Sex

“For it is in giving that we receive.” (Francis of Assisi)

peacockI first came across this information a few months ago. Of course, I wanted to write a blog post about it right away—this is big news, after all—but I quickly discovered that making it tasteful and appropriate was something of a challenge. Perhaps because the first words I wrote were, “Woo-hoo!”

Then there was the question of a heading for the post. I came up with several and rejected them all—not quite the image YOLK has been cultivating:

  • Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink … There’s a New Reason to Be Kind
  • “Getting Any? Nope? Maybe You’re Not Kind Enough”
  • “Looking for Some Afternoon Delight? Be Kind Every Morning”
  • “Compassion Leads to Passion…and You Can’t Fake It”
  • “Want to Score? Give More!”
  • “Selfish People Have Less Sex…Kind People Have More—What’s Your Pleasure?”

Upon further reflection, I realized that it would be a service—a downright benevolent act—to share this news with readers, and might contribute a fraction to reaching the tipping point that will ultimately change the world from selfish, self-absorbed, and indifferent to kind, caring, involved…and frisky.

If we are to believe Freud (and we have no particular reason to do so—he seems to have been something of a whack-job), sex is the great motivator for humans. Thus, the news from Canadian researchers that people who are altruistic have more sex and more sexual partners might grab the attention of some—particularly college students and men of any age who collect comic books and still live in their parents’ basement.

In an article entitled, “Altruism Predicts Mating Success in Humans,” Canadian psychologist Steven Arnocky reports that, all else being equal, “altruists are more attractive than non-altruists,” and “this may translate into real mating success.”

Reporting in the British Journal of Psychology, Arnocky and his colleagues from Nipissing University, Ontario, describe two studies showing that participants who demonstrated generosity and altruism “were more desirable to the opposite sex, as well as reported having more sex partners, more casual sex partners, and having sex more often within relationships.”

Arnocky and his colleagues explain this phenomenon by noting that altruistic behavior is what biologists refer to as a “costly signal” — it requires some effort, but also trumpets one’s most attractive characteristics to potential partners (think of the male peacock). This conveys to potential mates that the prospect will not only be kind and generous in general, but also in the bedroom. That’s a pretty potent incentive.

Arnocky further notes that this dynamic seems to take place in our subconscious, resulting in natural selection that rewards the kindest and most altruistic among us, replicating that quality in future generations. It may seem hard to imagine, given the incivility that surrounds us today, but let’s grasp at straws and begin imagining that kind and generous people are smiling for reasons beyond their compassion. And those blustering, bullying narcissists are to be pitied not just for their limiting mind-set, but also their shortcomings in the romance department.

I’ve been writing about the benefits of kindness for nearly two years: health benefits, wealth advantages, improved relationships, greater life satisfaction, personal and professional success…. The different benefits will hold varying appeal to people for assorted reasons. This latest benefit might attract the attention of those who have yet to become believers in kindness. And for the rest of us, it’s one more good reason to always choose kindness. Woo-hoo!

“Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, and don’t put up with people that are reckless with yours.” (Mary Schmich)

Kindness and 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)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Snohomish Shoe Tree

A few years ago, seated around a luncheon table at a business meeting, I tuned into a conversation among my table-mates. A woman whom I knew only barely was describing with unconcealed pride the electronic filing system she had created some years before to track Christmas cards.

She described an elaborate program which maintained both a database of names and addresses, and a spreadsheet: “Everyone on my Christmas card list is in there, and when I get cards, I note in my spreadsheet having received them. I can even indicate whether they merely signed the card, whether it was a holiday letter, or whether they included a personal note. After the holidays, I review the list and remove anyone who didn’t send a card, so next year they won’t get one from me.”

I remember thinking at the time that this puts my own obsessive-compulsive tendencies into manageable perspective. I also remember thinking I was glad I was nothing more than a nodding acquaintance with this woman—I didn’t like the notion of being tracked on her spreadsheet. Actually, since I don’t send Christmas cards, I wouldn’t ever have made the cut to begin with.

I’ve thought about that conversation occasionally and realized what I am most uncomfortable with is the notion of keeping score.

Anyone who follows sports knows keeping score is essential. Guys don’t get paid many millions of dollars for romping aimlessly around on the field with other millionaires. They get paid for competing fiercely, and they get paid more for winning.

Likewise, Scrabble, cribbage and dominoes probably aren’t as enjoyable if we agree before playing that we’re not going to keep score. It’s good to have a goal, and healthy competition can make a game more fun.

But relationships are not competitions—nobody wins unless everybody wins.

At the heart of kindness is the idea that we act kindly not for any reward but for the joy it gives us, and out of the knowledge that it is the expression of our highest and best self. If we withhold our kindness until someone proves worthy, or until they meet some standard we have arbitrarily set, aren’t we being pretty small?

I suppose we all keep score to some degree. In a couple, one partner may wash the dishes while the other does the laundry. In a friendship, we each do what we are best able to do and hope it all balances out. The danger comes when one or both of the parties sets up that spreadsheet in their head (or worse, on their computer!).

Nobody wants to be taken advantage of and friendship is supposed to be a two-way street, but relationships are complex things. They can’t be broken down into “I called him last; it’s his turn to call me,” or “We entertained at our house last time; it’s their turn to have us over.” We never know what’s going on in other people’s lives that may make it difficult for them to reciprocate. As with so many things, a kind interpretation invites us to give the benefit of the doubt.

If a relationship is so one-sided that one party does all the giving and the other does all the taking, it’s absolutely reasonable to ask if this really is a relationship, and if it brings joy or satisfaction. And it’s absolutely okay to decide this is no longer working and sever the connection. We’ve talked about it before: being kind doesn’t mean one is a pushover or an easy target. Kindness is a strength, not a weakness.

Has keeping score ever really made anyone feel better? As soon as we start keeping score in our relationships, joy vanishes. Friendships become obligations, we’re always checking to see who’s ahead or whose turn it is to pick up the tab.

When we do something for someone that should be enough. We give without expectation of receiving something in return. No strings attached. We need to let go of the internal ledger on which we record “that’s one for me, zero for her.”

I’m finding as I get older, I’m drawn to lightening my load—getting rid of the stuff that crowds my life (this is difficult, as I believe members of my family carry a hoarder gene). I want to lighten the load I carry in my head, too: let go of thoughts that don’t bring joy, let go of tallies and ledgers, and concerns about whose turn it is. Magically, that also frees my head of resentment, grudges, and disappointment.

If we’re accustomed to keeping score in our relationships—whether it’s with our spouse, close friends, work colleagues, or those marginal people on our Christmas card list, how do we alter that habit of mentally reckoning every interaction we have? Like any habit, it’s probably hard to break, but I’m guessing that if we keep our eyes on the real prize—peace of mind, happiness, and the joy that comes with kindness—we’ll gradually do less scorekeeping and find that we’re spending more time counting our blessings.

“We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.” (Ray Bradbury)

Kind Actions That Don‘t Take Time and Won’t Cost a Dime

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.” (Martha Graham)

038A large element of kindness is giving—perhaps money, perhaps time. And being able to give without thoughts of getting in return is certainly essential to a kind life. However, there may be times when neither time nor money are available to us. Does that mean we cannot still be generous … or kind?

Au contraire! We can always be kind. There are countless ways to be kind that don’t require investments of time or money. They are not without some effort, though. Here are a few that come to mind. Some are self-explanatory, such as:

  • We can make eye-contact, smile, and say “good morning.”
  • We can say “thank you” or “I’m sorry.”
  • We can hold a door or offer help in carrying a heavy load.
  • We can let the car merge in front of us.
  • We can say something nice about an absent friend when others are gossiping about her.
  • We can load the dishwasher even if they aren’t our dirty dishes.
  • We can acknowledge our own imperfections and overlook the foibles of others.

Other little-time-no-cost expressions of kindness invite us to delve deeper into their meaning:

  • If we can give nothing else, we can always give the benefit of the doubt. Rather than assume the worst, let the stories we make up about people or things we don’t know be positive and affirming. We can assume one another’s good intent—and life will be so much richer if we do.
  • We can let go of anger or resentment. We can forgive. Carrying around anger and resentment toward others, or regrets and recriminations toward ourselves serves no one. Kindness happens when we learn from mistakes, slights, and injuries, forgive and open up to a new story.
  • We can listen for the music rather than the missed note. There are people who spend their time looking for the typo, catching others’ errors, and playing “gotcha” with life. While sometimes that’s our day job if we’re an editor, diagnostician, accountant, building inspector, or the like, it needn’t be our personal mission. The rest of the time, we can practice looking for what’s right and letting go of the rest. Learning to let go is one of the great lessons of kindness. One of the best things we can learn is when something needs to be said, and when it doesn’t.
  • Kind words are powerful, and always welcome. We can compliment someone on the great service they provided, or their perspicacity, a well-written report, or how their smile brightens a room. It’s rare that we can’t find something kind to say.
  • We can pay attention and express appreciation for all that we notice. Paying attention to our lives is one of the secrets to a consistently kind life. If we are unaware of what’s going on around us, it’s so easy to miss opportunities to be kind, or miss the kindnesses extended to us by others. Opportunities to express kindness are all around us, but they’re also easy to overlook if we aren’t paying attention.

Of course, there are still many kindnesses that ask us to open not just our hearts, but also our wallets, and ask us to commit our time as well as our intentions. It’s rarely an either/or. When our hearts are open we will do what we can, recognizing that we offer the best of who we are when we choose kindness.

 “You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.” (John Wooden)

Gratitude: A Companion to Kindness

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” (Meister Eckert)

Attribution: Donna CameronThe American Thanksgiving holiday is just over a week away. It is an opportunity for us to pause and acknowledge all we have to be thankful for. Ideally, we should be doing this every day of our lives, but sometimes business and busyness crowd out gratitude.

Throughout this year of living kindly, I’ve noticed over and over that kindness and gratitude go hand-in-hand and also bolster one another. When I am in touch with my gratitude, kindness flows naturally and effortlessly. And if kindness feels hard to summon, taking a moment to appreciate my surroundings, my friends and loved ones, or little things that fill me with delight, inspires a surge of kindness.

I’ve come to see that there are many ways that kindness and gratitude together produce almost alchemical results:

Slowing Down

Both gratitude and kindness ask us to slow down. Slowing down isn’t always easy in our overscheduled and over-active lives. I often feel like I’m rushing from one deadline to the next, one obligation to the next, ruled by a lengthy to-do list. But slowing down is essential if we are to notice and appreciate the sunrise, the mushrooms growing at the base of a pine tree, the birds circling overhead like ice-skaters with wings. And slowing down is essential if we are to notice the smile on the cashier’s face, the door held open for us, or the myriad opportunities before us each day to extend our own kindnesses.

An Open Heart

When I experience gratitude, my heart feels open. It is an experience of abundance and sufficiency. This is all I need. It is also a feeling of presence—what happened five minutes ago doesn’t matter, and what will happen five minutes from now doesn’t matter. I am in the moment.

Likewise, the experience of kindness—whether given, received, or even just witnessed—opens my heart and allows me to feel fully present in the moment. For that brief moment, kindness is all that matters. It reminds me of one of my very favorite quotes, by Henry James: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”

Abundance, too, is a byproduct of kindness. If we believe we are enough, we can easily believe we have enough. Both of these beliefs help us to reserve judgment and extend kindness. And that sense of abundance, whether related to gratitude or kindness—or most likely, both—inspires us to be generous, with our time, our words, our deeds, and our resources.

Negative Emotions

I think it’s difficult to be angry or fearful when one experiences gratitude. I was surer of this last week that I am today, given the horrific events in Paris this past weekend. Those attacks surely brought fear and anger, not just to the people of France, but people all over the world. While there may also be gratitude that one’s family and friends were spared, can gratitude wipe out the fear and anger? I think not. But maybe there can be moments when gratitude at least overrides fear and lets us see that there is much to appreciate even amidst the horror of an attack such as this, or amidst the devastation of a natural disaster, or a personal catastrophe. Maybe it’s gratitude that helps us recover from the worst things that can befall us.

Kindness is also our answer to fear and anger. If we can recognize that our impulse to be unkind or say something unkind is a response to our fear or anger, we can often overcome it. If we can recognize that another person’s unkindness is their response to feeling fearful, we can often respond with kindness through that understanding. Fear often inhibits us from acting kindly—fear that our action will be misunderstood, fear that we will be rejected or embarrassed. Choosing kindness over fear is an act of courage.

Service to the Planet

When we are grateful for something, our instinct is to protect and defend it. If we stand in awe at the edge of the ocean, or if we marvel at the canopy of trees above us as we hike through the nearby hills, our natural desire is to shield them from harm, to assure that they will always be there for us and for future generations to appreciate. Our gratitude puts us in service to life—what could be more important?

Kindness, too, places us in service to life. It’s our acknowledgment that the ultimate kindness is to honor the Earth and our fellow inhabitants—human and otherwise. A healthy planet and sustainable practices is the kindest gift we can offer our planet and the generations that follow us.

Gratitude Practices

It’s lovely if gratitude comes to us frequently and effortlessly, but that is not always the case. Gratitude, like kindness, golf, or piano-playing, is strengthened with practice. The more we do it, the more we experience it and the better we get at expressing it. If you Google “gratitude practices” you will find countless suggestions, from daily meditation, to keeping a gratitude journal, to prayer. I confess that I haven’t yet established a consistent practice, but I try to spend a few moments each morning before I get up thinking about the things I have to be grateful for (the first is always that goofy guy sleeping beside me).

There’s another splendid gratitude practice that I love and practice sporadically. The wonderful physician and teacher Dr. Rachel Remen teaches this; she learned it from anthropologist Angeles Arrien. It takes very little time:

At the end of each day, sit down for a few minutes and answer these questions:

  • What surprised me today?
  • What moved or touched me today?
  • What inspired me today?

Your answers can just be a few words. What you’re trying to do is summon the memory of something that moved you.

As Dr. Remen describes: “The most interesting thing happens, then. Often people are surprised eight or nine hours after something happens when they look back on it deliberately. But [by doing this exercise] that gap shortens until eventually they are able to see in the very moment what surprises them, what touches them, and what inspires them. And then everything changes. The world has not changed, but they have begun to be able to see the world, and they can communicate that experience….It changes everything. It’s a question of paying attention.”

It’s true. At first this is difficult. You may come up blank day after day. “Nothing surprised me” or “Nothing inspired me.” But if you keep searching, you will think of something. Oh, yes, I was touched when I saw those children playing in the park. And just as Dr. Remen says, with practice you begin to notice things that touch or surprise or inspire you in the moment they happen. That creates an enduring state of gratitude—not to mention presence.

Another lovely gratitude practice: For the month of November, my fellow blogger and new friend, Dr. Catherine Cheng—whose wonderful blog, Healing Through Connection, explores (among other terrific things) fixing our healthcare system by improving communications and relationships between physicians and patients—has issued a post daily featuring something in her life that she’s grateful for. Some are things you might expect: her family, good health. Some have surprised and delighted me: Kung Fu Panda, actor George Takei, volleyball…. I look forward each day to seeing what Catherine has chosen to express gratitude for.

Catherine’s posts remind me to think about what I am grateful for—both the expected and the quirky. Whether or not we take the time to write them down, daily recognition of big and little things we have to be grateful for is a wonderful way to live in perpetual thanksgiving.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” (Melody Beattie)