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)

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)

 

Is It All a Crock?

“The times it’s most important to be kind are also when it’s hardest to be kind.” (Donna Cameron)

Attribution: Donna CameronI don’t want to write this blog post. I’m tired. I’m grumpy. I’m sick of the election and sick of talking or thinking about it. Like a petulant child, I demand a do-over.

Most times, I tend to be an annoyingly optimistic person, but it’s been hard to summon any of that buoyant nature. It’s just easier to snarl.

You’re probably tired, too, of passionate blog posts about the election and how the world is likely to disintegrate. A couple of my friends who follow this blog were Trump supporters. I rather suspect they are no longer following. That makes me sad. But it illustrates the polarization we saw on both sides throughout the election. Most of us (myself included) only wanted to hear or read what supported our own personal biases and beliefs. That’s probably why so many of us were stunned by the election results. The very wise Michelle at The Green Study, wrote an excellent post about becoming a more educated citizen by looking for new—and more objective—sources for news and information. I recommend it, as well as her many other thoughtful messages.

I’ve been delaying getting to the actual point of my post, which is:

What scares me most—even more than the election of someone I can never respect, whose values, words, and behaviors appall me—is the thought that maybe this is all a crock.

This kindness business. A crock.

A couple of days after the election my seriously depressed husband said something to the effect: “You’ve got it all wrong. Kindness doesn’t work. Hate won the election. Hate and lies and bigotry. Kindness can’t stand up to those things. People who claim to be moral were willing to overlook sexual offenses, lying, bullying, bigotry, and a petty, revenge mentality. Morality is clearly situational when self-interest is involved. Kindness doesn’t work.”

This kindness business. A crock?

Since the election, the news—which I am trying to avoid—has reported countless incidents of hate across the nation: Muslim women being harassed and having their hijabs torn off … gay and transgender people attacked … swastikas and “KKK” scrawled in public areas … and so many more. And these by the people who WON the election. The winning candidate purports to disavow these actions (“Please stop,” he says), but his whole campaign deliberately fostered this sort of hate and fear. It’s not something that can be turned off like a faucet.

But I digress again. I’m trying to avoid my central question: Is kindness a crock? Is my husband right that it doesn’t work and the election proves it?

My answer is shaky. It’s doleful. But also mostly determined. No, kindness isn’t a crock. Kindness does work. We may not be able to see it now, but it’s there, it’s powerful, and ultimately it will prevail. If it doesn’t, then the world becomes a dark and doomed place and I’m not willing to accept that.

The well’s a bit dry now, but it will continue to fill up—from below—from the depths where human goodness resides and always will. It will fill up as we hear more stories like: the good people of Tucson who replaced messages of hatred toward a mosque with ones of love … or the people who painted over the swastikas and hate messages … or those who stood up to the bullies who were harassing others for being unlike themselves.

Kindness has to counter the fear that is at the heart of hate and anger. And we must always remember that kindness is not weak (that’s what they’re counting on!). Kindness is a strength—a superpower—and it’s one that each of us has at our command. It’s going to take time and it will take an army—a kindness army.

Like any superpower, kindness is most effective when employed with other weapons of mass construction: activism, reason, political savvy, knowledge, strategy, determination, solidarity, and an unwillingness to back down or stay silent in the face of injustice, lies, or incivility.

As long as we believe in kindness and continue to act on our belief—even despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—it will ultimately prevail.

To believe otherwise makes it just too hard to get up in the morning. What do you think? Is kindness a crock?

“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)

 

 

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

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

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

But I worry.

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

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

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

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

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

We are Americans. We can do this.

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

Umm…Let’s Talk About Sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patients of Kind Doctors Heal Faster

“It’s a little embarrassing that after 45 years of research and study, the best advice I can give people is to be a little kinder to each other.” (Aldous Huxley)

attribution: Donna CameronI’ve written a few times about the health benefits of kindness. There’s considerable evidence that extending, receiving, and even witnessing kindness improves cardiac health, increases longevity, boosts immune system functioning, reduces stress, and alleviates social anxiety. Now, we’re also learning that having a kind doctor or health care practitioner has a direct impact on our health and healing, as well.

There is a growing body of research showing that a doctor’s disposition and attitude toward his patients influences their health and healing. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine reported that patients whose doctors expressed empathy suffered from a cold for one day fewer than patients whose physicians focused on just the facts and symptoms of the illness. They reported that physician empathy also boosted the patients’ immune systems. There was a direct relation between a physician’s empathy level and his patient’s level of IL-8, a chemical that activates immune system cells to fight disease. This is just one of many recent studies confirming the importance of kindness and empathy in health care providers.

This is something I’ve sensed intuitively for many years, but only recently seen the hard evidence. Kind doctors have better outcomes.

When we first moved to Washington many years ago, I rather randomly selected a primary care physician based on the location of her office and availability the first time I needed to see a doctor. Over the ten or so years that she was my doctor, there were times I saw her that she was friendly, compassionate, and communicative, and other times when she was brusque, taciturn, and remote. I was generally reluctant to call for an appointment because I never knew whether I was going to see Dr. Jekyll or Dr. Hyde. Inertia and good health were the major factors keeping me from seeking another physician.

However, there was an occasion when I needed a medical appointment quickly and my own doctor was out of town so I was referred to a colleague, “Dr. T,” a young doctor who had just joined the practice. I loved her! She answered all my questions, spoke to me as an equal, and never once looked at her watch. I came home elated and told Bill that I had found his doctor, since he hadn’t yet selected a primary care physician. He started seeing Dr. T and loved her as much as I had.

Idiot that I am/was, I stayed with my first physician—out of loyalty, stupidity, and even the fear of hurting her feelings. Then one day a few years later, I received a form letter from her announcing that she was leaving the practice and leaving medicine to “find her passion.” I realized as I read her letter that passion had certainly been absent during my interactions with her. I’m glad she realized it, too, and I sincerely hope she has found her passion, whatever that might be.

I quickly declared Dr. T to be my new physician and was amazed and delighted to see how different medical care could be. She spends as much time as needed with her patients (as a result, appointments are rarely on time, but with a good book and understanding that she is giving every patient the thorough care we receive, delays never bother us). She listens without interrupting, admits when she doesn’t know something, and follows up with us to see how we’re doing. I am confident in both the care and the health guidance she provides. I feel—and I think she does, too—that we’re partners in maintaining my health. What a difference!

Over the years, Dr. T has referred me to a few specialists for surgeries or special care outside of her purview. With few exceptions, each of these docs have demonstrated the same care and empathy—the same kindness. I have been so lucky to have physician partners as I’ve navigated a few serious or chronic illnesses.

One exception was an orthopedist who set my broken wrist after a fall. Each time I saw him for follow-up I told him I thought there was also a problem with my thumb, as the wrist was clearly healing but the thumb remained painfully immobile. He pointed to the x-rays indicating that the wrist was healing and said he saw no problem with the thumb. Finally, after more than a month of him dismissing my concerns I insisted quite fiercely that they take the x-ray from a different angle. When he looked at it, he said (I swear to God), “It’s as I suspected, you also have a fracture in the base of your thumb.” He said it with a straight face as he sent me off to have a new cast made.

That exception just highlighted for me the extreme difference between having doctors who listened and who didn’t, and whom I trusted or did not.

Of course, focusing on a physician’s kindness or empathy in no way diminishes the importance of her competence. The best care must involve both. David Haslam, chair of the U.K’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), has written that kindness, compassion and trust “are the pillars supporting the whole structure of care” in the British National Health Service. He notes that these important values are not optional extras in the health care system, “they are core, central, and vital … they have a profound effect on outcomes.”

In an article entitled, “Why Kindness Heals,” Dr. James Doty, Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University School of Medicine, notes that “kindness, compassion and empathy have a profound effect on healing.” He reports that evidence from psychology, neuroscience, and even economics supports the importance of human connection between patient and physician in improving physiology and health. Without such connection, there is evidence that “immune function and wound healing can be negatively affected.”

Jeffrey Young, writing for Dignity Health, cites several studies that support the health benefits of compassionate care. He references a study in Social Science and Medicine finding that patients of courteous and sympathetic doctors showed marked improvements in symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and quality of life. He also cited a study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal which found that kind, respectful communication between doctor and patient improves patients’ emotional health and results in faster recovery. Yet another study published in The Spine Journal showed that a doctor’s ability to empathize and listen effectively yields better pain relief outcomes.

I have heard that medical schools are putting a bit more emphasis on developing the physicians’ interpersonal skills as well as their technical competence. Knowing that burnout is a serious issue for doctors and other health care practitioners, it is my hope that kindness, compassion, and improved communication not only benefit the patient, but also help the physician to better cope with the stress and pressures of their important job.

As pharmaceutical companies search for the next magic pill we would do well to remember that kindness may be the best medicine of all!

“Words of kindness are more healing to a drooping heart than balm or honey.” (Sarah Fielding)

 

Hello In There, Hello…

“The saddest thing about old age is our idea of it.” (Marty Rubin)

attribution: Donna CameronOne of the common insights expressed by elderly people is that with age comes invisibility. In a Psychology Today blog post, psychiatrist Tamara McClintock Greenberg noted that many of her elderly patients describe feeling invisible as they shop or stroll or ride a bus. Once aware of that impression, she began to notice it herself: “And then it happened to me. I realized that when I walk down the street, younger people simply don’t see me.” She explains it thus:We live in a youth-fixated culture where people are afraid to age and to be vulnerable to growing older; where ideals about attractiveness are oriented around those with young, healthy bodies.”

How sad that people who have worked, and struggled, and contributed all their lives often fade from view, perceived—if at all—as insignificant and irrelevant. Still very much alive, they disappear like phantoms, forgotten and alone.

Hello In There” was a beautiful song from John Prine’s first album in 1971 (this YouTube version is accompanied by fantastic photos). It piercingly describes the loneliness of old age. I was touched by it when I first heard it in my teens; today, its powerful refrain strikes much closer to home:

You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”

If a kindness movement is going to take root and grow, it must encompass everyone, including our oldest and most invisible citizens. That means changing many prevailing attitudes toward aging and the aged.

Recently, I’ve come across stories that have illustrated the loneliness many elderly people experience, and kindnesses extended to them:

  • Officers in Manchester, England, responded to a call for help from Doris Thomson, assuming that either she or her 95-year-old husband, Fred, had fallen or injured themselves. What they found, though, was that Doris and Fred “were simply lonely and wanted to share a chat and, perhaps a cup of tea with someone.” The responding officers recognized the more subtle facets of their job as protectors of the public; they brewed a pot of tea and sat down to chat with the elderly couple. The two officers later faced some criticism for “wasting time,” but they stood by their decision to provide comfort during a time of need. Fortunately, their act of kindness was perceived by many to have been an appropriate and splendid deed.
  • Earlier this month, police in Rome responded to a report of crying coming from an apartment to find an elderly couple who had been “driven to tears through a combination of loneliness and viewing upsetting news reports on TV.” The four responding officers offered companionship—as well as a warm meal. They visited with 84-year-old Jole and her 94-year-old husband, Michele, as they cooked up a meal of pasta for the couple.
  • In another story from England earlier this month, an elderly woman who had fallen while running a bath tried to call her daughter for help, but misdialed and instead reached a BMW dealership a few miles from her home. When the manager realized what had happened he had his receptionist stay on the phone with the woman while he drove over to help her. He found her front-door unlocked and entered to find her on the floor, with blood on her face, and her tub overflowing. He helped her to a sofa and covered her with a blanket, then waited with her until her family arrived to care for her.
  • And in Hartford, Connecticut, 911 dispatcher Katherine Grady was at the end of her shift when she took a call from an 86-year-old woman, Francis Royer. Francis is disabled and has a heart condition and just wanted to know if there was someone who could help her take her garbage out the next day, as it had been two weeks since she had been able to roll her garbage barrels to the end of her driveway. Grady promised Ms. Royer that she would come over to help the next day, which happened to be her day off. She not only came to take out the garbage, but she stayed to visit and to help dispose of some heavy items and newspapers from Royer’s basement.

The responses to these cries for help are moving and encouraging, but what concerns me most is that very few elderly people who need help will ask for it. They’re proud, they’re afraid, and very often they simply have no one to call. They continue in their isolation, hoping for a knock on the door, a call from a friend or family member, even a smile from a stranger—someone to say to them, “Hello in there, hello.” But they remain invisible.

We can’t turn away from people because they move more slowly, or perhaps no longer hear as well as they once did. Nor can we discount them even if they’re sometimes—or always—confused or frail. Growing old is a condition we cannot ignore or avoid. Sure, we all want to be as healthy and able as possible in our final years, but for some of us that will not be possible, and we need to honor every person for the sum and complexity of who they are and the life they lived.

What goes around comes around. If we teach our children that old people don’t matter, if we condone the invisibility our society confers on the aged, we invite that same experience for ourselves when our time comes, and for our children when it’s their turn. And, most importantly, we discount the value of every life.

Maybe it’s fear that causes us to look away, perhaps discomfort, or obliviousness, but we owe it to our elders to treat them with respect and kindness. For those of us who choose to live a life of kindness, extending kindness to our oldest and frailest companions on this journey is a privilege. There is much we can learn from the oldest members of our society. Let’s appreciate all they have to teach us and give them the respect they deserve.

“When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel)

 

Want Your Kids to Go to Harvard? Teach ‘em to Be Kind.

“All the big words—virtue, justice, truth…—are dwarfed by the greatness of kindness.” (Stephen Fry)

Memorial Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Photo: Daderot; Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Memorial Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Photo: Daderot; Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I haven’t been able to get a blog post out of my mind. I wrote about it last month. The blogger in question disparaged Hillary Clinton for her comments that we need “more love and kindness” in America. She further minimized the importance of kindness, saying love and kindness were “completely irrelevant in public life.” This last comment leaves me bewildered–where are love and kindness more relevant?

Additionally, she equated kindness with the misguided efforts of some parents, teachers, and coaches to protect kids from any disappointment by insulating them from loss or distress, giving trophies for simply showing up, and never keeping score. These actions, she says, “handicap a child for the real world where Harvard accepts only so many incoming freshman.”

I do agree with her that coddled and overprotected kids are not being prepared for the “real” world, but the insinuation that such behaviors are performed as kindness—rather than out of insecurity, ignorance, or an erroneous sense of entitlement—is where we diverge. The implication that kindness isn’t going to help a child get into the best college, or land a high-paying job after graduation is one I don’t accept.

And neither, it seems, does Harvard. Kindness and compassion have come to academia, and Harvard is leading the way. Early this year, nearly 100 leading colleges and universities—including some of the most prestigious in the nation—embarked on a program designed to overhaul the college admissions process. The program is called “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.” It came out of a Harvard Graduate School of Education project called “Making Caring Common” (MCC), a program designed to help educators, parents, and communities raise children who are caring, responsible to their communities, and committed to justice. Specifically, “MCC uses research and the expertise and insights of both practitioners and parents to develop effective strategies for promoting in children kindness and a commitment to the greater good, to influence the national conversation about raising and educating caring, ethical children….” Good for Harvard, and good for all the colleges and universities who are recognizing that kindness is more than a frothy concept, but a strength worth nurturing and pursuing.

The goal of Turning the Tide is to expand the focus of the admissions process from being primarily about academic and personal achievement to also include values, community engagement, and meaningful relationships. It attempts to balance the current individualistic emphasis with more attention to how students interact with their community and their surroundings.

The University of Pennsylvania was one of the universities that signed the report and pledged to engage in a two-year campaign to focus more on values in the admissions process. Penn’s Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said that signing the report demonstrates that Penn is a school that values kindness and community engagement, but he also noted that academic achievement is still a critical factor in the competitive admissions process: “You might find a student who’s the most genuine and caring person in the world, but is that going to make up for a 2.8 grade point average on a 4.0 scale? The answer at Penn is no.”

I don’t think anyone is expecting this initiative to turn these schools from elite institutions of higher education to come-one-come-all diploma factories. But if the new attention to compassion, involvement, and giving back means that high-achieving students enter college with a greater understanding and focus on social issues, inequality, diversity, and their own capacity to serve, perhaps those coveted ivy-league diplomas will be in the possession of graduates who are committed to service in the truest sense of the word.

That, after all, is why we’re here. We’re just not always very good at it. Maybe there’s hope.

“Your greatness is measured by your kindness; your education and intellect by your modesty; your ignorance is betrayed by your suspicions and prejudices, and your real caliber is measured by the consideration and tolerance you have for others.” (William J.H. Boetcker)

When My Kindness Is Your “Yuk!”

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” (Rumi)

Attribution: Donna CameronWhen my husband is sick, he wants to be left alone. He’s like an animal that crawls off to die in seclusion. I would like to fuss over him, fluff his pillows, mop his brow, croon “poor baby,” but that’s not what he wants.

When I’m sick, I like a little attention—not a lot, just check in on me occasionally, make sure I’m still breathing, and see if I want some ginger ale or a couple of choruses of “Soft Kitty.” Over the years, Bill has perfected exactly the right amount of solicitous attention to help me feel cared for but not smothered. A few degrees in either direction and I would feel either neglected or pestered.

That’s one of the challenges of kindness: learning to meet the other person’s needs and not impose your own.

It’s for this reason I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the “golden rule,” do unto others as you would have them do unto you—a sentiment promulgated by nearly every major religion. The problem is: what I may want in certain circumstances may not be what another person might want. If I always go by what I’d like, it’s quite probable I won’t meet the other person’s needs.

For example, I tend to be a fairly private, low-key person. As a rule, I don’t like to be the center of attention (the exception being when I have a microphone in my hand). I’m not comfortable with effusive thanks or effusive praise. But I know other people who are—who welcome it and thrive on it. Were I to follow the golden rule, I would treat them with the reserve that I prefer for myself. My preferences aren’t everyone’s preferences, though, and if lavish and unrestrained praise are what my friend craves, that really is what I want to offer him.

The “platinum rule” says treat others the way they want to be treated. That requires more mindfulness on our part, and an ability to be empathetic. We also risk guessing wrongly. “I thought for sure she’d like being serenaded by the high-school marching band for her birthday, but it turned out she would have preferred a quiet dinner for two.” Oops!

Another example: I don’t like surprises. They leave me tongue-tied and inspire a sort of “fight or flight” response. If something wonderful is coming my way, I want to know about it well in advance so I can savor not only the experience, but the anticipation of it. And, if it’s something not so wonderful coming my way, I want to know about that, too, so I can be prepared and have time to think about how I will handle it. I. don’t. like. surprises.

But I have friends who love surprises, and I would never deprive them of that pleasure because I don’t understand or share the attraction. Under the platinum rule, I consider their desires and help plan the surprise party or maintain secrecy about the big event to come. I may not agree, but I respect their preference and honor it.

This is probably easier to do with people we know well. After a few years (decades?) of trial and error, we understand their needs and wishes, we know how to please.

It’s harder with casual friends, colleagues and acquaintances. We may make the mistaking of assuming that what they’d like is the same as what we’d like.

It’s even harder with strangers. How on earth can we know what they want? I read a comment recently from a man who said he had ceased offering his seat on the bus to women, the elderly, or people who appeared to be disabled. After eight people refused his offer, displaying varying levels of offense that he thought they were incapable of standing, he resolved to keep his nose in his book and not offer again.

There’s no question that it’s awkward and uncomfortable when our attempts at kindness are rejected. I can also understand the point of view of the people who refused his kind offer—it may have made them feel weak, or challenged their independence. As I think about how I might react in that situation, I’m guessing I would probably refuse, too (though graciously, I hope), thinking I don’t need any special treatment and am perfectly capable of standing. The question becomes: is it kinder to accept his offer or to allow him to keep his seat? It all depends on your perspective. No wonder people abandon civilization and make their homes in hermit caves. It’s a whole lot easier than navigating social niceties in a complex world.

I wonder if there is a way to offer that makes it easier on everyone. Perhaps he could say, “I would love to offer you my seat if you would consider taking it,” while rising and offering his most dazzling smile.

Knowing that our kindness may sometimes be unwelcome shouldn’t deter us from extending kindness to the best of our ability and our judgment. It means never assuming we know what someone else wants, but asking. And if we are on the receiving end of misdirected or clumsy kindness, we need to be able to appreciate the intent, even if it missed the mark.

The best we can do is the best we can do….

“Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy’.” (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

Kindness and Keeping Score

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

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Snohomish Shoe Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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