What If I Don’t Feel Like Being Kind?

“You may be sorry that you spoke, sorry you stayed or went, sorry you won or lost, sorry so much was spent. But as you go through life, you’ll find you’re never sorry you were kind.” (Herbert Prochnow) 

Attribution: Donna CameronKindness isn’t always tidy and straightforward. It certainly isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s awkward, bumbling, or misunderstood. Sometimes all we can do is guess, and hope that our kindness will have the result we intended. We can put it out there—how it is received or perceived is out of our control. 

True kindness might also sometimes be false kindness in the sense that to be truly kind means extending kindness even when we don’t feel it, and, in fact, when what we really want to do is say the snarkiest thing imaginable. Or when we just want to let the moment pass and pretend we didn’t see the opportunity to be kind. This is when choosing kindness really means something.

Just as it’s easy to be happy when the sun is shining and everything’s going our way, it’s easy to be kind when our kindness takes little effort … or when we know it will be appreciated … or when the recipient of our kindness is someone we know and like.

The key to true kindness—like the key to true happiness—is managing to maintain our attitude or keep our resolve when all hell is breaking loose. When the cat throws-up all over a favorite sweater, the car is making a strange and worrisome noise, you’ve been on and off hold with customer support for over an hour, and a neighbor yells at you because all the leaves from your big tree blew into his yard.

When it’s simply a crappy day, is just holding it together the best we can do, or can we move beyond our instant, emotional, and sometime automatic response and consciously choose the hard response, the one that we want to define us: the kind response?

Michael Broome put it well: “Character is when we have the discipline to follow through with the goal after the mood in which the goal was set passes.”

I had a realization about halfway through this year of living kindly that my most important job—even more important than the one that has sustained me for more than 30 years—is to be kind. That’s why I’m here, on the planet. With that awareness, I see that the biggest kindness challenge is to be kind when I may not feel it.

Kindness may be simple, but it sure ain’t easy.

Learning to Pause Is Essential to Kindness

I recently read that when we feel threatened or angry we drop into our “reptilian” brain, which is where our survival responses are. These include attack, aggression, revenge, fear, and territorial behavior, among other responses. Once in that primitive, reptilian state, it takes about 20 minutes to shift back to our thinking and coping frontal lobes. And being kind from that reptilian state may not be possible.

My friend Ann Macfarlane of Jurassic Parliament—who expertly and enjoyably teaches people how to have successful meetings—describes this state as “amygdala hijack,” when our brains respond to perceived threat with anger and rage.

Whether our higher brain is hijacked or taken over by reptilian instincts, we do have the ability to choose. We don’t have to react instinctively or act on the first snarky impulse. If we can just learn to pause, we can choose who we are going to be in the next moment, and then the one after that. And we can always choose kindness.

Also Essential: Maintaining Awareness

If we pay attention, we can probably avoid amygdala hijack or attack of the phantom reptile. And then we can choose kindness, and the wonderful thing is that the experience of our own kindness will usually lift us out of our funk or fury.

Another element of awareness is understanding why we want to be kind, and how we want to respond to unkindness. Am I being kind to this person who was appallingly rude to me because I want to show them that I am better and more highly evolved? … that they are wrong? … that I will not stoop to their level? Or am I being kind to this person because I want to be kind no matter what and because my kindness serves life—which is perfect in its imperfection? More and more, when kindness is hard and I choose it anyway, it’s for the latter reason. Life is sacred and no matter where I am, or however small I am, I can serve it.

Another form of unkindness that we can avoid by paying attention is indulging in the practice of gossip. It can be tempting to dish the dirt—we’ve all done it—talk about the absent colleague, the weird neighbor, the flakey relative. But it never feels good later—in fact, to use a technical term, it feels icky. Instead, the kind response is to interrupt the spiraling cycle of gossip by saying: “Let’s not talk about Genevieve behind her back,” or “She handled that unhappy customer so well last week—I was really impressed by her professionalism, weren’t you?” Or, at the very least, we can say, “I’m not comfortable with this conversation,” and leave the room.

Sometimes we find ourselves in the middle of these sorts of conversations without realizing how we got here. That’s where paying attention comes in. As soon as we start to get that uncomfortable feeling—for some of us it’s in our stomachs, for others in our shoulders or neck, or elsewhere—we need to think about what’s not right here: Is this a conversation that diminishes rather than builds? Am I overlooking an opportunity to be kind? Am I stuffing my real feelings to be part of the group?

As I’m approaching the end of this year of living kindly, I have a growing awareness that my ongoing task is to keep learning how to be kind when kindness isn’t easy: when I don’t feel like it, or when I’m responding to rudeness or unkindness.

On this never-ending path, the true challenge is to appreciate the moments when kindness is hard or the object of our kindness pushes every one of our buttons—for these are the times when we can fully own our commitment to kindness, when we can say, “Choosing kindness wasn’t easy … but I chose it anyway.”

“Kindness is an inner desire that makes us want to do good things even if we do not get anything in return. It is the joy of our life to do them. When we do good things from this inner desire, there is kindness in everything we think, say, want and do.” (Emanuel Swedenborg)

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)

Kindness Requires Presence

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

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Blue Moon at Storm Lake, July 2015

Remember how annoying it was as a child or adolescent to hear teachers repeatedly admonish their students to “Pay attention”? Sometimes it was code for “this will be on the test.” Other times, it was said over and over because the teacher had lost the students’ interest and instructing them to “pay attention” was probably easier than exploring new ways of making geometry or 18th century European history exciting. The best teachers rarely said “pay attention”—they didn’t need to.

All these years later, I keep a little slip of paper bearing the words “Pay Attention” taped next to my desk. I think it’s one of the secrets of a good life.

I’ve also come to see that it’s one of the requirements of 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. It might be something simple like holding a door for a stranger, making eye-contact and smiling, or offering to help someone who is struggling with heavy packages. Or it may not be so simple—it might be recognizing despair on a friend’s face and taking time to listen to their story, or thinking about just the right words to say to help a child deal with disappointment or rejection. If we’re oblivious, we miss all these opportunities to make a difference.

Opportunities to extend kindness are all around us, but they’re also easy to miss if we aren’t paying attention. And these days we’re all so distracted by technology that we lose awareness of what is going on around us.

Choosing Presence

people textingMeetings are a major component of my profession: educational seminars, conferences, board meetings, committee meetings, breakfast/lunch/dinner meetings. It’s how we learn, how we network, how we get the business of our non-profit organizations done.

It used to be that during breaks at meetings and conferences, people would help themselves to a cup of coffee and chat with others attending the meeting. Now, people still grab the coffee, but then they stand in solitude at a distance of about four feet from one another and they stare intently into their devices. They check email, they text, they surf the net. What they do very little of is connect with other people in the room. I’ve had people admit to me that sometimes they pretend to check emails because it’s what everyone else is doing and they feel self-conscious just standing there with no one to talk to. If I’m going to be completely honest, I’ll admit that I’ve done it myself.

That person-to-person networking of days gone by was often as valuable as the formal education of the meetings. It’s where practical, informal learning took place, not to mention cultivating business connections and making friends. Have we all really become so important and indispensable that we can’t disconnect for two or three hours? And if it’s true that we are expected to be constantly connected, is that a good thing? I don’t consider myself a Luddite—though some may call me one after reading this—but I do think we’ve become too connected to our electronic devices—to the detriment of connection with our fellow humans.

I think we’ve lost sight of our own capacity to set boundaries. We’ve let the devices rule us, when it should be the other way around.

At the park near our house I see parents absorbed in their smartphones, oblivious to their children’s exuberant cartwheels or triumphant heights on the swings. I wonder whose loss is greater here….

I see couples in restaurants, apparently on a date, but both of them repeatedly checking their phones and responding to texts or emails. I see people walking along busy streets and sidewalks, oblivious to everything but the phone in their hands. At the symphony, I saw the glow of many hand-held devices—their operators oblivious to the magnificence of a Sibelius concerto. What are we missing when we choose not to be fully present to our lives?

When I lead groups in strategic planning I remind them that everything they say “yes” to means there is something else they must say “no” to—so they need to think hard about what is most important to them. It’s the same for us as individuals: what are we saying “no” to as we say “yes” to perpetual connectivity?

Mindfulness Fosters Compassion

There is research from Jon Kabat-Zinn and others that mindfulness cultivates compassion and altruism. Experiments have shown that mindfulness training makes people more likely to recognize and help others—even strangers—in need. It doesn’t seem like rocket science: 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.

I suspect it works for self-kindness, too. If we are aware and awake to our lives, we are more likely to recognize that we are tired and we need to rest, or we are stressed and need to pause. As we cultivate awareness of our own lives, we will be better able to recognize and respond to the needs of others. We can’t live a life of kindness toward others if we are not kind to ourselves.

And it all begins with the simple act of choosing to be present, and choosing again and again what we will pay attention to.

“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.” (Wayne Muller)