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)

It Is Not My Intent to Offend Half the World’s Population….

“To belittle, you have to be little” (Khalil Gibran) 

Serena Williams wins her sixth Wimbledon singles trophy, 7/11/2015. By Azilko via Wikimedia Commons

What is it about men? Sometimes I just want to take them by the arm and squeeze it gently while I look into their eyes and say, “Dude, really, get over yourself.” I don’t want to make blanket assumptions or paint all men with the same brush, but I am coming to a conclusion that a world run mostly by males is not working out as well as it might. How about you guys take a few steps back and let women have a go? Or, at the very least, move over, stop man-spreading, and acknowledge that maybe women have something to offer.

I don’t want to offend anyone and I’m not lobbying to make men “less than” (woman all know how that feels). But how about raising women to a place of equality—real equality—not pat-us-on-the-head-and-let-us-into-the-club-if-we-promise-to-be-good “equality”?

There are a lot of wonderful and wise men who read this blog. I love interacting with them. I love reading their blogs. There are a few I treasure as dear and beloved friends, and one with whom I sleep every night. I promise you, I’m not trying to take anything away from you.

And then there’s John McEnroe. Why did John feel it was necessary to weigh in about Serena Williams’ ability and how she would stack up in a match against a male tennis player? Surely, the 58-year-old McEnroe has lived a long and rich enough life that he can find other things to say as he promotes his new memoir and seeks a few more moments in the limelight.

McEnroe, a 7-time Grand Slam champion, declared of Williams, winner of 23 Grand Slams and currently ranked number-one in the world, “If she played the men’s circuit she’d be, like, 700 in the world.”

And, of course (of course!), the player ranked number 701 in the men’s circuit, Dmitry Tursunov, had to weigh in and say, “I would hope that I would win against Serena.”

Both men were quick to qualify that they didn’t want to denigrate Serena’s ability or amazing talent, but women just can’t compete against men. “The reality” is, according to number 701, Tursunov, that “men are stronger in general.”

That may be true. Men may be stronger “in general.” But physical strength isn’t all that’s needed to be a tennis champion. Nor does it justify world dominance. And it doesn’t equate to intelligence, endurance, compassion, complexity, common sense, or a dozen other qualities that people need to navigate their lives effectively and—at the end of it—be able to say with conviction, “I’m leaving the world a better place for having lived.”

Is what McEnroe claimed true? I don’t know and I don’t care. It wasn’t necessary. And it wasn’t kind.

Serena Williams demonstrated some of those other traits of whole-hearted people—including grace—when she responded on Twitter: “Dear John, I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based” and “I’ve never played anyone ranked ‘there’ nor do I have time. Respect me and my privacy as I’m trying to have a baby. Good day sir.”

I realize that a few ill-chosen words by an aging tennis star don’t constitute proof that all men are clueless, or that the world would be in better hands if more world leaders were women. But, really, let’s think about it. And let’s try to do so objectively.

Is there anyone, anyone, who truly believes that 13 aging, rich, white men meeting in secret behind closed doors would—let alone could—craft a health care plan that would be fair to all Americans? Yes, those 13 senators believed in their own omnipotence and innate, “God-given” superior wisdom. It remains to be seen whether there are enough like them in Congress who will continue to assert white, male superiority and pass the bill that will harm millions of Americans who don’t share their power, wealth, or chromosomes.

There was a time when I had more faith in my country and the people who were elected to run it, when I would have said with confidence, “This could never happen.” And I certainly don’t believe that all women possess the qualities that would equip them to lead wisely. But the clock is ticking in a world perilously close to catastrophe. Something needs to change.

John McEnroe is just a reminder of what we’re up against if we want to change the world. Every day, millions of men say things that put women down. Every day, millions of men equate physical strength with power and entitlement. I know it’s not all men, but it’s enough.

As women, even if our physical strength isn’t equal, our intelligence, ability to reason, compassion, judgment, and endurance are. If we continue to step aside for men, if we continue to allow them to get away with saying stupid, hurtful, entitled things without calling them on it, then the world will never change. It could be so much better if instead of fearing a loss of their power, those with the power could see that by sharing it, everyone wins. Think about it.

“We can never elevate ourselves by putting someone else down.” (Donna Cameron)

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)

In Gratitude for Friends and Friendship

“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.” (R.J. Palacio)

Attribution: Donna CameronI wrote last week about querencia, that physical or psychological place of refuge where each of us finds our strength, safety and sanctuary. It’s where we can be our most authentic self. I noted that in the days ahead it was going to be important for each of us to know where our own querencia is and to have it as our refuge and place of refueling. Over these past few days, I’ve also seen that querencia comes in another important form: friends.

Even when it feels like we’re alone, or when dismay threatens to choke all hope, friends appear to make us realize we’re not alone—we’ll get through this together. Friends are found in the usual ways: the people we’ve known for years whom we can call, or get together with for lunch or coffee, or chat with at the mailbox. We share our pain and bewilderment, we explore ideas, and we find solace in laughter. There are also what I call “21st century friendships.” No less real, these are people across great distances, people we may never even have seen in-person and couldn’t pick out of a line-up, but they are friends just the same. We’ve met them through online classes, social media, and blogs.

In recent days, friends of both types have been gold. They called, emailed, or texted at just the right moment—a thoughtful image, a righteous quote, or a joke to put it all in perspective. They were querencia.

Attribution: Donna CameronI found lavish querencia yesterday walking with my sister-in-law and an amazing 130,000 people across the streets and hills of Seattle. The march—triple the number that had been anticipated—was peaceful, joyous, and immensely energizing. Ordinarily, I feel overwhelmed and grumpy in huge crowds—this was just the opposite. There was always plenty of room for everyone, and on the faces of my fellow marchers smiles, laughter and hope abounded. Friends who were not able to march had sent messages of solidarity and were with us in spirit, providing strength and resolve. The message we sent was one of great hope and greater determination. Anyone who fails to see and hear it is delusional.

This blogging community has also certainly been a place of querencia for me in recent weeks and days. So many people in this community have shared their grief, their wisdom, their sources of inspiration, and their humor (always needed and always appreciated!).

Thank you to so many friends who offered—and continue to offer—strength and support. Thank you for being querencia.

“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)

Attribution: Donna CameronAttribution: Donna Cameron

Attribution: donna Cameron

Where Is Your Querencia?

“There is a way to live that makes the angels cry out in rapture. There is a way to live that makes each cell a star.” (from “Clearing,” Morgan Farley)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Harmony Hill

In recent days, I’ve seen a number of writers and bloggers declare that they chose a single word to be their theme or focal point for 2017. In place of traditional resolutions, they selected words like joy, trust, focus, even kindness, to be their inspiration for the year. I started thinking about what word I might choose. Of course, kindness is my raison d’etre. It’s more than just a word—to me it’s a way of living. It’s at the heart of everything. I looked for another word that might speak to the journey ahead.

The one that sprang to mind is a word I encountered some years ago, in one of my favorite books, Kitchen Table Wisdom. Author Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, introduced the concept of querencia, It is a word that has many meanings—none of them especially clear, and that very imprecision contributes to its allure.

Dr. Remen describes how her cat, Charles, finds querencia in certain favorite places in the house they share—behind the drapes, under the stairs, even in one particular spot in plain sight on the living room rug. There, Charles is fearless, he is calm and relaxed. He casts off his usual wariness and basks in serenity. Remen herself finds querencia walking through Muir Woods in early morning before the tourists arrive. She also describes how when the cancer patients she works with find their querencia it begets in them a new strength and peace.

What is this marvelous and magical place?

Most commonly, querencia is used to describe the place in a bull ring (“corrida”) where the bull goes to feel safe and to gather his strength. For each bull it is a different place, so it is the job of the matador to recognize where querencia is for each bull, and keep him out of that spot. I find the idea of bull-fighting abhorrent, but the concept of finding our individual place of safety and sanctuary—while a force tries to keep us away from it—that is compelling … and certainly timely.

As I researched the word online, I found other definitions for querencia:

From Wikipedia: In Spanish, querencia describes a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home.

John Jeremiah Sullivan defines querencia as “an untranslatable Spanish word that means something like ‘the place where you are your most authentic self’.”

Other definitions:

  • A place in which we know exactly who we are; the place from which we speak our deepest beliefs
  • A safe haven, lair, or sanctuary

If I were a teacher, I would introduce my students to this word. I would put it on spelling tests and ask students to write papers describing their querencia. If I were a parent, I would talk to my child about querencia and encourage them to become familiar with their own place of safety and strength.

How wonderful it would have been at age 8 or 18 to know such a word, to know that there is a place of security and refuge that is ours alone, a place to go to gather strength and be exactly who we are, with no pressure to conform to norms or expectations imposed by others. No matter how idyllic one’s childhood may be, there are always times when we look for safe haven, or when we seek the confidence to speak from the depths of our heart, or when we recognize the place where we come face-to-face with our most authentic self and know that we have found something precious.

Querencia can be a physical place: at the foot of a favorite tree, a cozy window seat, a forest path. Or it can be a place inside us where we breathe into our own strength and feel our own certainty, a certainty that we don’t need to share with anyone else or proselytize to others to convince ourselves. Querencia might be the sense of transport we feel when we read a book, knowing as we do so that it is changing our life. And it might be that sense of oneness with nature that occurs when a place takes our breath away and replaces it—if only for an instant—with its own essence. Or it might be what we feel when we listen to a symphony by Sibelius. For each of us it will be different.

There are places I go to for querencia: the deck of our cabin facing Mt. Pilchuck and the Cascade Range, the labyrinth I built a few summers ago and walk every chance I get, certain books or passages from books that resonate to the thrum of my heart. In my memory, I go to a tiny, secluded cove near a condo my husband and I stayed in years ago on the island of St. John. It was a place of perfect peace, warm water, and star-studded night skies.

As I get older and shed some of the excesses from my life, I see that my inner querencia is much less elusive than it once was. I have cleared a space for it. That matador whose job it has been to keep me away from my querencia has also become less vigilant—perhaps she, too, recognizes the importance of having that place of personal sanctuary.

Something tells me querencia will be a much-needed refuge for many of us in the coming year. It will be a place to retreat to when we see and hear things that denigrate our values, when we are worn down by the effort of standing up to injustice, and when we need to replenish our souls in order to continue standing up.

I didn’t know the word as a child, but I know it now, and I think it’s a fine word to be my companion for 2017. Feel free to adopt it as your own. There is querencia for each of us. Where’s yours?

“Within you there is a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” (Hermann Hesse)

The Surest Way to Have a Disappointing Holiday Season

snowflakeIf we want to experience joy this season, we need to stop keeping score in our relationships. I wrote and posted a message last January that seems especially relevant now, with the holidays upon us. Keeping score is the fastest way to assure disappointment and resentment. Click here to travel back in time and read the original post.

 

Revisiting Gratitude

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” (Meister Eckert)

gratitude-book-coverStill very depressed by the election, and in anticipation of Thanksgiving, I dug out Oliver Sacks’ gorgeous little book, Gratitude. It’s composed of four lovely short essays, one written just before his 80th birthday and the other three following his terminal diagnosis a short time later. Each of them explores the richness and complexity of being human and convey Sacks’ gratitude for the privilege and gift of life. I thought I’d read one a day leading up to Thanksgiving, but just as I am unable to limit myself to one piece of See’s chocolate if I am given a box, I was not able to ration Sacks’ essays either. I read them all at one sitting—greedily and contentedly. And then I meandered through them again to savor his writing, which is both simple and elegant, and to revisit certain passages that had especially touched me.

Along with my wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving, I’ll share a few favorite Sacks’ quotes here, some from this book and some from other sources.

And, in case you’re looking for a gift for yourself or a special friend or family member—one that might help put the world in perspective—you can’t go wrong with Gratitude.

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

“Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”

“There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”

“To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see overall patterns in our lives. We need hope, the sense of a future; the freedom to get beyond ourselves…in states of mind that allow us to rise above our immediate surroundings and see the beauty and value of the world we live in.”

“My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”

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)