The Vanishing Art of Paying Attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What Are We All So Afraid Of?

“Be not afraid.  A kind life, a life of spirit, is fundamentally a life of courage—the courage simply to bring what you have, to bring who you are.” (Wayne Muller)

Attribution: Donna CameronAs I continue to re-examine some of the key ideas that emerged during my initial year of living kindly, I note how often fear emerges as a barrier to kindness—both to our expressing it and to our receiving it. And beyond inhibiting kindness, fear is also very often at the root of unkindness and incivility.

Why is fear such a big factor in keeping us from being our best selves?

Extending Kindness

We’re often hesitant to extend a kindness because we fear the result. Is it the right thing? Will I say the wrong words? Is it enough? Is it too much? Will it be rejected? Will I be rejected? If I offer assistance to someone, will they take offense that I perceived them as incapable? Fear can be paralyzing and our opportunity to express it passes by swiftly.

We also fear embarrassment. Kindness may take us out of our comfort zone; it may ask us to do something new. Perhaps we’ll be clumsy or awkward, or we’ll call attention to ourselves in an unwelcome way. If I stop to hand a couple of dollars to someone in need, will my companion scold me and call me a bleeding heart?

The question we all too often fail to ask is, “Could my kindness here make a positive difference?”

Receiving Kindness

On the receiving end of kindness, we may fear being perceived as weak or needy. Or perhaps we want to maintain a distance between ourselves and the giver; we fear strings may be attached to the proffered kindness. Receiving can be just as awkward and clumsy as giving—maybe we fear we don’t deserve the kindness, or it is out of proportion to our own smaller generosity. Maybe we’ll embarrass the giver, or ourselves. Accepting the kindness of others with grace and appreciation is itself an act of kindness. And a pretty easy one, at that. But it takes practice. Whether you are offered a material gift, assistance, or a compliment, do your best to receive it courteously and savor the kindness.

Perhaps the question to ask here is, “What’s the most gracious response I can offer?”

Behaving Unkindly

When we see unkindness, at its root is often fear. When someone lashes out at another person, it may not be for anything the person has or hasn’t done. They are simply the nearest individual on whom to deflect blame, embarrassment, or anger. Not so long ago at a downtown hotel parking lot, a number of people were in line at the payment kiosk. The person who was trying to pay could not get his credit card to work. He turned it one way, then the next, he inserted it slowly, then quickly. He tried a different card with the same result. People behind him were beginning to get impatient, though they tried not to show it. Finally, someone suggested pushing the button that would summon an attendant. When the attendant arrived, he helped the fellow process his payment in less than 30 seconds. Instead of being grateful, the man just got angrier. He berated the attendant for the machine’s poor quality, and for the exorbitant price of the parking, and finally for the inconvenience he was subjected to. Perhaps he was angered over the inconvenience, but it appeared more likely that he was embarrassed and feared the judgment of people waiting behind him to pay. Were they thinking he was incompetent? After all, none of the people ahead of him had experienced any problem with the machine.

Many of the things we fear are threats to our pride, to the image we have of ourselves. When our pride is threatened, when we fear that others—or even ourselves—will see that we are not as strong, smart, capable, or lovable as we believe ourselves to be, we often strike out or strike back. We act unkindly.

The question to ask here is, “What am I afraid of?”

I think one of the best moments of our lives is when we stop worrying about what other people think of us or how we are being judged. The truth is that most people are far too concerned with themselves to spend much time appraising others. And those who do want to belittle, snicker, and sneer simply aren’t worth worrying about!

Change the Question

When I first wrote about how fear inhibits our kindness, I suggested that the question we often ask ourselves in the face of fear, “What’s the worst that could happen?” is the wrong question to ask. I still believe that’s true. Much better is to ask, “What’s the best that could happen?” Focusing on best enables us to see the potential our kindness holds—to brighten a life, to alter the tone of an encounter, to change the world. We need to remember that kindness has ripples far beyond our awareness. A seemingly small action could trigger others, which trigger still more, and, ultimately, might be the tipping point that transforms the world.

Focusing on best diminishes our fear and also keeps our desired goal front-and-center in our mind. If we focus on worst, our subconscious points toward it. If we focus on best, all our capacities conspire to make that happen. All it takes is practice and confidence that the path of kindness will lead us where we want to go.

The Power of Kindness

Many people still choose to see kindness as a sign of weakness. They erroneously equate it with being wishy-washy or a pushover. If I exhibit kindness, I’ll be inviting others to take advantage of me. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kindness takes strength, it takes resolve and courage, and the willingness to be vulnerable.

When fear threatens to deter our kindness, or to incite unkindness, we need to remember that kindness has the ability and power to vanquish our fears. Then, step past the fear and claim our kindness.

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” (Amelia Earhart)

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)

Driving Miss Crazy

“Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn’t block traffic.” (Dan Rather) 

Over the last few years of exploring kindness, writing about it, and occasionally talking about it, one of the most frequent comments I encountered from others was along the lines of, “I think I’m a pretty kind person—except when I’m behind the wheel.”

What is it about driving that can turn a pacifist into a warrior, or transform Prince or Princess Charming into Freddy Krueger? As much as it pains me to say it, there are always going to be some people who will be aggressive jerks under any circumstances—and driving just magnifies that jerkiness to cosmic proportions. But there are also kind and good-natured individuals who transform before our very eyes into sneering auto-crats with the vocabulary of a Quentin Tarantino thug.

Clearly, there is no single reason for the metamorphosis that occurs when an otherwise splendid human being gets behind the wheel of their vehicle—be it a Ford F-150 pick-up, a BMW, or a Toyota Prius.

Some studies cite the protection and the anonymity offered by a heavy vehicle moving at high speed. Surrounded by a few thousand pounds of steel, we can name-call and chastise, knowing that similar behaviors directed back at us can’t actually penetrate the armor of our vehicles (unless the other driver is both psychotic and armed, then all bets are off).

I think the fact that we’re nearly always in a hurry is a big factor, too. We’re just trying to get from here to there and aggressive or oblivious drivers slow us down. They get in our way and then they won’t get out of our way. All the while, the clock is ticking.

There may also be a connection to a condition called “illusory superiority,” a cognitive bias whereby individuals overestimate their own qualities and abilities, relative to others(think Lake Wobegon, where, famously, all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average). In a famous study conducted some years ago, 93% of American participants rated themselves as above-average drivers. Even with my limited mathematical prowess, I recognize this to be a statistical impossibility. The same study also included Swedish drivers, for whom—somewhat more humbly—only 69% claim to be above average.

So, if 93% of Americans are driving around feeling superior to other drivers, who’s to blame them if they express their superiority by refusing to yield, tailgating, speeding, flashing their lights, and honking their horns. And why should they use turn signals—they know where they’re going, why let the rest of us in on it?

I’ve heard it said that if you really want to get to know someone, just watch how they drive. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. There’s something exceptional about driving—it takes certain people out of their day-to-day tranquil reality and drops them in a dystopian battlefield where they become someone else entirely, someone they’re really not all that proud to be. Again, I exempt the true jerks (jerkus americanus) from this acquittal, because they revel in letting their true colors fly as they terrorize the highways, speed the side streets, and assert their dominance across parking lots.

I came across an interesting study that ranked all fifty states and the District of Columbia by the rudeness of their drivers. It also noted what other state held each state in particular contempt for its driving. Surprisingly (to me at least), Idaho drivers were ranked as the rudest of all, and they are especially hated by drivers from Arizona (a state which is ranked 34th and has as its nemesis the state of California). My own state, Washington, comes out pretty well, ranking 43rd in rudeness, and disliked most by our neighbor to the south, Oregon. Washington drivers don’t seem to hold particular animosity for any other drivers, while California drivers appear to hate nearly everyone. Given how highly-caffeinated Washington State drivers are, our ranking comes as a bit of a surprise. But, then, based on the number of venti Starbucks cups I see in drivers’ hands, I suspect we are all just looking for the next easy-access restroom.

In yet another study of rude driving (there are many!), the author concluded that good and courteous drivers are “turned bad” by rude drivers. The courteous ones mistakenly believe that by venting their frustration they will let offending drivers know they have behaved poorly, so that they will not repeat the behavior in future. “It’s a contradiction,” says road safety researcher Lauren Shaw, “good drivers are using rude and unpleasant bad behavior to teach other drivers how to be better drivers.” All that does, she concludes, is confirm to aggressive drivers the bad behavior of all drivers.

Is there way to conquer our own aggressive driving and not be provoked by the hostile or foolhardy driving habits of others? I think there is, but I suspect few people will like it. Here goes anyway: Let go of needing to be right (or righteous)—even when you know you are. Even when you’re absolutely, positively, without any doubt, certain you are right. Let it go.

Maybe we could take a cue from some of the street signs we see all over (and often ignore):

Yield. Let the other guy in—whether he’s merging onto the highway, trying to change lanes, or snatching up the parking place you had identified as your own. Even if it clearly was your space, or if he jumps in without signaling or waving thanks, what does it cost to acquiesce, and to do so without cussing and name-calling?

Stop. Before you act aggressively or react to another driver’s idiocy or belligerence, pause and ask yourself if that’s really who you want to be and whether you will feel better or worse after yelling an obscenity or making that universally recognized hand-gesture. A pause offers us the option to be gracious and to put an end to escalating rudeness.

Seek Alternate Route. Remind yourself that you always have a choice, and when you make the choice—rather than allowing someone else’s behavior to make it for you—you’re not only exhibiting maturity, you’re modeling good behavior for others on the road or in your own vehicle.

I don’t have the slightest idea what this sign means. But maybe it’s a reminder that we can’t always know what’s going on in someone else’s life that has made them behave aberrantly. Maybe they’re a brand-new driver and they’re terrified … perhaps they’re rushing a loved one to the hospital … possibly they’re lost…. Why not give the benefit of the doubt?

Some people will never change. But if driving is one of the few places where you lose control and succumb to unkindness, challenge yourself to take another route the next time you get behind the wheel. See if you can find the road that leads to inner peace.

“When you argue with a fool, make sure he is not similarly engaged.” (Proverb)

 

 

Kindness Withheld is Kindness Lost Forever

“It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.” (Moliere)

Attribution: Donna CameronLast week, I had the pleasure of speaking at a conference about kindness in business—its benefits to the workplace, to the bottom-line, and to both business owners and employees. It was a receptive group and we had a lot of fun (well, at least I did!). Afterward, a number of people came up to me to share their stories of kindness—kindnesses extended, kindnesses received, and kindnesses witnessed. There were stories of roadside assistance, found wallets, Starbucks’ gift cards, and neighborly sharing.

I was struck once again by a notion that is both obvious and subtle: Most acts of kindness are easy to do, but they’re also just as easy not to do.

It’s easy to dismiss the idea as either gobbledygook or a statement of the glaringly obvious, but to my simple brain, it’s also somewhat profound.

Nobody’s ever going to know or notice if you don’t stop to assist someone whose car is stuck in the snow. Or if you don’t offer to help someone who’s struggling to carry a heavy load. Or if you don’t stop to chat with the homeless guy and hand him a couple of bucks. Nobody’s likely to comment on its absence if you don’t smile, or if you don’t speak some words of appreciation to the waiter or the cashier. What we don’t do is lost forever and the potential it held to begin never-ending ripples of kindness is lost to the world. Who knows where those ripples might have reached and what difference they might have made?

I wonder if that’s why some people pooh-pooh kindness as feeble and inconsequential. How could anything as simple as smiling, holding a door, or offering a compliment make any difference in a world where countries are on the brink of war, where city streets could erupt in violence at any moment, and where inequality and mistrust divide us every which way?

I am reminded of the many times in my life when I was buoyed by a kind word or inspired to be a better me after witnessing the kindness of others. I can also recall times when I held back—afraid of how my words might be received, or reluctant to draw attention to myself. The ease of not doing or not saying offered me a safe haven…but at what cost?

Even this post, describing the simplicity of kindness and the allure of inertia, offers a similar choice. No one would ever know if I hit delete, fearful that the inanity of the obvious will be received with a roll of the eyes or a sigh of impatience. But, if I put it out there, maybe one person (maybe me!) will choose to extend a kindness they might otherwise have allowed to slip away. And who knows where that could lead?

Only one way to find out….

“If you want to be a rebel, be kind.” (Pancho Ramos Stierle)

 

 

To Give or Not to Give

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

Attribution: Donna CameronOver these last couple of years of writing and talking about kindness, a consistently controversial topic of conversation has been whether or not to give money to panhandlers and homeless people. I know people who always try to carry a stash of dollar bills to hand out when they can. An acquaintance keeps socks and hygiene products in her car and offers them to people who appear to be in need.

I also know people—good people—who are vehement that such handouts are wrong-headed and counter-productive. They say the people seeking our dollars are just lazy; if given money, they’ll use it for drugs or alcohol. We’re just enabling them, they tell me.

While attending a conference in Washington, D.C., several years back, I was walking to dinner with a colleague after a long day of meetings. We were stopped on the sidewalk by a young man who asked if we could help him out with any spare change. I reached into my wallet and handed him a dollar. He walked on and so did we. However, for the remainder of our walk and well into our dinner, my friend scolded me for giving the man money. She said he was probably a freeloader who didn’t want to work and made his living conning and begging tourists and bleeding-hearts like me. How did I know that he was really in need, or that he wouldn’t spend the money on drugs or alcohol? She said I was just making the problem worse by handing him money on the street. If he was really in need, there were social service agencies that could help.

I was surprised by her vehemence—I knew her to be a very kind person. She was a nurse, for heaven’s sake! I may have tried to defend my action, but mostly I was just embarrassed. Not embarrassed to have given money, but embarrassed to be scolded like a school-girl. I think I would be more assertive and confident in my reply today.

Nonetheless, I am somewhat chagrined to admit that since that evening I rarely give anyone money when I am in the company of a friend, a business colleague, or even my husband. I’m not proud that I have allowed my fear of embarrassment to inhibit my kindness. I’ve even rationalized it to some degree: this way, when I give someone money, I am freer to stop and exchange a few words with that individual and I don’t have to feel rushed or worry that I’m delaying my companion, or making them uncomfortable. It is a rationalization, though. I fear judgment.

My friend Nancy recently sent me an editorial from the New York Times Opinion Page, entitled, “The Pope on Panhandling: Give Without Worry.” It quotes Pope Francis as saying that it’s “always right” to give to those in need.

When questioned about people who may use the money for drink, Pope Francis said, “[If] a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s OK. Instead, ask yourself what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” (I confess, Your Holiness, it’s chocolate.) He also explains that those of us who are “luckier”—who have homes, and families, and jobs—have a responsibility to those less fortunate. Clearly, this is a view not held by all, but it’s one that fills me with hope.

Further, the Pope explains, what counts as much as giving is how we give. It’s not a matter of dropping money into a cup or quickly handing over a dollar and rushing on, but “looking them in the eyes and touching their hands.”

It’s also exchanging a few words. Even if our own pockets happen to be empty, we can always give the gift of seeing someone, respecting them, and acknowledging our shared humanity.

A couple of years ago, I attended a weekend conference in Pittsburgh. It was late May and the weather was glorious. I had a free afternoon, so I walked to a nearby park and sat on a bench with a book. I divided my time between reading and appreciating the sights around me—children playing on the lawn, couples strolling hand-in-hand, squirrels, dogs, flowers, and endless varieties of trees and birds. I remember feeling the overwhelming sense of how fortunate I was to be able to experience it all. For a time, gratitude filled every pore.

After a while, I walked to a local restaurant and ordered lunch, still able to watch the activity of the park and the busy street outside. I asked the waitress to box up my fruit salad and the remaining, untouched half of my sandwich, thinking they would make a fine dinner. Walking back toward my hotel, I felt the fullness of my life and the amazing privilege of when, where, and how I am living. A block or so from my hotel, I noticed an elderly man slumped in a wheelchair. At his side was a can with a few coins in it and a small cardboard sign with lettering that said, “Please Help.”

I stopped and greeted him. Then I said, “I have a half a turkey sandwich here and some fruit salad. Would you like them?”

His eyes widened and he said, “I surely would.” I handed the restaurant bag to him and also reached into my purse for a couple of dollars, which I also handed him. We talked for a minute or two and I noticed how his eyes held a lively twinkle. When I resumed my walk toward my hotel, I felt even lighter and happier than I had before. My brief interaction with the man had felt good. While I’m sure he appreciated the sandwich and the few dollars I handed him, I sensed that even more, he appreciated being seen. He was used to people averting their eyes, ignoring him as they quickly walked by, even occasionally dropping some change or a couple of dollars into his can, but then rushing off without a word.

I think my own gratitude that day opened me to extending a kindness and offering not just the gift of food or money, but the gift of my genuine attention. I received a cherished gift that afternoon.

And maybe that’s a way of thinking about the question of whether or not to give to panhandlers and homeless people. Does your small gift of money, kind words, or attention offer you a gift, as well? Does it make your heart just a little bit bigger…and do you hear it sing just a bit sweeter?

What are your thoughts on giving to street people and the homeless?

“A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives the rose.” (Chinese Proverb)

 

What Are You Holding Back?

“Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.” (The Dalai Lama) 

Wikimedia CommonsMy talent as a cook is about equal to my interest in cooking—random and fleeting, sporadic at best. Fortunately for me and our friends, my husband is a good cook, and a venturesome one. He does the lion’s share of the meal prep in our household.

Many years ago, he decided he wanted to master potato salad. He tried several recipes, but never found one that excited him. His stepmother made an exceptionally good potato salad and that’s what he was aiming for. So he asked step-mom for her recipe. She refused.

For whatever reason, she didn’t want anyone else to have her recipe. I wish I could say I was surprised, but she was one of those people who held tightly to everything she had. She had neither open hands nor an open heart. A few years later she died, taking with her the secret to her great potato salad. Sadly, the loss of the salad was probably mourned more than the loss of the woman.

Bill did finally find a great potato salad recipe, shared by TV personality Joan Lunden. We appreciate her generosity every time we enjoy the salad and make it for friends.

As previously noted, my own cooking is generally mediocre and uninspired, but on those rare occasions when someone asks for one of my recipes, I am elated and eager to comply. I have even been known to inflict unrequested recipes on my dinner victims guests. And, fortunately, my friends—who are all fabulous cooks—are always generous in sharing their recipes.

I’ve never understood people who are unwilling to share their recipes. What is it they’re holding on to? Does it give them a sense of superiority to know that no one else will ever be able to replicate their Chicken Marsala or Cherry Chocolate Walnut Cream-Cheese Pie? How much better it would be to know there are people preparing our recipes and thinking of us fondly as they do.

Refusing to share a recipe is just one example of how we sometimes senselessly withhold things in our lives—from recipes, to compliments, to knowledge, to assistance.

In my professional life, I occasionally saw this behavior exhibited by colleagues who somehow felt that holding information close to their vest gave them an advantage. I would see them strategically spring their information in a board or committee meeting, often blindsiding other colleagues who would have welcomed the knowledge earlier. Sometimes this resulted in needless scrambling to adapt to new information that should have been provided sooner. While the individual who withheld the information may have been perceived as smart or powerful, they were acting in their own interest rather than the group’s or organization’s.

Writer Annie Dillard has addressed this more eloquently than anyone I know:

“The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

How many of us are guilty of saving things for special occasions, realizing only much later that we never actually enjoyed having them. Maybe it’s a piece of clothing, or a delicate china tea-cup, or a journal so beautiful we hesitate to write in it. Often those special occasions never come, and we die with our treasures neatly tucked away, wrapped in tissue paper.

A story to illustrate this made the rounds of cyberspace many years ago. The author writes about how she and her brother-in-law found an exquisite and expensive silk and lace slip among her sister’s things after she died. It had never been worn—she had been saving it for years for just the right “special occasion.” They had her buried in it.

As writers, we are sometimes guilty of holding onto our ideas, saving them for just the right time, waiting for the ideal place to share them, or the perfect time to tell our story. We delay so long that sometime those stories never get told—and we were the only one who could have told it in just that way. What were we waiting for?

What we love and treasure is not meant to be hoarded or held back, but to be used, shared, enjoyed, and savored. More will come, it always does. Likewise, what we have or know and can give to others is meant to be offered.

Is there anything in your life that you’re holding back—either not sharing with others or not allowing yourself to enjoy? What are you waiting for?

“Don’t die with your best song still unsung.” (Anonymous)

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Micro-Kindnesses

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

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

Not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Kindness Challenge

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

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

Little things do mean a lot!

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