Are Wealthy People Less Compassionate?

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

Attribution: Donna CameronSome time ago, I came across an article citing research that I found fascinating. I wanted to write about it in YOLK, but was deterred by a concern that it’s just one more thing that divides us . . . and there’s already way too much of that.

Still, I think it’s important information and perhaps if approached with curiosity and a desire to inspire change, instead of finger-pointing or rebuke, it might be beneficial rather than divisive.

U.C. Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner conducted several studies examining whether social class affects how people think about and treat others. They defined social class by such measurements as wealth, education, and professional prestige.

In one study, they observed motorists at four-way intersections and reported that drivers of luxury cars were more likely to cut off other drivers, rather than wait their turn at the intersection. Interestingly, I had noted this phenomenon first-hand several years ago when I traveled to California’s wealthy Marin County for a business conference (confession: I grew up in Marin, but escaped in my 20s). At a four-way stop in the affluent town of Mill Valley, my lowly rental Taurus was cut-off first by a Maserati and then by a Mercedes convertible. At another intersection, I stopped, but a Lamborghini breezed through the stop-sign as if it didn’t exist. Piff’s and Keltner’s research confirmed this behavior in luxury car drivers regardless of time of day or density of traffic. They also found that these drivers were more likely than others to ignore a pedestrian trying to cross at a crosswalk.

In a different, but equally fascinating study, these same researchers manipulated class feelings to examine selfish behaviors. They asked people to spend some time comparing themselves to others who were either better or worse off financially. Then they offered the subjects a jar of candy and told them they could take as much as they wanted and that the remainder would be given to nearby children. Interestingly, the participants who had spent time thinking about how much better off they were than others took significantly more candy than those who viewed themselves as less well-off.

Yet another study by the Berkeley researchers showed that people with lower income and education levels had more compassion for children being treated for cancer than did people at higher levels educationally and economically.

It’s hard to hear about studies such as these and not conclude that wealthy people have a rather warped sense of entitlement and privilege. In a New York Times article, Keltner and Piff postulated that their research may explain why elite financial institutions, such as Goldman Sachs, have been rife with greedy and unethical behaviors. Greed can become morally defensible for those who enjoy wealth and abundance. Further, according to the researchers, the less people have to worry about their own wealth and position, the less they think about others or care about the feelings of other people. “Wealth gives rise to a me-first mentality,” they concluded.

While it would seem logical that those who have little would be disinclined to give, the opposite seems to be the case. The disadvantaged give generously. And those who are prosperous seem less inclined to care about people who are less fortunate. Author Daisy Grewal notes that this is important because people in positions of power—political and economic power—tend to be these privileged wealthy who are not inclined to make decisions that help the poor or the marginalized members of society. Relying on those in power to care for the rest of us is probably a false hope. Greed, says Grewal, “may have the strongest pull over those who already have the most.”

I find this research fascinating. Having spent my career in the non-profit world, I saw abundant research showing that those most generous in donating to causes or supporting charitable endeavors were often those least able to afford it. On a percentage-of-income basis, those with lower incomes tended to be substantially more generous than those in the higher brackets.

Generalities are dangerous, though, and we must be careful not to make blanket statements or assumptions that serve only to widen the rift between those with privilege and those without, or between classes, cultures, or communities. There are enormously generous people with wealth and power (think Melinda and Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, Lady Gaga, Paul Allen, and many more).

Recently, I found it eye-opening (but not surprising) that when presidential press secretary Sean Spicer left the White House, the parting comment for him was not a wish that he would find a new position that challenged and fulfilled him, or that he would find a new way to contribute to society, but that he would “make a tremendous amount of money.” Of course, what is to be expected from the administration of a president who has declared, “You have to be wealthy in order to be great” (as demonstrated so clearly by Gandhi and Mother Teresa…)?

It saddens me that for so many people, success and value—their own and others’—are measured only by wealth. You can’t be successful unless you make a lot of money. And for many, that translates to whatever you need to do to accumulate wealth is justified, because wealth is all that really matters.

Until collectively we can start measuring people by a new standard, it’s unlikely that the growing inequality we see will change. The question becomes: how do we change that standard? How do we stop seeing wealth—or lack of it—as a determiner of value, and see instead such factors as generosity, compassion, benevolence, action on behalf of others, and, yes, kindness? Given the current state of American politics, that change isn’t going to come anytime soon, but each of us can stand up for the values that we choose to be measured by.

We can stop admiring wealthy people just because they’re wealthy. We can stop publishing and reading articles about “the world’s richest people” or “how much do they earn” (how about articles on the most generous, or the most compassionate?). We can stop clicking on “news” that tells us about rich celebrities whose only claim to fame is their wealth and their celebrity. We can put our attention and our support—financial or otherwise—behind people and movements that seek positive change and promote values like equality, justice, and compassion. Where we put our attention should align with our intention.

Times change. People change. People can instigate change. What we’re seeing today doesn’t need to be what we see tomorrow.

“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment. We can start now, start slowly, changing the world. How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make a contribution toward introducing justice straightaway. And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!” (Anne Frank)

 

 

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)

Big (But Quiet) Kindness Lessons

“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” (Rumi)

ttribution: Donna CameronI have encountered so many lessons during this year of living kindly. So many that I can’t name them all. And even if I try, I couldn’t do it in one blog post. So I thought I’d divide them into two posts and call one “Small Kindness Lessons” and the other “Big Kindness Lessons.” However, the more I thought about it, I see that there are no small kindness lessons, just as there are no small kindnesses.

We never know how far our kindness will reverberate. Will the smile we extended to the bus driver cause him to greet each passenger with a kind word, and will each of those people, in turn, extend a kindness that they otherwise might not have, and will one of those kindnesses—or a further kindness—mend a heart, lift someone from despair, or even save a life?

No, there are no small kindnesses. And likewise, the lessons of kindness may seem small, but they could extend far beyond our imagining.

That being said, as I think about this year of lessons in kindness, I see that some of them were quiet ahas, and others were cacophonous eurekas! Today, I’ll share what for me were some of the quiet ahas, though they are by no means small. Next time, it will be the thunderous eurekas. Where applicable, I’ll provide links to the post where I explored the idea.

Being kind and being nice are not the same thing. They’re not.  link

It takes patience to be kind and kindness to be patient.  link⇒

Curiosity can lead us to kindness. If we look for what’s behind unkindness, we will often reach a place of understanding.  link⇒

Kindness is an evolution, not a sudden transformation. Like most of the best things in life, developing a life of kindness is a gradual process. Kindness is a path that is its own destination.  link⇒

Being able to accept kindness is as important as being able to extend kindness.  link⇒

Kindness begins with me. A life of kindness begins with self-kindness. If I don’t think I’m worthy of my own kindness, how can I be consistently kind to others?  link⇒

Sometimes the kind thing to do is nothing.  link⇒

There’s no such thing as selective kindness. The person who is kind to you but unkind to the waiter is not a kind person.  link⇒

Kindness and gratitude go hand-in-hand.  link⇒

I can take kindness seriously without taking myself too seriously.

Like all things that we want to become good at, kindness takes practice.  link⇒

We teach kindness by modeling it, not by lecturing about it.

The kinder we are, the more kindness we experience.

Kind people are not without occasional bouts of pettiness, envy, anger or impatience, but they are able to rise above their impulses and express kindness. link⇒

If I am unable to see a way to express kindness I need to look more closely or broaden my field of vision.

All of these little ahas comprise a recipe for a kind life. None are terribly difficult, though practice is essential. If we can keep them in our hearts and in our awareness, we can not only enjoy a feast of compassion and connection, we can change the world.

These are just some of the hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

“It’s all a matter of paying attention, being awake in the present moment, and not expecting a huge payoff. The magic in this world seem to work in whispers and small kindnesses.” (Charles de Lint)

Oh, The Stories We Tell!

“The beginning of personal transformation is absurdly easy. We have only to pay attention to the flow of attention itself.” (Marilyn Ferguson) 

Attribution: Donna CameronWe learned in drivers’ training that everyone has a blind spot, or scotoma. Because of the way the eye is constructed, every human being has one. It is a location with no photoreceptor cells, where the retinal ganglion cell axons that compose the optic nerve exit the retina (the biology lesson ends here, I promise).

We may never be aware of our blind spots, though, because we’re really good at compensating—our brains are able to fill in the gap so the surrounding picture appears absolutely complete.

Beyond the physical level, we have blind spots on a psychological level, too, and our brains also attempt to explain the unknown data—with mixed results. We’ve all been there: when we lack information our brains make up stories to fill in the gaps—often the stories are both erroneous and damaging.

Perhaps two co-workers whom you often lunch with head out at noon without asking if you’d like to join them. Bewildered, you make up a story: You offended Carrie when you said you didn’t have time to check the figures on the budget she was working on, or you ticked Erika off by not stopping to chat when you came in this morning. They probably think you’re mad at them, and now they’re mad at you. They’re at lunch talking about you and saying nasty things about you.

By the time they return from lunch 30 minutes later, you’ve woven such a tale of perfidy that you’ve convinced yourself they no longer want to be your friend and nobody else in the office wants to be either. Why should they, after all, you’re a terrible, horrible, very bad person…?

When Carrie and Erika walk in, carrying fast-food take-out bags, you learn that Erika dropped her car off for servicing and Carrie followed to pick her up and drive her back to the office. As they’d feared, it took so long that they only had time to stop for some mediocre take-out, which they’ll now have to eat at their desks.

The story you constructed was entirely false—nobody was mad, nobody was offended, nobody was saying terrible things about you behind your back, and you are not a terrible, worthless person.

Sound ridiculous? Maybe it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but we do it all the time. We don’t know the reason someone acted the way they did and we make up a motive that has no basis in reality. It might suit our mood, or our current level of insecurity, or maybe our flair for the dramatic.

How many times has your spouse or significant other seemed a bit distant and you’ve attributed it to anger, lack of interest, or smoldering resentment because you failed to wash your lunch dishes? When the truth is that he is just trying to remember the name of his 8th grade math teacher—and it’s driving him crazy that he can’t.

Many, many years ago, I learned that the board of directors of an organization I served as executive director for held a board meeting without telling me. I stewed for 24 hours. Why would they meet without me? Did I do something terrible they needed to talk about without me present? Are they going to fire me? Finally, I picked up the phone and called the board president. I explained that association boards should never meet without the knowledge and presence of their executive director. It was my job to make sure they never violated any antitrust regulations or nonprofit laws. What, I asked, could possibly have motivated them to hold a meeting without me? There was a long pause at the other end of the line. A very long pause. Finally Doug said, “We do know that, Donna, and ordinarily we’d never meet without telling you, but our conference is coming up and we wanted to honor you for great job you are doing for us. We were talking about the best time to have a special ceremony and what we could buy you for a thank-you gift.”

I felt like bug spit.

Ever since that embarrassing moment, I’ve tried to imagine positive reasons for inexplicable actions rather than—or at least in addition to—negative ones. My positive stories are generally just as erroneous as my negative ones, but while I’m in that suspended limbo of not-knowing, why not enjoy my imaginings rather than agonize and fret over them?

Kindness Lessons

There are some great kindness lessons for us if we take time to think about how we feel and what we do when we have gaps in our knowledge:

Lesson #1: It’s not always about us … in fact, it’s usually not about us. Just because we’re the center of our own universe, it’s very unlikely we hold that exalted position in many other minds. I find this reminder immensely freeing: “Forget what everyone else thinks of you; chances are, they aren’t thinking about you at all.”

Lesson #2: Yield to the curiosity triggered by not-knowing. As we talked about in an earlier post, “Kindness and curiosity leave no room for anger and resentment.” Employ curiosity to seek kind and compassionate answers to gaps in our knowledge.

Lesson #3: We can assume one another’s good intent. Instead of attributing a silence or an ill-chosen word to malice or resentment, we can just as easily say to ourselves, “That didn’t come out the way she meant it to … I know her intention was positive.” Why wouldn’t we want to believe the best rather than the worst?

Lesson #4: We always have a choice about the stories we make up. Even if we are drama queens and kings, we can make up stories based on positive assumptions. All it takes is some awareness on our part.

Lesson #5: We can always choose peace. We have control over both our perceptions and our reactions. We can choose the path that leads us to peace. It takes practice, but it’s within our capabilities.

The stories we tell ourselves have power—power to change the world. When was the last time you made up a story to fill a gap in your knowledge? Was it a positive story or a negative one? What are you going to do next time?

“We do not actually know other people; we only know our judgments.” (Bryant McGill)

Being Kind To People We Don’t Like

“Treat everyone with politeness, even those who are rude to you – not because they are nice, but because you are.” (Author Unknown) 

Attribution: Donna CameronTry as we might, there are probably still going to be people we just don’t like and probably never will. I’m not talking about the crooks, criminals, and psychopaths whom we wisely disdain and avoid, but the everyday disagreeable creatures, nuisances, and scalawags who populate our lives and challenge us in unwelcome ways.

We encounter them occasionally—the ornery neighbor, the obstinate board member, the know-it-all acquaintance, the perpetually petulant client. We can ignore them to the degree possible, but even then they’re still present, a plaguing irritation that brings clouds to otherwise sunshiny days.

Radical Kindness

What if we engage in radical kindness to not only tolerate our encounters with taxing people, but to learn to see them as likable and even admirable? To feel gratitude for these people in our lives?

If we approach our encounters with the irritants in our lives with a spirit of inquiry and openness, we may be surprised to learn that the everyday jerks we encounter have some pretty good qualities. We may also recognize that there are likely to be people who see us as the everyday jerks in their lives.

I have noted many times before that I am a firm believer in the notion that what we look for is generally what we see. So those people who spend their days looking for things to criticize find them everywhere, and people who look for the good find good at every turn.

What would happen if instead of avoiding or grudgingly accepting the annoying people in our lives—the ones we’ve never learned to like—we deliberately look for their kindness? Maybe it’s not evident on the surface, but if we look deeper, we’re going to find it. Maybe that board or committee member who sets everyone’s teeth on edge with their negativity and self-promotion does pro-bono work in underserved communities. Or maybe we can appreciate their commitment to the organization even if we struggle to appreciate their methods. Maybe that neighbor who complains about everything and yells at kids for making too much noise loves animals and takes care of wounded birds. And maybe his kindness is masked by shyness, fear, or social ineptitude.

What if, knowing our path is going to cross with a person we have not been able to like, we determine that we will look for their kindness and find a way for their kindness and ours to intersect? We will go beyond merely gritting our teeth and tolerating the person to recognizing their kindness and welcoming them into our lives.

I’m lucky that there are very few people in my life whom I dislike. Over the years I’ve seen that people I may initially feel some aversion toward become quite likable once I get to know them. They didn’t change, I did. Everything changes once I turn off that judge-y part of me and recognize that a behavior I find displeasing may be the result of fear, uncertainty, or clumsiness. We’re all just doing the best we can, and for most of us our best will always be imperfect, since we are a work-in-progress until the day we die.

To overcome any dislike I may feel, I’ve been trying to look for the kindness in those few objectionable people I encounter. Kindness is there—in nearly everyone—and it’s surprisingly easy to find. What I’m learning is that I am better able to separate the person from their behaviors. So I can say now I appreciate that person, even if I don’t like or understand some of their actions. There are exceptions to every rule and I am finding Donald Trump to be that exception. I’m sure he has likable qualities—he’d be the first to say so—but appreciation for him has not been easy to muster.

There are bound to be some people who seem to defy all efforts to be seen as likable. They’re in our lives for a reason, and an important one. From them, we learn tolerance, or perhaps patience, or perhaps we recognize some quality of our own which in them is magnified to a degree that is instantly offensive. If nothing else, perhaps we can appreciate them for their role as being a warning to others to not behave this way (thanks, Donald!). With these few individuals our choice then becomes whether to let them negatively influence our behaviors and beliefs, or to look harder for their kindness, and to extend kindness as best we can and be grateful for what we have learned from them.

We never go wrong if we look for the kindness.

“I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind.” (Khalil Gibran)

Big Bullies

“Look into your own heart, discover what it is that gives you pain and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.” (Karen Armstrong)

Port Ludlow WaterfallEven the best of us can have a bad day and act or speak unkindly.  I’ll bet even Mother Teresa had her snarky moments.  But consistent, repeated, and unrepentant unkindness is more than a slip or a slide.  It’s often the sign of a bully.

In general, people who chronically act unkindly do so out of a terribly misplaced sense of entitlement, or uncontrolled anger, or—as often as not—out of fear.  They may feel threatened, or they may be afraid of rejection or embarrassment, or of appearing weak or stupid.

Many, many years ago I worked with an angry man who boasted quite openly that his philosophy of life was what he called “I.O.” It stood for “instant offense.” In any interaction, this gentleman wanted to have the upper-hand, so he immediately sought ways to put the person he was interacting with on the defensive.

He was a large man, a former ball player, and he knew his size could intimidate. But if that wasn’t enough, he’d ask questions to put someone on the spot, or he’d dismiss their words with a derisive comment and a roll of his eyes. He knew how to look a person up and down and convey to them that he found them lacking. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was simply a bully. All these years later, I find myself wondering what he was afraid of. Did he fear that someone would see through his façade and recognize the insecure man inside? Had he not lived up to expectations—his own or someone else’s—and decided to cover up his disappointment by attacking others before they could recognize what he knew? Perhaps he had been hurt deeply and decided he could avoid a repeat of that experience by inflicting hurt first. Maybe he had been taught that this is how “real men” behave.

I avoided him whenever possible and fortunately didn’t have many occasions to interact with him in the company we worked for.  It would be interesting to encounter him today and see if the passage of time—more than three decades—has mellowed him.  I’d like to understand what was behind his unkindness; I’d like to see the likable qualities in him.  Maybe, after all, he’s just a pussy-cat at heart.  And maybe there are no calories in Ben & Jerry’s peach ice cream.

Adult Bullies

According to the website www.bullyingstatistics.org, “Adult bullies were often either bullies as children, or bullied as children.” The site further describes the typical adult bullies:

  1. Narcissistic Adult Bully: This type of adult bully is self-centered and does not share empathy with others. Additionally, they feel little anxiety about consequences. They seem to feel good about themselves, but in reality have a brittle narcissism that requires putting others down. [It’s probably unkind of me to say this, but doesn’t this describe Donald Trump to a tee?]
  2. Impulsive Adult Bully: Adult bullies in this category are more spontaneous and plan their bullying out less. Even if consequences are likely, this adult bully has a hard time restraining his or her behavior. In some cases, this type of bullying may be unintentional, resulting from periods of stress.
  3. Physical Bully: While adult bullying rarely turns to physical confrontation, there are, nonetheless, bullies who use physicality. In some cases, the adult bully may not actually physically harm the victim, but may use a looming threat of harm, or physical domination. Additionally, a physical bully may damage or steal a victim’s property, rather than physically confronting the victim.
  4. Verbal Adult Bully: Words can be quite damaging. Adult bullies who use this type of tactic may start rumors about the victim, or use sarcastic or demeaning language to dominate or humiliate another person. [Trump again?]
  5. Secondary Adult Bully: This is someone who does not initiate the bullying, but joins in so that he or she does not actually become a victim down the road. Secondary bullies may feel bad about what they are doing, but are more concerned about protecting themselves.

The website contends that there is little one can do about an adult bully, “because adult bullies are often in a set pattern. They are not interested in working things out and they are not interested in compromise. Rather, adult bullies are more interested in power and domination. They want to feel as though they are important and preferred, and they accomplish this by bringing others down.”

I’m not willing to concede that easily. I think there must be ways to stand up to bullies and let them know their behavior is not acceptable, and to do it without resorting to their own tactics of threatening or berating—which only shows them the power of bullying. Trying to shame a bully by embarrassing or berating them will probably have the effect of increasing their bullying tendencies. Like my office colleague from so many years ago, they will go into “instant offense” mode and strike wherever they see a likely target.

I don’t think kindness would have been an effective deterrent to that colleague’s bullying. He would probably have equated kindness with weakness and flexed his muscles all the more.

What might have been effective would have been for witnesses to let him know his behavior was unacceptable. Instead of remaining silent, colleagues and peers should have stepped in and calmly said, “Not cool, buddy.” Most bullies will back down—or at least back-off—if they see witnesses rallying to support the bully’s victim.

Perhaps the smartest thing to do when one is thrown into a situation with a bully is to get out. Don’t engage, don’t react in kind. Simply exit and avoid future interactions. But, of course, that’s not always possible. Sometimes the bullies in our lives are people we cannot avoid.

I keep thinking about the old adage that “the best revenge is a good life,” and that’s probably a good way to look at bullying in the long-term. But when one is actively being bullied or harassed, it does little good to think, “Hey, sport, in ten years I’ll have a great life and you’ll still be a colossal jerk.”

If we are not the bully’s target, but find ourselves in the position of witness or bystander, we need to step in and let the perpetrator know—in no uncertain terms—that such behavior is unacceptable. There is a place for kindness here, because if we can step in without expressing our anger or contempt, we can defuse the situation. Psychopaths and maniacs are to be seriously avoided, but your garden-variety bully might be tempered with judicious kindness.

Kindness requires action and it sometimes requires courage. When we witness bullying, we can’t ignore it and just be a bystander. Bullying is fostered by silence. We need to step in, speak up, and stand for what we know to be right.

Easier said than done, but kindness isn’t always easy … it is, though, always right.

It’s one thing to be an adult dealing with bullies—we have more options, more experience, more perspective, and more power—but children facing bullying can be devastated by it, and face lifelong consequences as a result. Let’s explore that next time. Please share your thoughts on bullying, at any age….

“Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.” (Khalil Gibran)

 

At the Halfway Point…

“Kindness covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.” (Roger Ebert)

tightrope walkerI’ve reached the halfway point in my year of living kindly. As I did at the end of the first quarter, it’s time to pause for a self-assessment.

At the end of March I gave myself a report card, with an overall grade of C+. I generally felt I was on the right track, but maybe not making enough effort or stepping out of my comfort zone often enough. A few of my friends chastised me (but did so very kindly) for being hard on myself—in fact for being unkind to myself. My husband broke his silence and posted a rant, noting he had made no such commitment to kindness.

So, this time I’ll look for a less judgmental way to evaluate my progress toward living a kind life. Maybe some open-ended questions that don’t require arbitrary scoring and potential self-flagellation. This format appeals to my periodic dual persona, plus, after six months, I’ve finally realized that my blog has a delightful acronym.

YOLK: Have you noticed a difference in your life after making this year-long commitment to kindness?

Me: I have. I feel kinder inside. It may not be evident to anyone else, but I think I am kinder. I think about kindness a lot, and I actively look for it. I do believe it directs my attention in very positive ways.

YOLK: What have been your biggest ah-has?

Me: One of my biggest ah-has is how many ah-has there are, so this is not going to be a short answer. A huge ah-ha is the role of mindfulness in kindness. All I need to do is pay attention and I see that opportunities to extend kindness are everywhere. I think we often operate on automatic-pilot, oblivious to the people and circumstances around us, and the difference a word, a smile, or an act of kindness could make. I’ve come to see that the simple reminder to “pay attention” may be one of the universal secrets to a good life.

Somewhat related to this is the power of the pause. That’s huge. Instead of speaking or acting in instant response to a situation, taking the time to pause and think about what I want my response to activate—and why—has been very powerful. In the space of that brief pause, I might totally change my reaction, or perhaps decide not to respond at all. That pause has always guided me to a better place. I frequently reflect on the four questions Rotarians pause to ask:

  • Is it the truth?
  • Is it fair to all concerned?
  • Will it build goodwill and friendship?
  • Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

If the answer to any is no, choose silence. Who knew Rotarians were so wise?

Another ah-ha is how much kindness there is all around. My eyes and ears are more attuned to it, and I see it everywhere. Big kindness and little kindness. They’re ubiquitous. I’ve also become more aware than ever of just how tremendously kind my husband is—to friends, to neighbors, to strangers, even to me. I married good, Mom. Bill will probably take issue with this, because he has a cynical, skeptical scientist reputation to uphold, but it’s true.

The last big ah-ha is probably that when I see unkindness, it’s easier now to see what might be behind it—fear, embarrassment, insecurity, obliviousness—and to be a bit less judge-y.

YOLK: Where do you still have the most work to do?

Me: You may have noticed that I said a bit less judge-y. I’m still too quick to judge when I see someone do something unkind (often while behind the wheel—that particular location seems to bring out the worst in the best of us…especially in Seattle traffic). I need to do a better job of activating my curiosity so I can imagine a good reason why someone cuts another person off in traffic or blares their horn and offers a rude hand gesture. I need to be more adept at giving the benefit of the doubt.  Additionally, there are always more ways to express and extend kindness; I hope to find them in the next six months.

YOLK: Has anything surprised you?

Me: I am surprised daily, sometimes hourly, and am in a perpetual state of wonder, both over the kindnesses and the unkindnesses I see, hear, or read about. I’ve also been surprised by the whole business of blogging. Putting a commitment out there in a very public way is at times scary, daunting, and certainly counter to my generally private and introverted nature. Nonetheless, I love it and I’ve connected with some wise, smart, and delightful people as a result. It’s been a great lesson in risk-taking at a time when I was ready to inject some risk into my life. It’s also been a good lesson in making my self-imposed deadlines, as I’ve often related to the wonderful Douglas Adams quote: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

But getting back to kindness, perhaps the biggest surprise has also been the simplest. This commitment to kindness feels right—it is exactly what I should be doing and want to be doing at this exact moment in my life. How cool is that?

YOLK: Okay, because I know you better than you know yourself, I know you haven’t entirely given up on that letter grade method of appraisal. What say you?

Me: B-minus, but a tarnished silver star for good intentions….

“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.” (Seneca)

 

Bothered and Bewildered…

“Conquer the angry one by not getting angry; conquer the wicked by goodness; conquer the stingy by generosity, and the liar by speaking the truth.” (Gautama Buddha)

CandlestickTelephoneGal

It’s summer.  I should be thinking about when blueberries will be ready for picking, peach ice cream, or the perfect beach read.  Instead, I’m pondering the difference between malice and evil, and what tips the scales from being unkind or unpleasant to being cruel, immoral, or criminal. Does someone who does rotten things have a line they will not cross? At what point do they say, “This far and no further”? And where does hate fit into all of this? Clearly, this is not a week for sunny, summer chirpiness.

Sometimes, I find myself wondering if I am impossibly deluded to believe in the power of kindness. In my heart, I know I am not, but sometimes, you gotta wonder…

Proust said “Unkind people imagine themselves to be inflicting pain on someone equally unkind.” The more I think about that quote, the more profound it seems.

I am often mystified to read or hear about deliberate and premeditated unkindness. What motivates people to act that way, and what do they tell themselves to justify their behavior?

I know that people can often act unkindly out of reflex—a response to embarrassment, or a fear of rejection.  And sometimes it’s because they are oblivious to the situation or the other person’s feelings, or perhaps their action is governed by a sense of entitlement (I deserve this and you’d better not get in my way!).

But it doesn’t seem that those conditions fully explain calculated and intentional unkindness. I want to believe that kindness is stronger that unkindness, and that kindness will (eventually) counter meanness or cruelty. But then I answer the phone and again I wonder…

Not What Alexander Graham Bell Intended…

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received several telephone calls claiming to be from Microsoft’s Windows Service Center, saying that my computer has been hacked and they just need to ask me some questions and then they can help me fix the problem. I know these calls are scams; they want to get personal information and direct me to some site that will plant a virus on my computer. Bill says just to hang up. But a couple of times, I tried to engage the caller.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Ma’am, I’m calling to help you fix your computer problem.”

“You and I both know that’s not true. Why do you do this? Is this really who you want to be?” I try to ask kindly.

At this point, they hang up on me. I wish they wouldn’t. I really would like to know. Maybe it’s the only job they could get and they are desperate for money. Maybe they really don’t understand the harm they are trying to inflict. Presumably, they just don’t care.

That brings me back to Proust. Perhaps if one assumes that all people are cruel or dishonest, they can justify their own cruelty or dishonesty.

I think most of us are the opposite. We assume people are pretty much like we are—eager to help, honest, trusting, and generally kind. And we’re always surprised to encounter people who are not.  Short of stuffing the phone down the garbage disposal (oh, so tempting!), it appears such surprises will persist.

In addition to the fake Microsoft calls, last week I had a robo-call telling me my Banner Bank credit card had been frozen for possible fraudulent activity and to “press one” to talk to a service representative who would take the information needed to “unfreeze” my card. That was another easy one: I don’t have a credit card through Banner Bank, but if I did, I hope I would have been smart enough to ignore the call.

I also had a call from a company claiming that it had been three years since they last serviced our furnace, thus it was overdue for servicing and they’d like to schedule an appointment. I happened to know the name of the company that services our furnace and this wasn’t it. I asked the caller why he was telling me we’d done business with his company when we hadn’t. Why not just tell me they do great work at reasonable prices and see if we need their services? He hung up on me. I really am curious. I imagine he gets paid—or bonused—on the basis of how many service appointments he can schedule, so he thought trickery might be more profitable than the truth. Perhaps his boss told him that people would fall for the lie. Perhaps they do.

Most troubling of all, I read this week about the growing prevalence of what is called the “Hello, Grandma” scam. This involves calling elderly people and claiming to be a grandchild in trouble and needing money to get home or get out of jail. The worried elder wires money to the scammer. The story I read described an 83-year-old woman in Colorado who was bilked of $23,000 in such a scheme, and a 93-year-old woman who lost $69,000 trying to help a fictitious grandchild.

Estimates are that elderly American’s are robbed of nearly $3 billion a year through scams such as these. They are trusting, they may be confused, they fear for the safety of a family member—they make an easy target. But, who does this sort of thing and how can they look at themselves in the mirror each day?  Where do they draw the line on their bad behavior? Do they really believe, as Proust postulates, that these trusting seniors are as unkind and dishonest as themselves?

If so, answering their unkindness with equal unkindness just reinforces their belief and justifies their unscrupulous actions. Responding with kindness may have no immediate effect, but perhaps like a stone being polished by the river, eventually it will make a difference.  Or maybe I’m just a schmuck to think so.

Perhaps it is naïve to think that dishonest or unkind people can change. I hold no illusions that kindness will transform the psychopath or sociopath. But I am enough of an optimist that I hold out hope for the fearful and angry people who simply haven’t yet learned the power of kindness.

“If a person seems wicked, do not cast him away. Awaken him with your words, elevate him with your deeds, repay his injury with your kindness. Do not cast him away; cast away his wickedness.” (Lao Tzu)

 

Kindness – An Evolution or a Transformation?

“Be kind to people and don’t judge, for you do not know what demons they carry and what battles they are fighting.” (Vashti Quiroz-Vega)

Little FriedaHave you ever been adopted by a stray cat? It prowls the porch for a few weeks; then you put out some water and maybe a smidge of tuna, and before you know it, you’re hand-feeding him Chicken Marengo from the dinner table and making him a bed on the best chair in the bedroom.

That’s how kindness sneaks up on you. You start small and pretty soon it’s an habitual practice and it’s made a home in your life.

I’m a big believer in incremental change. Maybe that’s because attempts to make lofty changes all at once have never worked for me. Whether it’s exercise, writing, or keeping my office clean, an attempt to go from zero to sixty in one big leap always resulted in failure.

After years of thwarted good intentions, I finally realized that if I start small—exercise for 15 minutes, write for one half-hour, clean one shelf of my bookcase—the resulting good feelings reinforce the action and I want to do more. And pretty soon a new habit is ingrained.

Kindness works the same way. One can’t go from being oblivious and self-absorbed to being Mother Teresa’s more compassionate sister by simply saying, “From now on, I’m going to be a kind person.” As author R.J. Palacio recently stated, “If kindness were easy, after all, everyone would do it.” We have years of inattention and self-centeredness to overcome, not to mention the attendant fears of having our kindness rejected or “doing it wrong.” But we can go out of our way to perform one small kindness each day, and perhaps after a couple of weeks, perform two, or engage in a large act of kindness. As we see how good it feels, we want to do more, and pretty soon we’re approaching every encounter with the hope that there will be an opportunity to extend ourselves.

I don’t really think there’s such a thing as a small kindness. A warm smile, a kind word, a door held or a package carried—they all influence the receiver to pass it on or “pay it forward.” We have no way of knowing how far one kind action can reverberate.

On the other side of the spectrum, we can stop the reverberation of unkindness by absorbing an insult without retaliating, or hearing harsh words and not hurling them back. These small—but difficult—acts will help to slow the epidemic of unkindness. That’s hard to do, especially when we are just itching to voice the clever retort that will put that person in his or her place. It helps to approach such encounters with the spirit of inquiry we talked about a few weeks ago, to ask what might be motivating this person to act as he does, and what burden he might be carrying that has shortened his temper and brought out the Darth Vader in him. We don’t even have to understand—it’s enough to recognize that there might be more going on than we can see, and to give the benefit of the doubt.

Kindness—like playing the piano or becoming proficient at golf—requires practice. One way to instill the practice that will lead to proficiency is to set an intention of being five percent kinder—to ourselves and to others. Just five percent—or maybe two percent, or ten. Not a lot, but just enough to notice the difference it makes. Let that small incremental change take root and flower. After a while, and with steady practice, kindness becomes both intentional and instinctive—and that’s when magic happens.

Think about it for a moment. What would you do differently if you were just five percent kinder? To yourself? To others? To the planet?

Simone Weil, the French philosopher, wisely said, “Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.”

Like the stray cat who comes to stay, let kindness creep in. Feed it and make a bed for it. Before you know it, the light will flood your soul….

“When we do what we love, again and again, our life comes to hold the fragrance of that thing.” (Wayne Muller)