Looking for Kindness in All the Right Places

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

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

Having for many years awakened to the gentle but insistent pressure of a cat’s paw prying my eyelid open to propel me out of bed and toward the can-opener, I hold no illusions about the kindness of cats. They are self-absorbed, independent creatures who care for us with the same remote regard a wealthy potentate holds for his minions: “You’re here to serve, and as long as you do that reasonably well and stay out of my way the rest of the time, we’ll get along fine . . . you can stay.”

I won’t deny that there have been times in my life when a cat seemed to recognize my sadness or distress and came to nuzzle me and purr soothingly. Perhaps their intent was truly to comfort, but I am more inclined to believe that they were just ensuring that the food-lady would recover her composure in time for dinner.

Cats are the only pets I’ve ever had (other than an extremely traumatic experience with a beloved turtle at a very young age, but I don’t want to think about that), so I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the unconditional love one might get from a dog. I hope to prove myself worthy for that experience someday. Even beyond their unconditional love and dogged devotion, I’ve been reading about scientific findings that dogs are among only a few species in the animal kingdom who are capable of unselfish kindness toward others.

A study by Austrian researchers revealed that dogs demonstrate “prosocial behaviors”—voluntary actions that benefit others but offer no personal reward to them. In their experiments, dogs were trained first to pull a string that would deliver a treat to themselves. They learned this feat quickly and made great use of it. Then the scenario was changed. Pulling the string no longer offered them a treat, but it delivered one to another dog in a separate enclosure. Researchers noted that once the dog realized it was no longer receiving food, but delivering food to another, the dog continued to pull the string . . . and if the other dog happened to be known to him, he would pull the string more frequently, thus delivering more treats to his friends.

I wonder if certain humans would perform so admirably under the same conditions. While it’s obvious that we can extend unselfish kindness, it’s not always obvious that we do.

Only a few other animals have been shown to be capable of similar prosocial behaviors. These include primates, rats, and crows.

Cats? Cats would have a helluva time playing with the string.

“In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.” (Terry Pratchett)

 

Of Soul and Solstice

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” (Albert Camus)

On this lovely first day of winter, I am so honored to have been the guest on Nicole Phillips’ latest weekly podcast. The Kindness Podcast has interviewed people who are changing the world through their kindness. It is a great honor to be in the company of such people for whom kindness is simply a way of life.

Nicole herself is one of those people. She’s also a tremendous interviewer and made the somewhat daunting experience of a radio interview downright fun. If you’ve never listened to The Kindness Podcast, take a listen. Start anywhere, maybe even with mine!

Happy first day of winter. May we all find in it invincible summer!

Seeking Peace of Mind? Stop Keeping Score

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

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

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

At a luncheon meeting, a woman I knew only slightly described to those of us around the table an Excel program she had created to track Christmas cards: “Everyone on my Christmas card list is on my spreadsheet, and when I get cards, I note having received them. I even indicate whether they merely signed the card, whether it was a holiday letter, or whether they included a hand-written personal note. After the holidays, I review the list and remove anyone who didn’t send me a card, so next year I won’t send one to them.”

I thought at the time—and still think—that it was a rather obsessive behavior, but more than that, I was disturbed by the notion of keeping score so blatantly in our relationships.

How stressful it must be to need equity in every interaction. And how frequently one must be disappointed! Whether it’s Christmas cards, gifts, time, or attention, relationships are not always going to be equal. If every exchange becomes a quid pro quo, joy will vanish quickly, replaced by measurement and resentment.

While keeping score is fitting for football, tennis, Scrabble and the like, it’s not healthy for relationships. In relationships, there shouldn’t be winners and losers; nobody wins unless everybody wins. At the heart of kindness is the idea that we give not for any expectation of reward but for the joy of giving. No strings attached. When every gift is reckoned on some master scorecard, giving becomes a contest, an obligation, a transaction.

If we withhold our kindness until someone proves worthy, or until they meet our arbitrary rules (rules, by the way, that only we know), something inside us that was ready to blossom shrivels instead.

I’m not saying it’s okay for one person to be doing all the giving and one all the taking. But whether it’s a marriage or a friendship, we need to accommodate our differences, our strengths, and our circumstances. If our eyes are always on the ledger (“We had them for dinner last; it’s their turn to invite us” … “I gave him an expensive watch; he gave me bubble bath”), we’ve lost the delight of connecting with people. Besides, we can never know what’s going on in another person’s life that may make it difficult for them to reciprocate: illness, business setbacks, family stresses, financial challenges, and even different life experiences which create different expectations…. 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, then it’s not much of a relationship and we can, without guilt, choose to let it fall away. Sometimes that’s what’s best for everyone. Being kind doesn’t mean ignoring what’s right in front of us or being a pushover.

Has keeping score ever really made anyone feel better? In my own life, I can’t think of an instance, while I can think of many where keeping score was less than constructive.

Whether it’s the detritus that clutters my surroundings or the superfluous thoughts that crowd my brain, I feel increasingly drawn to lightening my load. I want to let go of the dust-catchers, the tallies and ledgers, and concerns about whose turn it is. Doing so, I’m finding, also magically frees me from resentment, grudges, and disappointment.

While I love a good Excel spreadsheet as much as the next guy, I’m not going to use one to tally my relationships. I want to keep my eyes on the real prize: peace of mind and the blessings that are so abundant in my life.

Keeping score is fine for the upcoming Bowl Games, the MLS Cup Match, and the Westminster Dog Show. It’s okay for Jeopardy. But not our relationships. With the holidays upon us, one great way to increase enjoyment and reduce stress is to let go of expectations, judgments, and obligations and, instead, practice appreciation.

Step away from the spreadsheet….

“Love without motives. Give without expectations. Forgive without conditions.” (Buky Ojelabi)

 

The Vanishing Art of Paying Attention

“Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.” (Jose Ortega y Gasset)

Attribution: Donna CameronWhat do you pay attention to? I know a woman—an artist—who notices color and texture and light everywhere she goes. And she thinks about capturing it on canvas, or fabric, or even just memory. Another person—a devoted animal lover—has her radar out for dogs: big ones, little ones, quiet ones, yappy ones, puppies . . .  she adores them all and it makes her quite a canine magnet. And then there’s my acquaintance who is always on the lookout for slights, for people who disagree with him, for comments he can interpret as disrespectful or confrontational. With his detector tuned to these encounters, he tends to find offense everywhere. He lives in a perpetual state of raised hackles.

There’s even a world leader who purportedly only pays attention when the news or information he’s viewing is sprinkled generously with his own name.

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about fear as one of the biggest barriers to kindness—both to our extending kindness and our receiving it. In the comments, Janis, of the delightful Retirementally Challenged blog, observed that for her the biggest obstacle to kindness is “not being in the moment,” and thus unaware that kindness may be needed. She notes that opportunities are lost if we fail so see what’s happening around us.

Janis is right. Our own obliviousness is one of the biggest barriers to kindness. If we’re absorbed in our own private world, or our technology, we simply don’t notice that the person right in front of us needs help, or that a child may need comforting, or that a kind word could lift someone’s day. We fail to see when one person goes out of their way to help another. On the receiving end, our obliviousness prevents us from noticing a stranger’s smile, acknowledging someone who held a door for us, or even recognizing our own need for self-compassion.

Since I started thinking about, writing about, and trying to live a life of kindness, I am ever so much more aware of it—of opportunities for me to extend kindness, of kindnesses extended my way, and of kindnesses—big and small—all around me. I still miss a lot, though. I tend to spend a lot of time in my own head, and, as my husband kindly points out, I can be oblivious not just to kindness, but also to clutter, dust, thirsty houseplants, and sometimes speed limits. Paying attention requires practice.

Technology is one of the things that gets in the way of our being attentive to our surroundings and the people around us. According to a 2016 study, most of us spend about two-and-a-half hours on our smartphones daily. Heavy users—the top ten percent of phone users—spend closer to four hours, or one-quarter of their waking time, on their phones. These heavy smartphone users click, tap, or swipe their phones an average of 5,427 times a day, while the rest of us clock in at a mere 2,617 times daily. It would be interesting to find a study that further breaks down phone time into work and non-work usage. Since my own average is probably about five touches a day, and perhaps five minutes—if that—I am clearly not holding up my end of this devil’s bargain.

I recognize that to decry technology is to declare myself a Luddite or at least a very old fogey. I don’t believe I’m either. But I am mindful of something that I tell strategic planning clients with some frequency: Everything we say “yes” to means we must say “no” to something else, so we need to think long and hard about what is most important to us and whether that’s where we’re putting our time, attention, resources, and energy. What are we saying no to as we say yes to a five-inch screen and perpetual connectivity?

There are good reasons to stay connected to our devices, but it’s worth asking occasionally if we are making a conscious choice or simply succumbing to addiction.

What we choose to pay attention to creates the world we live in. If our radar is focused on dogs, we will live in a world of laughing golden labs, cuddly collies, and frolicking puppies. If we look for slights and reasons to be angry, our world will be rife with insult and offense. If we pay attention to gratitude, we will find ourselves surrounded by things to be grateful for. And, if our attention is on kindness, there will be no end to our opportunities to experience or extend kindness.

I believe there are several “secrets” to living a good life. High on that list is the simple—though not necessarily easy—habit of paying attention. It all begins with choosing to be present and choosing what we will pay attention to.

“We become what we love.  Whatever you are giving your time and attention to, day after day, is the kind of person you will eventually become.” (Wayne Muller)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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)

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)

 

 

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)

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Micro-Kindnesses

“Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.” (Jean Vanier)

attribution: Donna CameronDo you ever bypass opportunities to extend kindness because they’re just too puny? Just writing a quick note to express appreciation for a colleague’s wise advice, or just offering some leftover soup and store-bought bread to a neighbor—these things seem so small. Insignificant really. If I were really kind, I would send flowers to my colleague, or bake fresh bread for my neighbor. If I am to be a caring and compassionate person, I must express my kindness through grand gestures. Right?

Not so much.

While there’s nothing wrong with grand gestures, a kind life is composed of the myriad ordinary, day-to-day kindnesses that may seem small but accumulate like sand upon the shore.

While researching an article for a business publication, I came across the notion of TNTs, or “tiny noticeable things,” an idea promulgated by British speaker Adrian Webster. TNTs are those small and simple actions we take that brighten the lives of the people with whom we interact. A TNT is a smile, a word of appreciation, an offer of assistance, or the genuine interest we have for the people in our lives. None of these actions is grand or earth-moving, but cumulatively they change moods, change lives, and maybe even can change the world.

Along the same lines, MIT Professor Mary Rowe coined the term “micro-affirmations” when she was serving as the University’s ombudsman in the 1970s. Her job was to address bias against minorities, women, and people with disabilities in the MIT workplace. She described the importance of micro-affirmations, those “tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening. Micro-affirmations lie in the practice of generosity, in consistently giving credit to others—in providing comfort and support when others are in distress….”

She also identified what she termed “micro-inequities.” These are “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different’.” Examples might include failing to introduce the participants at a meeting, being too busy to greet a colleague or welcome a guest, making an assumption about a person because of their race or gender, perhaps unintentionally making an insensitive comment. They have a cumulative corrosive effect.

While these terms were originally used to discuss workplace inequality and bias, I believe the concept applies equally to kindness. Let’s call them micro-kindnesses and micro-unkindnesses.

Think about the micro-unkindnesses we encounter daily. We often recognize them by the resigned sigh they evoke in us: a colleague’s scowl, the neighbor who fails to pick up his dog’s poop on your lawn, the long delay for which no explanation or apology is given.

Maybe we’re guilty of micro-unkindnesses ourselves, thinking it really doesn’t matter if we fail to greet our co-workers in the morning, or if we don’t acknowledge the driver who slowed so we could merge into her lane. Such trifling actions don’t really matter, do they? Oh, yes, they do!

Micro-kindnesses are often recognized by our spontaneous smile and accompanying warm feelings: a friendly greeting by the barista or bank teller, the colleague who steps in to help without being asked, the neighbor who shares the bounty from his vegetable garden.

While micro-kindnesses are often related to our interactions with others, they can also be things we do alone: picking up and disposing of trash when we take a walk, rolling the abandoned shopping cart from the parking lot back to the store, feeding a couple of quarters into an expired parking meter. Maybe they don’t feel like much, but imagine a world where such actions were standard operating procedure for most of us.

Like nearly everything that matters in life, micro-kindnesses will grow if we pay attention. If we allow ourselves to be awake and aware—and not completely absorbed by our devices or our tendency to wander into oblivion—we will notice all the little things that call to us: the child in the supermarket who wants us to notice the funny faces he is making (and make a face back at him), the person ahead of us whose hands are too full to open the door, even the small kindness we may need to give ourselves—a few moments of quiet, a walk around the block if we have been sitting too long at our desk.

A Kindness Challenge

With the holidays looming (some would say lurking), I’d like to propose a game for the coming week or two. Take one day to simply pay attention to how many micro-kindnesses you extend in a day. Notice, also, if you succumb to a few micro-unkindnesses. Keep a rough tally and let that number be your baseline. Then each day for the next week or longer, see if you can increase the number of micro-kindnesses and decrease the micro-unkindnesses. You’ll need to keep paying attention. As you notice places where your small acts of kindness are needed, do them. Try to keep track. If counting kindnesses seems just too compulsive and stresses you, don’t count, just pay attention. If it feels like you are doing more little kindnesses each day, then you are and good for you.

Ideally, you’ll like extending small kindnesses so much you’ll simply continue the practice, getting ever better at it. Pretty soon, kindness will become second-nature and you’ll be seeing opportunities—large and small—to extend your kindness everywhere.

Little things do mean a lot!

“On most days, the biggest thing you can do is a small act of kindness, decency or love.” (Cory Booker)