9 Barriers to Kindness

“I expect to pass through life but once. If, therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.” (William Penn)

kindness highlightedWhen things get out of hand, we all have different ways of regaining control of our lives. When I am feeling overwhelmed, I organize.

I need to make a distinction between organizing and cleaning: I don’t clean, my husband will be the first to tell you that, so to prevent him from posting an unflattering—but entirely true—description of just what a slob I am, I will repeat: I do not clean, I rarely straighten, I tend to be entirely oblivious to clutter. I’m not proud of that fact, but sadly, it’s absolutely true.

However, when I am besieged by deadlines and overcome by the sheer volume of tasks and responsibilities facing me, I get busy organizing. Once I have organized my life, I feel like I am back in control and able to tackle all of my obligations steadily and timely—and even enjoy doing them.

My first step in organizing is to make a list, or, more accurately, multiple lists. I make lists of everything I need to do and then sub-lists of the various steps to doing them. I make lists of things I need to remember. I make chronological lists, shopping lists, task lists … and when things get truly overwhelming, I make a list of lists I need to make. That is the point I have reached this week.

It was in this list-making frenzy that I realized I haven’t made many lists related to kindness. Maybe I hadn’t yet reached the stress-level needed for that. Fortunately, the universe has conspired to remedy that, and kindness has joined the ranks of lists that I employ to organize and bring order to my life.

The first list I sat down to write enumerates the barriers to kindness—the things that get in the way of our being kind or compassionate. I’ve identified nine factors that might keep us from being our best self. They are in no particular order, but the first is probably the biggest:

Fear – I could write an entire post just about fear (oh, in fact I did), but to condense it here, there’s a smorgasbord of fears to choose from:

  • Fear of Rejection – the gift of our kindness might be misunderstood or spurned. Ouch!
  • Fear of Embarrassment – what if I extend kindness clumsily and look foolish? Ouch, again!
  • Fear of Judgment – people will say I’m weak or maybe gullible. More ouch.

Better to do nothing than to risk the vulnerability…or is it? Part of the solution to dealing with fear is to focus not on the bad things that might happen but on the good outcomes you are seeking to bring forth. That’s a sure way to banish fear.

Laziness and Inertia – While there are certainly kind actions we can take that don’t require a lot of energy (a smile, a compliment, a door held open), many kindnesses do require that we extend ourselves. They require that we get off our butts, go out of our way, and sometimes even leave our comfort zones. Usually it’s just a matter of taking the first step and then our intentions take over and kindness ensues. But the hurdle is that first step and overcoming the inertia to take it.

Indifference – The antithesis of kindness, indifference is a barrier to living a kind life. One cannot be kind if caring is absent; one cannot be kind if one is willing to shrug and say, “It’s not my problem.” Indifference may be how we protect ourselves from strong feelings, from the caring that moves us to action. It may be comfortable to wallow in indifference, but kindness requires that we stop being a spectator and jump into life.

Entitlement – Sadly, there are many people who see kindness—if they see it at all—as something that can be selective. It’s not as essential to show kindness to the clerk, the cashier, or the homeless person as it is to the VIP who can help one get ahead or feel powerful. There’s an adage that says “a person who is kind to you but rude to the waiter is not a kind person.” It’s so true; selective kindness isn’t kindness, it’s opportunism. Kindness is something we extend to everyone at every opportunity.

Obliviousness – It’s easy to miss opportunities to be kind if we aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around us. We may not notice that there is a person behind us for whom we can hold a door, or that someone needs help carrying their groceries, or that a child is frightened or sad. Too often, we allow technology to take precedence over human connection—we are constantly absorbed in our hand-held devices, oblivious to the life around us and the myriad opportunities we have to offer the gift of our kindness. We can even be oblivious to our own need for self-care—unaware that we have depleted our energy and need to engage in some personal renewal if we want to be able to care for others. Paying attention to our lives is easier said than done, but it’s one of the essential elements of a kind life.

Habit – If we are in the habit of saying no, it’s hard to say yes—to someone who asks for assistance, for our time, or for a dollar or two to help them make it through the day. Of course, we can’t say yes to everything or everyone, but whichever answer we choose should come out of conscious conviction, rather than robotic routine.

Not enough timeIt takes time to be kind—to pause and think about what the kind response is, to offer assistance knowing that it might delay us from our tightly-packed schedule, to connect on a human level with the people we encounter throughout the day. It even takes time to be kind to ourselves—an essential quality to being able to extend kindness to others. In the face of so much hurrying, it helps me to remind myself that my number-one job is kindness; all else comes second.

ImpatienceImpatience might be a subset of feeling one doesn’t have enough time, but it’s more than that. We may have all the time in the world and still be impatient with someone who lacks skill or understanding in something. It’s just easier to roll our eyes and do it ourselves than to extend the kindness—the patience—to teach, or coach, or watch while someone fumbles or stumbles. Offering genuine patience is always a kindness.

FatigueResearch has shown that when we’re over-tired we’re not only more prone to accidents, have difficulty learning, and feel stressed, but we are also more likely to commit unethical or unkind acts. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to value sleep more than ever—and knowing that it helps make me kinder just makes my bed even warmer and cozier.

Having made a list, I already feel better. No OCD tendencies here. Have I left anything out? When you miss an opportunity to be kind, can you ascribe it to any of the above, or are there other reasons?

“Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.” (Albert Schweitzer)

Hurry Up! Hurry Up! … Impatience as a Barrier to Kindness

The more you know yourself, the more patience you have for what you see in others(Erik Erikson)

Attribution: Donna CameronWe’ve looked at fear as a barrier to kindness, and the previous post explored time—or our lack of it—as a major obstacle to being kind.  With lives that are overflowing with obligations, deadlines, and activities, making time to be kind may not always be a priority.  Today, I want to ponder a subset of the time conundrum: impatience.

Sometimes impatience is the result of feeling one doesn’t have time for the chit-chat, or time to be kept on hold.  And sometimes, we may have all the time in the world, but we don’t have much tolerance for the circumstances we find ourselves in.

When Time Is the Problem

If I am in a hurry, taking time to say kind words, offer assistance, or extend myself will just slow me down more.  I’ll fall further behind.  Sometimes it feels like the more rushed I am, the more things seem to be conspiring to get in my way: the slowest checker in the market, the driver who is stuck in first gear, the acquaintance who wants to tell me in great detail how she selected the yarn for the sweaters she is knitting for her dogs.  Yikes, I don’t have time for this!  I’m sure they’ll understand if I blow them off … after all, I’m busy!

But what is it I’m rushing to?  Often, it’s my job, a meeting, the next obligation on my never-ending list.  How many of us are so important or so overscheduled that we really haven’t time to be kind?  And if we are that important or overscheduled, is it by our choice, or someone else’s, or maybe nobody’s—we just think that’s the way it’s supposed to be?

Perhaps if I change my perspective.  Instead of allowing myself to get impatient because I have to go do my job, what if I decide my number one job is to be kind?

If being kind is my most important job, won’t it be easier to stand in line at the grocery story while the person in front of me fumbles for her checkbook and questions the cashier about the price of broccoli?  Won’t it be easier to follow the car going 25 when the speed limit is 45? Won’t it be easier to wait through 15 minutes on hold for the next customer service representative?  It’s all part of the job.

When Time Isn’t the Issue

Sometimes we may have the time we need to extend a kindness, but we may not have the tolerance.

I’m going to make a confession here:  I was really late in learning to tie my shoes, really late.  Most of my friends had that skill down when they were 4 or 5.  I was still struggling at 7.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn, but my parents quickly discovered that teaching me wasn’t easy and it was a lot easier just to tie my shoes for me, or to buy me shoes that didn’t need tying.  The problem was that I was left-handed and everyone else in my family was right-handed.  They’d show me how they did it, but I couldn’t make my hands do what theirs did.  Then they’d try to figure out how to do it from a left-handed perspective and they couldn’t do it.  So, the hell with it, just tie the kid’s shoes for her and send her on her way.

Finally, my mom or my dad found someone who was left-handed and asked them to show me.  Happily for all, the learning came easily and I’ve been tying my own shoes quite successfully for many decades.

My point here is that regardless of time issues, patience is required when it comes to teaching and to learning.  The best parents, teachers, and managers know that they need to allow the learner to stumble, fumble, or even just sit and think about it—without jumping in to fix, show them how to “do it right,” or do it for them.  My husband tutors kids in math and I see this patient kindness in his teaching.  If one explanation doesn’t do the trick, Bill finds another, or asks just the right questions until the students get it themselves.  He never rushes them, and when they finally get a concept, they own it.

Sometimes, we may think we’re being kind when we rush in to help, or to fix, or to get it just right, but what we may be doing is disempowering the person we think we’re helping.  The truly kind response may be to stand by silently while they figure it out, or explain a concept again in a different way, or to be willing to show someone something for the tenth time.  And that requires patience.

It takes patience to be kind and kindness to be patient.  But if I can view being kind as my job, it will be much easier to patiently teach a child, or instruct a new employee in an unfamiliar skill, or refrain from jumping in and doing something myself, thus denying someone else a valuable growth lesson.

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

The Fundamental Things Apply … As Time Goes By

“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)

By User:S Sepp (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By User:S Sepp  via Wikimedia Commons

Time seems to be our most precious resource these days.  We all have the same 24 hours, but for most of us, it’s never enough.  There’s rarely enough time to do everything we want to do.  And using some of that precious time to extend kindness may not be a priority.

Last February on Forbes.com, contributor Tim Maurer wrote a thoughtful article entitled, “Time Is More Precious Than Money.”  That’s right, Forbes, not High Times.

Maurer, a financial advisor, is part of a group of advisors that is deliberately asking new questions of themselves and their clients—questions that are intended to go beyond portfolios and financial investments to explore the values that make our lives richer in every sense, not just ka-ching.  When he explores asset allocation with his clients, he wants to probe beyond securities and talk about how they allocate their time, their lives, and their love.  Maurer states:  “We have the choice to order our loves, to acknowledge the limited nature of time and our own capacity, and to prioritize our work and life.”

As we allocate our time, are we creating space for kindness?  If it’s a priority, we will.  But, it’s a choice we need to make consciously, otherwise it may be squeezed out by the myriad other things clamoring for our time and attention.

It takes time to be kind.

  • It takes time to pause and think about what is the kind response.
  • It takes time to step out of our routine and enter into a genuine conversation, or provide assistance when doing so might delay us from our appointed rounds.
  • It takes time to be patient—to allow someone to fumble, stumble, and learn—without jumping in to fix, show them how to “do it right,” or do it for them.
  • It takes time to reach into our pocket and find a dollar that might help someone make it through another day and then to look that person in the eye and say a kind word as we hand it to them.
  • It takes time even to be kind to ourselves—to stop and think about whether what we need most is to slow down, take a walk, relax….

When I was working 60+ hours a week, and also trying to maintain some sort of a life outside of work, I think I often blew off opportunities to be kind.  The few moments it would take to drop someone a note, or to go out of my way to pick up a small gift, or to invite a friend to lunch or bake a treat for a neighbor…all were just too much, like dumping a bathtub full of water into an already sinking rowboat.

I have friends and colleagues whose workloads were as crazy as mine who nonetheless often went out of their way to be kind.  Their kindness, and their priorities put me to shame.  What great examples they are.  These are people who are just naturally kind and who would probably think it ridiculous to set an intention of kindness, or to spend time pondering the nature of kindness.  To them, kindness is like breathing, it requires no thought.

Kindness isn’t something we do only when we have time for it.  Kindness is how we choose to live.  I’m reminded of Robert Corin Morris’ lovely quote:

“The way we live our life is our spiritual practice—no more, no less, nothing but, nothing else.”

Now that I’ve cut my workload by half, I’m trying to look for those opportunities I used to overlook, and I’m also seeing that fitting them into my previous life might have been just what I needed—for kindness is energizing.  Isn’t it curious how many great lessons we learn through our rear-view mirrors?

It may not always be a good time to extend kindness, but it’s almost always the right time.

There are so many barriers to kindness.  I suspect, though, that once I can make kindness a natural, first response, the barriers begin to crumble.  Once I no longer have to tell myself to pause, to engage, to connect, kindness will become second-nature … at least that’s my hope.  For now, time and I are still skirmishing.  And I remind myself daily that taking time for kindness is what gives meaning to life.

“When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening.” (Madeleine L’Engle)

I Get Judge-y

“Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.”  (Ian MacLaren)

5.0.2When I am unkind, it is probably more in thought than in deed.  I exercise unkind thoughts more often than unkind actions.  That’s something I certainly want to work on in this year of living kindly (reducing the unkind thoughts, that is, not expanding my repertoire of unkind actions).

For me, unkind thoughts seem to creep in when I am in the most ordinary of circumstances, surrounded by others who—like me—are just trying to get in, get out, and get on to the next thing.

Judge-y Goes to Market

The grocery store we frequent is well-trod.  It has narrow aisles and, occasionally, prolonged waits in the checkout line.  More than once I have turned the corner on an aisle, to find a woman (I’m sorry, but it is usually a woman) on her cellphone, standing in the middle of the aisle, oblivious to the fact that her cart turned is sideways and blocking not just our access to the dill pickles, but other customers trying to come from the other direction.

“Excuse us,” we say, but she doesn’t hear.  So I straighten her cart to clear a path.  This she notices and glares at me as she continues her conversation.  I get judge-y.  How can people be so inconsiderate?  But maybe she’s not inconsiderate.  Maybe she’s oblivious (a little better…we’ve all been there), or preoccupied by a family emergency (perhaps that’s the reason for needing to make/take a phone call at Fred Meyer’s).  Give her the benefit of the doubt.

We’re in line to check out behind a woman with a full cart (again, sorry, it’s usually a woman; guys, your time will come).  She watches as the checker scans and bags several bags of groceries.  When all has been rung up and the checker pronounces the total, she digs into her purse and produces her coupons.  Fine, we use coupons, too, although we try to have them at hand.  The checker scans the coupons and announces the new total.  It is only then that the woman burrows again into her cavernous handbag for her checkbook and begins writing a check.  Bill and I look at each other and roll our eyes.  I get judge-y.  Really, couldn’t she have been writing that check while her groceries were being rung up, so all she’d need to do is fill in an amount?  How inconsiderate.

I need to be better at giving people the benefit of the doubt.  So she delayed us by 90 seconds, is that really worth stewing about?  Nah.  What I want to be able to do is let the annoying behavior go and see something admirable in her.  Maybe she made eye-contact with the checker, or said something nice; maybe she is bringing some of those groceries to a friend who can’t get out to the store. Maybe….

Judge-y Takes to the Road

It’s also easy to think unkind thoughts in the car—it’s an auto-response (sorry, I like puns).  When I see some yahoo driving at top speed by himself in the carpool lane, or when I follow a Corolla going 25 all the way up the highway entrance and braking before merging onto the uncrowded freeway, I have unkind thoughts.  I get judge-y.  I don’t curse or call the drivers foul names—okay, only in the most egregious of circumstances.  I tend to call offending male drivers “sport,” and females “lady” (with a tone you might recall from old Jerry Lewis movies), as in, “What’s your hurry, sport?” or “C’mon, lady, surely your car has a second gear.”

Compared with the drivers who blast their horns or gesture vulgarly, I’m doing tolerably well, but nothing to brag about.  I usually allow other cars to merge, or to change into my lane in front of me.  And I always wave and mouth “thank you” when other drivers do the same for me, but all in all, driving is—at best—a pretty neutral experience.

Where do your unkind thoughts crop up?  Or am I the only one who has them?  I’d love to hear your thought (see comments below).

Suspending judgment is hard, but it’s one of the first big steps in behaving kindly.  A story the late Stephen Covey told illustrates how sometimes our judgments can be way off-base, and if we knew what was behind a behavior we might think very differently.

This brings to mind the power of the pause … but that’s a subject for another time…  Instead, I’ll close today with the first of many quotes from Wayne Muller’s remarkable and beautiful book, How, Then, Shall We Live?:

 “Every day, we are given countless opportunities to offer our gifts to those at work, in our families, our relationships…. If you give less than what you are, you dishonor the gift of your own precious life.”