Let’s Pause for a Moment of Kindness

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” (Victor Frankl)

attribution: Donna CameronA lot has happened since I embarked on this journey to explore, experience, and express kindness. January of 2015 might as well be another era—and maybe even another planet—given how much the world has changed. When my year of living kindly started, the 2016 presidential campaign was embryonic. There were few candidates and they had yet to commence behaving like spoiled children and slinging mud or lies. Societal expressions of bullying and bigotry—while always present—had yet to become a badge of honor, proof of manliness, and source of pride for so many.

By the end of 2015, denigration, name-calling, and lies for the sake of expedience were rampant. My feeble attempt to shine a light on kindness was no match for incendiary politics or blatant socio-economic oppression. But the need for kindness was greater than ever and I saw that living kindly was not something one does for a year and moves on (“How about a year of learning to vacuum and close cupboard doors,” my husband suggested hopefully, knowing all the while that I could grasp neither concept). Living kindly was both path and destination, so one year stretched to two, and now two-and-a-half.

I’m called to revisit earlier explorations—to see if two years later I see things any differently. What did I get right, what did I miss?

The Power of the Pause

For me, one of the biggest lessons of kindness was the power of the pause. Recognizing that a knee-jerk response to perceived slights or bad behavior is neither necessary nor wise was a life-changing insight. Such impulsive reactions are not always an expression of my best self. A pause gives me an opportunity to consider:

  • Did that person mean for their words to come out this way? Might there be a kinder interpretation?
  • Even if their words were intended to hurt or belittle, why must I react in kind? Is my aim to create more conflict or improve the situation?
  • If I say something snarky, will I feel good about it later?
  • What is the kind response here?
  • Is a response even needed or is silence golden?
  • Why am I reacting as I am?

Pausing is a lesson I learned, but also one that continues to challenge me. Since last November’s election, I have needed to relearn—and re-examine—the pause. When I am provoked, I endeavor to pause; sometimes I stay silent and sometimes I speak my heart. There are still occasions when I mutter phrases like “incredible moron” or “clueless Neanderthal,” but I say them privately or to the television. I try to weigh whether or not my response to someone’s political commentary will move the needle—and in which direction. Pausing is a lesson politicians and pundits would do well to learn.

Since learning to pause, I find I am much quieter overall. I don’t need to be right—or righteous—and I don’t need to point out someone else’s foibles. If my husband leaves the lights on right after chiding me for doing the same, I turn the lights off without comment (okay, maybe not every time!). The more I choose to be silent, the easier it is to choose silence. Ultimately, the pause leads me toward peace.

What I learned about pausing two years ago remains true, and the connection between pausing and kindness is unmistakable. In fact, the pause is even more essential to kindness than I originally thought.

I have come to see even more benefits from the simple pause. In addition to forestalling reflexive reactions and allowing me to choose the kind response, the pause is one of the best strategies I have found for self-care. Recognizing when I need to experience quiet or take a few deep breaths—and then doing so—is an ultimate act of kindness to self. And kindness must begin with self.

A pause offers a moment to experience gratitude, to feel joy, to appreciate beauty, to recognize kindness.

In today’s world, every day brings something to be angry or frustrated about: political corruption, injustice, discrimination, the ever-widening gap between those with privilege and those without, threats to our environment, and the acceptance and proliferation of incivility. There are letters to be written, calls to be made, petitions to be signed, conversations to be initiated, and waters to be tested.

The issues that anger me and push all my buttons may not be the ones that rile you. But for each of us there are provocations that elicit our anger and trigger our activism. Thank goodness for that. Yet we also need to recognize when our responses are damaging to our spirits, our bodies, our psyches, or our relationships. As much as we need to be active and vigilant—now more than ever—we also need to give ourselves permission to rest, to say no . . . to pause. And we need to be able to claim that pause for ourselves without guilt or self-reproach.

Whether we are responding to outer stimuli or to inner angst, the ultimate expression of kindness may start with a pause . . . or end with a pause. A pause is not an empty space. It’s a space that is rich with potential. It’s where we choose who we will be and how we will live.

“Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight.” (Rollo May)

 

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)

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)

When My Kindness Is Your “Yuk!”

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” (Rumi)

Attribution: Donna CameronWhen my husband is sick, he wants to be left alone. He’s like an animal that crawls off to die in seclusion. I would like to fuss over him, fluff his pillows, mop his brow, croon “poor baby,” but that’s not what he wants.

When I’m sick, I like a little attention—not a lot, just check in on me occasionally, make sure I’m still breathing, and see if I want some ginger ale or a couple of choruses of “Soft Kitty.” Over the years, Bill has perfected exactly the right amount of solicitous attention to help me feel cared for but not smothered. A few degrees in either direction and I would feel either neglected or pestered.

That’s one of the challenges of kindness: learning to meet the other person’s needs and not impose your own.

It’s for this reason I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the “golden rule,” do unto others as you would have them do unto you—a sentiment promulgated by nearly every major religion. The problem is: what I may want in certain circumstances may not be what another person might want. If I always go by what I’d like, it’s quite probable I won’t meet the other person’s needs.

For example, I tend to be a fairly private, low-key person. As a rule, I don’t like to be the center of attention (the exception being when I have a microphone in my hand). I’m not comfortable with effusive thanks or effusive praise. But I know other people who are—who welcome it and thrive on it. Were I to follow the golden rule, I would treat them with the reserve that I prefer for myself. My preferences aren’t everyone’s preferences, though, and if lavish and unrestrained praise are what my friend craves, that really is what I want to offer him.

The “platinum rule” says treat others the way they want to be treated. That requires more mindfulness on our part, and an ability to be empathetic. We also risk guessing wrongly. “I thought for sure she’d like being serenaded by the high-school marching band for her birthday, but it turned out she would have preferred a quiet dinner for two.” Oops!

Another example: I don’t like surprises. They leave me tongue-tied and inspire a sort of “fight or flight” response. If something wonderful is coming my way, I want to know about it well in advance so I can savor not only the experience, but the anticipation of it. And, if it’s something not so wonderful coming my way, I want to know about that, too, so I can be prepared and have time to think about how I will handle it. I. don’t. like. surprises.

But I have friends who love surprises, and I would never deprive them of that pleasure because I don’t understand or share the attraction. Under the platinum rule, I consider their desires and help plan the surprise party or maintain secrecy about the big event to come. I may not agree, but I respect their preference and honor it.

This is probably easier to do with people we know well. After a few years (decades?) of trial and error, we understand their needs and wishes, we know how to please.

It’s harder with casual friends, colleagues and acquaintances. We may make the mistaking of assuming that what they’d like is the same as what we’d like.

It’s even harder with strangers. How on earth can we know what they want? I read a comment recently from a man who said he had ceased offering his seat on the bus to women, the elderly, or people who appeared to be disabled. After eight people refused his offer, displaying varying levels of offense that he thought they were incapable of standing, he resolved to keep his nose in his book and not offer again.

There’s no question that it’s awkward and uncomfortable when our attempts at kindness are rejected. I can also understand the point of view of the people who refused his kind offer—it may have made them feel weak, or challenged their independence. As I think about how I might react in that situation, I’m guessing I would probably refuse, too (though graciously, I hope), thinking I don’t need any special treatment and am perfectly capable of standing. The question becomes: is it kinder to accept his offer or to allow him to keep his seat? It all depends on your perspective. No wonder people abandon civilization and make their homes in hermit caves. It’s a whole lot easier than navigating social niceties in a complex world.

I wonder if there is a way to offer that makes it easier on everyone. Perhaps he could say, “I would love to offer you my seat if you would consider taking it,” while rising and offering his most dazzling smile.

Knowing that our kindness may sometimes be unwelcome shouldn’t deter us from extending kindness to the best of our ability and our judgment. It means never assuming we know what someone else wants, but asking. And if we are on the receiving end of misdirected or clumsy kindness, we need to be able to appreciate the intent, even if it missed the mark.

The best we can do is the best we can do….

“Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy’.” (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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)