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)

 

 

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)

In Gratitude for Friends and Friendship

“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.” (R.J. Palacio)

Attribution: Donna CameronI wrote last week about querencia, that physical or psychological place of refuge where each of us finds our strength, safety and sanctuary. It’s where we can be our most authentic self. I noted that in the days ahead it was going to be important for each of us to know where our own querencia is and to have it as our refuge and place of refueling. Over these past few days, I’ve also seen that querencia comes in another important form: friends.

Even when it feels like we’re alone, or when dismay threatens to choke all hope, friends appear to make us realize we’re not alone—we’ll get through this together. Friends are found in the usual ways: the people we’ve known for years whom we can call, or get together with for lunch or coffee, or chat with at the mailbox. We share our pain and bewilderment, we explore ideas, and we find solace in laughter. There are also what I call “21st century friendships.” No less real, these are people across great distances, people we may never even have seen in-person and couldn’t pick out of a line-up, but they are friends just the same. We’ve met them through online classes, social media, and blogs.

In recent days, friends of both types have been gold. They called, emailed, or texted at just the right moment—a thoughtful image, a righteous quote, or a joke to put it all in perspective. They were querencia.

Attribution: Donna CameronI found lavish querencia yesterday walking with my sister-in-law and an amazing 130,000 people across the streets and hills of Seattle. The march—triple the number that had been anticipated—was peaceful, joyous, and immensely energizing. Ordinarily, I feel overwhelmed and grumpy in huge crowds—this was just the opposite. There was always plenty of room for everyone, and on the faces of my fellow marchers smiles, laughter and hope abounded. Friends who were not able to march had sent messages of solidarity and were with us in spirit, providing strength and resolve. The message we sent was one of great hope and greater determination. Anyone who fails to see and hear it is delusional.

This blogging community has also certainly been a place of querencia for me in recent weeks and days. So many people in this community have shared their grief, their wisdom, their sources of inspiration, and their humor (always needed and always appreciated!).

Thank you to so many friends who offered—and continue to offer—strength and support. Thank you for being querencia.

“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)

Attribution: Donna CameronAttribution: Donna Cameron

Attribution: donna Cameron

Where Is Your Querencia?

“There is a way to live that makes the angels cry out in rapture. There is a way to live that makes each cell a star.” (from “Clearing,” Morgan Farley)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Harmony Hill

In recent days, I’ve seen a number of writers and bloggers declare that they chose a single word to be their theme or focal point for 2017. In place of traditional resolutions, they selected words like joy, trust, focus, even kindness, to be their inspiration for the year. I started thinking about what word I might choose. Of course, kindness is my raison d’etre. It’s more than just a word—to me it’s a way of living. It’s at the heart of everything. I looked for another word that might speak to the journey ahead.

The one that sprang to mind is a word I encountered some years ago, in one of my favorite books, Kitchen Table Wisdom. Author Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, introduced the concept of querencia, It is a word that has many meanings—none of them especially clear, and that very imprecision contributes to its allure.

Dr. Remen describes how her cat, Charles, finds querencia in certain favorite places in the house they share—behind the drapes, under the stairs, even in one particular spot in plain sight on the living room rug. There, Charles is fearless, he is calm and relaxed. He casts off his usual wariness and basks in serenity. Remen herself finds querencia walking through Muir Woods in early morning before the tourists arrive. She also describes how when the cancer patients she works with find their querencia it begets in them a new strength and peace.

What is this marvelous and magical place?

Most commonly, querencia is used to describe the place in a bull ring (“corrida”) where the bull goes to feel safe and to gather his strength. For each bull it is a different place, so it is the job of the matador to recognize where querencia is for each bull, and keep him out of that spot. I find the idea of bull-fighting abhorrent, but the concept of finding our individual place of safety and sanctuary—while a force tries to keep us away from it—that is compelling … and certainly timely.

As I researched the word online, I found other definitions for querencia:

From Wikipedia: In Spanish, querencia describes a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home.

John Jeremiah Sullivan defines querencia as “an untranslatable Spanish word that means something like ‘the place where you are your most authentic self’.”

Other definitions:

  • A place in which we know exactly who we are; the place from which we speak our deepest beliefs
  • A safe haven, lair, or sanctuary

If I were a teacher, I would introduce my students to this word. I would put it on spelling tests and ask students to write papers describing their querencia. If I were a parent, I would talk to my child about querencia and encourage them to become familiar with their own place of safety and strength.

How wonderful it would have been at age 8 or 18 to know such a word, to know that there is a place of security and refuge that is ours alone, a place to go to gather strength and be exactly who we are, with no pressure to conform to norms or expectations imposed by others. No matter how idyllic one’s childhood may be, there are always times when we look for safe haven, or when we seek the confidence to speak from the depths of our heart, or when we recognize the place where we come face-to-face with our most authentic self and know that we have found something precious.

Querencia can be a physical place: at the foot of a favorite tree, a cozy window seat, a forest path. Or it can be a place inside us where we breathe into our own strength and feel our own certainty, a certainty that we don’t need to share with anyone else or proselytize to others to convince ourselves. Querencia might be the sense of transport we feel when we read a book, knowing as we do so that it is changing our life. And it might be that sense of oneness with nature that occurs when a place takes our breath away and replaces it—if only for an instant—with its own essence. Or it might be what we feel when we listen to a symphony by Sibelius. For each of us it will be different.

There are places I go to for querencia: the deck of our cabin facing Mt. Pilchuck and the Cascade Range, the labyrinth I built a few summers ago and walk every chance I get, certain books or passages from books that resonate to the thrum of my heart. In my memory, I go to a tiny, secluded cove near a condo my husband and I stayed in years ago on the island of St. John. It was a place of perfect peace, warm water, and star-studded night skies.

As I get older and shed some of the excesses from my life, I see that my inner querencia is much less elusive than it once was. I have cleared a space for it. That matador whose job it has been to keep me away from my querencia has also become less vigilant—perhaps she, too, recognizes the importance of having that place of personal sanctuary.

Something tells me querencia will be a much-needed refuge for many of us in the coming year. It will be a place to retreat to when we see and hear things that denigrate our values, when we are worn down by the effort of standing up to injustice, and when we need to replenish our souls in order to continue standing up.

I didn’t know the word as a child, but I know it now, and I think it’s a fine word to be my companion for 2017. Feel free to adopt it as your own. There is querencia for each of us. Where’s yours?

“Within you there is a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” (Hermann Hesse)

Looking Forward: Will Kindness Rally in 2017?

“If you ask me what I came to this world to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.” (Emile Zola)

Attribution: Donna CameronI try always to spend some time in contemplation at the end of each year. I’m not big on holiday celebrations, decorations, or entertaining, but I like to use that time to find my quiet center and think about the year that is coming to a close, as well as to set intentions for the year ahead.

I’ve probably said enough about 2016, the year of the bully, the year we saw the phrase “anything is possible” come to mean “welcome to the apocalypse.” I will only say that kindness took quite a hit. But it’s not down and it’s not out. That brings me to the new year.

As I look forward to 2017, I’m noticing a complexity to my intentions. It seems like it is not so much setting goals as managing polarities—trying to find the right balance between seemingly opposite, conflicting objectives.

Kindness vs. Confrontation:

I want to be kind. I also want to stand up to injustice and bigotry with all my strength and with my full voice. These two things need not be in conflict, but sometimes it is hard to be kind when face-to-face with deliberate incivility, prejudice, and disregard for the truth. I struggle with the challenge of remaining kind while also standing up to lies and bigotry. I remind myself to call out the behavior not the person, but there are people whose behaviors speak so loudly of who they are that it is hard to separate the two. And maybe sometimes we can’t…and shouldn’t. I will be ready. I will practice standing up to bigotry without expressing similar intolerance. I will think now about what I will say if I see someone being harassed because they are a minority, or a member of the LGBTQ community, or differently-abled—be it on a plane, in a store, or online. I will not be silent.

Isolation vs. Activism:

I want to withdraw into a place where the gloom is not so constant, where I can sometimes forget for a few hours that values like honesty, integrity, and equality have been kicked to the curb. I want to lick my wounds and take care of myself and the people I love. At the same time, more than ever I want to speak out, to march, to use whatever meager talents I have to stand for what I believe to be right. I recognize that self-care must be a priority if I am to be in this fight for the long-haul, and if I am to avoid becoming perpetually angry and a hardened cynic. As something of an introvert, I know that for me self-care means residing in quiet places where I can replenish my spirit and reconnect with my deepest values. When refueled, I can cluster with like-minded people, draw strength from them, and let them draw strength from me. I will not be silent.

Optimism vs. Pessimism:

I want to be an optimist; that is my default setting (while my husband has firmly claimed the opposite position). But I also know that mindless optimism is dangerous. I have to be realistic and cognizant to the fact that there are people in positions of power who are counting on the obliviousness and optimism of their foes. If I deny the damage they can do and simply trust that “all will be well,” their greed, bigotry, and deceit will grow and take a deeper hold. So, I’m going to try for what I’m calling optimistic realism: I anticipate that the year ahead is going to introduce us to rings of hell we never imagined, and I also recognize that those of us standing up to prejudice and the misuse of power will ultimately triumph over those destructive forces by our sheer numbers and our unwavering commitment. I will not be silent.

What Remains Sacred

Even with these apparent polarities to be managed, there are still some things that brook no compromise, that stand alone as values to be upheld—no matter what:

Truth is one such absolute. Sadly, the biggest casualty of 2016 was the truth. We have seen that there are people for whom the truth is only important when it serves their interests, and who will trample on it if it gets in their way. History has shown us what happens when people allow truth to be selective and manipulated. Truth may not always be pretty, and it may not be soothing, but we must face it and act accordingly. We must not be silent.

Integrity, like truth, is not conditional. We either act with integrity or we don’t. Most of us know the difference. Those who don’t need to be enlightened and if they still disregard integrity, they need to be removed from power. We must not be silent.

Justice and equality. These two go together. There is no justice if standards apply differently depending on the ethnicity, gender, or status of the individuals. There are no groups that are inherently superior, none that are intrinsically entitled. Having said that, there may be times when justice and equality dictate that we offer an advantage to make up for decades of disadvantage. Someone once said, “At the table of peace there will be bread and justice.” That table has no place for those who measure success by wealth and who equate affluence with power. We must not be silent.

Since launching this blog, I’ve started and ended each year with one particular quote from Neil Gaiman. This year, it’s still Neil Gaiman, but it’s a different quote:

Be kind to yourself in the year ahead. Remember to forgive yourself, and to forgive others. It’s too easy to be outraged these days, so much harder to change things, to reach out, to understand. Try to make your time matter: minutes and hours and days and weeks can blow away like dead leaves, with nothing to show but time you spent not quite ever doing things, or time you spent waiting to begin. Meet new people and talk to them. Make new things and show them to people who might enjoy them. Hug too much. Smile too much. And, when you can, love.

Peace and thanks to all of you, my friends. Sharing with you the joys, sadnesses, challenges, and disappointments of 2016 has strengthened me and fed my resolve. I feel blessed to be part of a warm and embracing community. My wish for you—for all of us—in the coming year is for health, happiness, laughter, strength, voice, community, and, of course, kindness.

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.