Kindness Takes a Hit

“I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.” (Mother Teresa)

attribution: Donna CameronIt’s been a bit disheartening this week to see that kindness—simple, elemental kindness—has become a political issue.

For the most part on this blog, I have avoided writing about politics, as I’ve avoided writing about religion. I have a possibly old-fashioned view that these are private matters and little benefit comes from either proclaiming one’s religious or political beliefs or denouncing somebody else’s.

I will admit that I did write about Donald Trump a couple of times last year—not so much as an aspiring politician, but as a practiced bully.

In recent days, Hillary Clinton has called for “more love and kindness” in America. Seems like a reasonable observation to me, but it has issued forth a storm of criticism and downright vicious comments. On news sites that reported candidate Clinton’s statement, comments were overwhelmingly negative. And not just negative, but mean, sarcastic, at times even crude. A call for love and kindness unleashed comments calling Secretary Clinton a murderer in Benghazi, a crook, a liar, a cheat. They further criticized her marriage, her looks, her voice, her authenticity, and her intentions. One blogger mocked Clinton thoroughly and concluded her remarks by saying love and kindness were “completely irrelevant in public life.” She further said “we need integrity and courage to live our values. Love and kindness optional.” I’ve always thought that integrity and courage go hand-in-hand with love and kindness, and that none of these qualities are inconsequential.

Perhaps that’s why we are where we are today, why there is so much anger and incivility, and so much inequity: love and kindness are viewed as optional.

Even those who may agree with Hillary’s politics made jokes about the fuzzy, woo-woo nature of her call for love and kindness. Really? Are love and kindness that ridiculous that they can’t be viewed as a possible pathway to a stronger country? If I learned one thing during my year of living kindly it’s that kindness is a strength, not a weakness. Choosing to be kind is not wimpy or weak. It takes courage.

Although I said earlier I don’t want to use my blog to talk about either religion or politics, I’ll make an exception here: I stand with the Dalai Lama who says, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”

I’m not here to endorse Hillary Clinton or anybody else. I’m endorsing kindness.

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

Who Are You Inviting Into Your Home?

“In my opinion, good energy—kindness, decency, and love—is the most transformative force in the world.” (Cory Booker)

TVWe don’t watch a whole lot of TV anymore, and when we do, it’s just as likely to be a vintage sitcom as a current show. Bill and I realized some time ago that there’s a lot of television other people say is top-quality—well-written, good acting, compelling stories—that we just don’t find enjoyable. And one of the reasons is that the characters are all rather unkind.

Our friends have raved about Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and several other top-rated shows, but I was turned off by the violence, and the fact that “good guys” were few and far-between. I know I’m probably missing some great stories and some tremendous acting, and perhaps even being stubbornly short-sighted, but if I listen to my gut—which rarely steers me wrong—these are not shows that serve the world I aspire to live in.

I’ll admit that I haven’t really given some of these shows much of a chance, and I may be basing my judgment on too little evidence. I like to think of myself as open-minded, so my obstinate refusal to watch shows that others—including critics—deem outstanding is somewhat unsettling. I’m reminded of the fact that I refused for five decades to eat broccoli, and then when I finally did, discovered that it’s one of the best things on the planet.

Still, if all the characters on a TV show are people we wouldn’t want in our house, chances are, we don’t really want the show in our house either. Take Seinfeld, for example. I know everyone loved Seinfeld and it’s probably sacrilegious to be saying that we didn’t. We watched for much of its first season—and saw that these weren’t especially pleasant people. They were not people we would want as friends, and, in fact, might be people we would go out of our way to avoid having to interact with. So, why were we inviting them into our home every week? The show was often funny, and funny is usually good, but this humor was frequently hurtful and mean: the main characters were smugly judgmental and mocked people with little justification, achieving laughs at the expense of others. After watching Seinfeld, we didn’t feel good or happy. We just wanted their energy out of our house. And it raised the question: does watching meanness make us more inclined to be mean, or make us more accepting of unkind behavior?

Likewise, we watched House of Cards for a couple of seasons—who wouldn’t want to watch anything with Kevin Spacey in it, after all? But, toward the end of the first season, we realized there was not a single likable character on the show. They were devious, manipulative, cruel, and immoral. It depressed us to wonder how true-to-life some of the political intrigues and plots might be. Despite great acting, the show was a downer and the characters were not people we wanted in our home.

That’s become something of a litmus test for us when we watch a new show. In addition to wanting quality writing, stories, and acting, we want there to be at least a few characters we can root for, people we’d love to live next door to or encounter in our day-to-day lives. The last thing we want to watch is a show populated with mindless Pollyannas, but a couple of intelligent and likable characters—even amidst a number of unpleasant ones—that will at least give us something or someone to champion.

Yes, we’re probably missing some great television, but we’ve got books, and Netflix, and reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show—now that’s a group of people I’d welcome into my home any day!

Who are you inviting in?

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” (Fred Rogers)

My Biggest Kindness Lessons

“We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.” (Max De Pree)

Attribution: Donna CameronIn my last post, I looked at the quieter ahas that I’ve encountered in this year of living kindly. No less important than the loud ones, they have tended to tap me on my shoulder lightly or whisper their secrets in my ear. Today, the lessons are a bit less subtle—they whumped me upside my head—often multiple times—or bellowed to me from the tree-tops. Here are my biggest lessons in kindness:

Pay attention. A huge aha is the role of mindfulness in kindness. All I need to do is pay attention and I see that opportunities to extend kindness are everywhere (as are examples of kindness). So often, we operate on automatic-pilot, oblivious to the people and circumstances around us, and the difference a word, a smile, or an act of kindness could make. I’ve come to see that the simple reminder to “pay attention” may be one of the universal secrets to a good life. And like so many other things related to kindness, it’s simple, but it isn’t easy. If we’re present for our lives—paying attention—we’re going to recognize when our gifts are needed: a smile, a word of kindness, a proffered hand.

Pause. I would put the power of the pause up against the power of the Hoover Dam. It’s that big. Instead of speaking or acting in instant response to a situation, taking the time to pause and think about what I want my response to activate—and why—has been transformative. In the space of that brief pause, I might totally change my reaction, or perhaps decide not to respond at all. That pause has always guided me to a better place.

Let go of judgment. It so easy when we see people behaving inconsiderately to judge them—especially in settings where we are thrown together to navigate crowded spaces, such as congested streets and highways or teeming markets. In such settings, it often seems that strangers are there just to get in our way or slow us down. We judge them for their aberrant driving, for being oblivious obstructions, and sometimes just for taking up too much space on the planet. We do it to strangers and often we do it to friends and loved ones, too—especially when we’re feeling tired or depleted. Instead of attributing a silence or an ill-chosen word to malice or resentment, we can assume good intent. We can just as easily say to ourselves, “I’m sure she didn’t mean that the way it sounded.” Why wouldn’t we want to believe the best rather than the worst? Suspending judgment is hard, but it’s one of the first big steps in behaving kindly.

Kindness has no ending. It just keeps reverberating outward and serving life in ways we may never know. Every once in a while, you hear a story about someone who was at the end of their tether—about to explode or self-destruct—and an unexpected kindness arrived to lessen the pain and show them a more positive alternative. We can never know if even the tiniest kindness we extend might ripple out to eventually change the world. What a great reason to send out all the ripples we can!

Being kind is more important than being right. Another transformative aha. So many of us were raised to be smart—and rewarded for being smart—that we have often tended to value smart over kind, and being right over … well, just about anything. It’s not that we can’t be both kind and smart or kind and right, but on those occasions when we have to choose between them, choosing kind is also our path to peace.

What we think about is what we become. And what we look for is what we are most likely to see. We can spend our time pursuing life’s broken bits and catching others’ mistakes, and the more we do it, the better we’ll get at it. But where’s the satisfaction in always playing “gotcha,” and who will want to play with us? If we invest that energy, instead, in looking for what’s right and what’s good, and recognizing the special qualities of the people we encounter, life will be richer in every way. If we look for goodness and for kindness, we’ll find them.

Kindness requires courage. Fear is probably the biggest reason we don’t extend kindness. We fear rejection, being judged, looking foolish, or becoming vulnerable. We fear venturing into unexplored territory and being seen as weak or clumsy. Sometimes these fears are paralyzing. But the more we tap into and exercise our courage in the face of those fears, the less power they will have over us. Our courage grows the more we use it.

We can always choose kindness. We have control over both our perceptions and our reactions. We can choose the path that leads us to peace. It takes practice, but it’s within our capabilities.

Kindness isn’t a destination; it’s a path. Kindness isn’t something that I can adopt for a single year and then move on. My #1 job is kindness. That’s what I’m here for.

These certainly aren’t all the lessons of kindness. But over this year of trying to live a kind life, these were often consistent and recurring themes. It seems to me that the most important lessons in life are ones that we learn, and relearn, and learn some more. I hope to go on learning these lessons … I still have so much to learn about kindness—enough to last a lifetime.

Or maybe I’m just a slow learner. 

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” (Aesop)

 

Kind Actions That Don‘t Take Time and Won’t Cost a Dime

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.” (Martha Graham)

038A large element of kindness is giving—perhaps money, perhaps time. And being able to give without thoughts of getting in return is certainly essential to a kind life. However, there may be times when neither time nor money are available to us. Does that mean we cannot still be generous … or kind?

Au contraire! We can always be kind. There are countless ways to be kind that don’t require investments of time or money. They are not without some effort, though. Here are a few that come to mind. Some are self-explanatory, such as:

  • We can make eye-contact, smile, and say “good morning.”
  • We can say “thank you” or “I’m sorry.”
  • We can hold a door or offer help in carrying a heavy load.
  • We can let the car merge in front of us.
  • We can say something nice about an absent friend when others are gossiping about her.
  • We can load the dishwasher even if they aren’t our dirty dishes.
  • We can acknowledge our own imperfections and overlook the foibles of others.

Other little-time-no-cost expressions of kindness invite us to delve deeper into their meaning:

  • If we can give nothing else, we can always give the benefit of the doubt. Rather than assume the worst, let the stories we make up about people or things we don’t know be positive and affirming. We can assume one another’s good intent—and life will be so much richer if we do.
  • We can let go of anger or resentment. We can forgive. Carrying around anger and resentment toward others, or regrets and recriminations toward ourselves serves no one. Kindness happens when we learn from mistakes, slights, and injuries, forgive and open up to a new story.
  • We can listen for the music rather than the missed note. There are people who spend their time looking for the typo, catching others’ errors, and playing “gotcha” with life. While sometimes that’s our day job if we’re an editor, diagnostician, accountant, building inspector, or the like, it needn’t be our personal mission. The rest of the time, we can practice looking for what’s right and letting go of the rest. Learning to let go is one of the great lessons of kindness. One of the best things we can learn is when something needs to be said, and when it doesn’t.
  • Kind words are powerful, and always welcome. We can compliment someone on the great service they provided, or their perspicacity, a well-written report, or how their smile brightens a room. It’s rare that we can’t find something kind to say.
  • We can pay attention and express appreciation for all that we notice. Paying attention to our lives is one of the secrets to a consistently kind life. If we are unaware of what’s going on around us, it’s so easy to miss opportunities to be kind, or miss the kindnesses extended to us by others. Opportunities to express kindness are all around us, but they’re also easy to overlook if we aren’t paying attention.

Of course, there are still many kindnesses that ask us to open not just our hearts, but also our wallets, and ask us to commit our time as well as our intentions. It’s rarely an either/or. When our hearts are open we will do what we can, recognizing that we offer the best of who we are when we choose kindness.

 “You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.” (John Wooden)

Oh, The Stories We Tell!

“The beginning of personal transformation is absurdly easy. We have only to pay attention to the flow of attention itself.” (Marilyn Ferguson) 

Attribution: Donna CameronWe learned in drivers’ training that everyone has a blind spot, or scotoma. Because of the way the eye is constructed, every human being has one. It is a location with no photoreceptor cells, where the retinal ganglion cell axons that compose the optic nerve exit the retina (the biology lesson ends here, I promise).

We may never be aware of our blind spots, though, because we’re really good at compensating—our brains are able to fill in the gap so the surrounding picture appears absolutely complete.

Beyond the physical level, we have blind spots on a psychological level, too, and our brains also attempt to explain the unknown data—with mixed results. We’ve all been there: when we lack information our brains make up stories to fill in the gaps—often the stories are both erroneous and damaging.

Perhaps two co-workers whom you often lunch with head out at noon without asking if you’d like to join them. Bewildered, you make up a story: You offended Carrie when you said you didn’t have time to check the figures on the budget she was working on, or you ticked Erika off by not stopping to chat when you came in this morning. They probably think you’re mad at them, and now they’re mad at you. They’re at lunch talking about you and saying nasty things about you.

By the time they return from lunch 30 minutes later, you’ve woven such a tale of perfidy that you’ve convinced yourself they no longer want to be your friend and nobody else in the office wants to be either. Why should they, after all, you’re a terrible, horrible, very bad person…?

When Carrie and Erika walk in, carrying fast-food take-out bags, you learn that Erika dropped her car off for servicing and Carrie followed to pick her up and drive her back to the office. As they’d feared, it took so long that they only had time to stop for some mediocre take-out, which they’ll now have to eat at their desks.

The story you constructed was entirely false—nobody was mad, nobody was offended, nobody was saying terrible things about you behind your back, and you are not a terrible, worthless person.

Sound ridiculous? Maybe it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but we do it all the time. We don’t know the reason someone acted the way they did and we make up a motive that has no basis in reality. It might suit our mood, or our current level of insecurity, or maybe our flair for the dramatic.

How many times has your spouse or significant other seemed a bit distant and you’ve attributed it to anger, lack of interest, or smoldering resentment because you failed to wash your lunch dishes? When the truth is that he is just trying to remember the name of his 8th grade math teacher—and it’s driving him crazy that he can’t.

Many, many years ago, I learned that the board of directors of an organization I served as executive director for held a board meeting without telling me. I stewed for 24 hours. Why would they meet without me? Did I do something terrible they needed to talk about without me present? Are they going to fire me? Finally, I picked up the phone and called the board president. I explained that association boards should never meet without the knowledge and presence of their executive director. It was my job to make sure they never violated any antitrust regulations or nonprofit laws. What, I asked, could possibly have motivated them to hold a meeting without me? There was a long pause at the other end of the line. A very long pause. Finally Doug said, “We do know that, Donna, and ordinarily we’d never meet without telling you, but our conference is coming up and we wanted to honor you for great job you are doing for us. We were talking about the best time to have a special ceremony and what we could buy you for a thank-you gift.”

I felt like bug spit.

Ever since that embarrassing moment, I’ve tried to imagine positive reasons for inexplicable actions rather than—or at least in addition to—negative ones. My positive stories are generally just as erroneous as my negative ones, but while I’m in that suspended limbo of not-knowing, why not enjoy my imaginings rather than agonize and fret over them?

Kindness Lessons

There are some great kindness lessons for us if we take time to think about how we feel and what we do when we have gaps in our knowledge:

Lesson #1: It’s not always about us … in fact, it’s usually not about us. Just because we’re the center of our own universe, it’s very unlikely we hold that exalted position in many other minds. I find this reminder immensely freeing: “Forget what everyone else thinks of you; chances are, they aren’t thinking about you at all.”

Lesson #2: Yield to the curiosity triggered by not-knowing. As we talked about in an earlier post, “Kindness and curiosity leave no room for anger and resentment.” Employ curiosity to seek kind and compassionate answers to gaps in our knowledge.

Lesson #3: We can assume one another’s good intent. Instead of attributing a silence or an ill-chosen word to malice or resentment, we can just as easily say to ourselves, “That didn’t come out the way she meant it to … I know her intention was positive.” Why wouldn’t we want to believe the best rather than the worst?

Lesson #4: We always have a choice about the stories we make up. Even if we are drama queens and kings, we can make up stories based on positive assumptions. All it takes is some awareness on our part.

Lesson #5: We can always choose peace. We have control over both our perceptions and our reactions. We can choose the path that leads us to peace. It takes practice, but it’s within our capabilities.

The stories we tell ourselves have power—power to change the world. When was the last time you made up a story to fill a gap in your knowledge? Was it a positive story or a negative one? What are you going to do next time?

“We do not actually know other people; we only know our judgments.” (Bryant McGill)