“The secret of living well is not in having all the answers, but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.” (Rachel Naomi Remen, MD)
Since publication of A Year of Living Kindly last fall, I’ve had numerous opportunities to talk with groups about kindness. What an immense privilege! People aren’t shy about sharing their own stories of kindness, and the questions they ask are nearly always wise and perceptive. It’s like that with blogging, too—your comments invite me to see a different perspective, or sometimes they make me think a bit more deeply about my topic. And sometimes you make me laugh when I need it most.
I’ve noticed that often the same question will come up in talks and on the blog at almost the same time. It may just be coincidence, but it may also be triggered by a current event or a high-profile news story.
Recently, one question has surfaced repeatedly. The wording may have been different, but the meaning the same:
“Why should I be kind to unkind people?”
“Isn’t treating a jerk with kindness just rewarding him for being a jerk?”
“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.” (George Saunders)
I’ve had a lot of opportunities over the last year to talk with groups about kindness. One of the questions I’m often asked is, “Why is it so hard? . . . . Why is something obviously desirable and seemingly easy sometimes so difficult to actually do?”
I generally respond by describing the typical barriers to our kindness, the first of which is fear. And fear comes in many flavors: Fear of having our kindness rejected or misunderstood, fear of doing it wrong, fear of drawing attention to ourselves and causing embarrassment. Beyond fear, we may not know the right thing to do, or we claim not to have time, or we’re often simply oblivious.
Our brains can find any number of reasons for not doing something that may cross our minds as an impulse or notion. Continue reading →
“We’re all just walking each other home.” (Ram Dass)
Some people are effortlessly kind. I’m not one of them. I’d like to be able to claim that after studying and writing about kindness for going on five years I am now a paragon of compassion, consideration, and benevolence. Eh, not so much. I still get cranky (though it’s no longer my default setting), I can still make judgments, and I still succumb to obliviousness. I’m remain fully and imperfectly human.
Those rare people for whom kindness comes naturally and instinctively probably don’t think about it a lot. Kindness, for them, is as water to a fish. For the rest of us, kindness ebbs and flow. There are times when it comes effortlessly, and times when mustering kindness is harder than summoning a genie. Instead—often to our own chagrin—we’re snarky, indifferent, oblivious, and worse.
“Unkind people imagine themselves to be inflicting pain on someone equally unkind.” (Marcel Proust)
Have you ever come into contact with someone who is just . . . nasty? Rude, insensitive, unpleasant, maybe even a bully? I suspect we all have.
The first thing to ask when we encounter such people is whether “offensive” is their default setting, or if maybe they are—like Judith Viorst’s Alexander—having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
If it appears that the latter is the case, the kind response might be to offer some empathy. “It looks like you’re having a tough day. Can I help?” Or even just silently give them the benefit of the doubt—she must be struggling with some challenges right now. I know this isn’t who she really is. Sometimes these acknowledgements—offered without responding in the same tone or attitude of the offender—will give them the opportunity to pause and look at their behavior, and sometimes even alter it or apologize for it.
But if you’ve had similar encounters with this person before and know them to be perpetually unpleasant, angry, and aggressive, giving them a pass is less than satisfying. Sometimes it feels like we’re letting mean win. So, what’s the best strategy for those inevitable encounters with thoroughly odious people? Continue reading →
“There are two ways of exerting one’s strength; one is pushing down, the other is pulling up.” (Booker T. Washington)
A friend asked me to comment on how to apply kindness in the wake of the New Zealand shooting. Unspoken in her question may have been the implication that kindness seems awfully puny in the face of pure and undiluted evil.
Sometimes it feels that way.
When something horrific like this happens, we feel shock, sorrow, and anger. We feel bewilderment and a helplessness bordering on hopelessness. And, for many of us, the “Groundhog Day” repetition of mass shootings sickens beyond words. What possible good is kindness when hate is so heavily-armed? Continue reading →