Kindness – An Evolution or a Transformation?

“Be kind to people and don’t judge, for you do not know what demons they carry and what battles they are fighting.” (Vashti Quiroz-Vega)

Little FriedaHave you ever been adopted by a stray cat? It prowls the porch for a few weeks; then you put out some water and maybe a smidge of tuna, and before you know it, you’re hand-feeding him Chicken Marengo from the dinner table and making him a bed on the best chair in the bedroom.

That’s how kindness sneaks up on you. You start small and pretty soon it’s an habitual practice and it’s made a home in your life.

I’m a big believer in incremental change. Maybe that’s because attempts to make lofty changes all at once have never worked for me. Whether it’s exercise, writing, or keeping my office clean, an attempt to go from zero to sixty in one big leap always resulted in failure.

After years of thwarted good intentions, I finally realized that if I start small—exercise for 15 minutes, write for one half-hour, clean one shelf of my bookcase—the resulting good feelings reinforce the action and I want to do more. And pretty soon a new habit is ingrained.

Kindness works the same way. One can’t go from being oblivious and self-absorbed to being Mother Teresa’s more compassionate sister by simply saying, “From now on, I’m going to be a kind person.” As author R.J. Palacio recently stated, “If kindness were easy, after all, everyone would do it.” We have years of inattention and self-centeredness to overcome, not to mention the attendant fears of having our kindness rejected or “doing it wrong.” But we can go out of our way to perform one small kindness each day, and perhaps after a couple of weeks, perform two, or engage in a large act of kindness. As we see how good it feels, we want to do more, and pretty soon we’re approaching every encounter with the hope that there will be an opportunity to extend ourselves.

I don’t really think there’s such a thing as a small kindness. A warm smile, a kind word, a door held or a package carried—they all influence the receiver to pass it on or “pay it forward.” We have no way of knowing how far one kind action can reverberate.

On the other side of the spectrum, we can stop the reverberation of unkindness by absorbing an insult without retaliating, or hearing harsh words and not hurling them back. These small—but difficult—acts will help to slow the epidemic of unkindness. That’s hard to do, especially when we are just itching to voice the clever retort that will put that person in his or her place. It helps to approach such encounters with the spirit of inquiry we talked about a few weeks ago, to ask what might be motivating this person to act as he does, and what burden he might be carrying that has shortened his temper and brought out the Darth Vader in him. We don’t even have to understand—it’s enough to recognize that there might be more going on than we can see, and to give the benefit of the doubt.

Kindness—like playing the piano or becoming proficient at golf—requires practice. One way to instill the practice that will lead to proficiency is to set an intention of being five percent kinder—to ourselves and to others. Just five percent—or maybe two percent, or ten. Not a lot, but just enough to notice the difference it makes. Let that small incremental change take root and flower. After a while, and with steady practice, kindness becomes both intentional and instinctive—and that’s when magic happens.

Think about it for a moment. What would you do differently if you were just five percent kinder? To yourself? To others? To the planet?

Simone Weil, the French philosopher, wisely said, “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.”

Like the stray cat who comes to stay, let kindness creep in. Feed it and make a bed for it. Before you know it, the light will flood your soul….

“When we do what we love, again and again, our life comes to hold the fragrance of that thing.” (Wayne Muller)

Choosing to Be For or Against…

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

EagleThese days, when I read the newspaper or listen to the news, I find myself looking or listening for stories about kindness. I like to think that I’m developing a radar of sorts—an inner honing device that seeks and recognizes kindness. I’m a firm believer in the idea that we tend to see whatever it is we’re looking for. If we spend our days looking for what’s wrong, we will become skilled at finding what’s broken, insufficient, or flawed. And if we look for what’s good and right, that’s we will find.

For a couple of decades I’ve had pinned to my bulletin board an old Ashleigh Brilliant postcard that says, “If you look hard enough for what doesn’t exist, eventually it may appear.” A few years ago, a friend noticed it and asked me why that was on my wall, when all my other quotes and cartoons were so positive. I was baffled.

I told her, “But that is positive. It tells me to keep believing, even when I don’t yet see what I’m seeking. It’s all about the power of belief. How do you see it?”

Quite differently, it would seem. She told me, “If I think my husband is cheating on me and I look hard enough, I’ll find out it’s true.”

Well, I guess that is one way of looking at it. [Spoiler alert: the marriage didn’t last much longer.]

To a large degree, I think we do make our own reality. I’ve known people who have had more than their share of loss, illness, and misfortunes, yet they maintain a positive outlook and still manage to find something good in every mishap. They are a joy to be around.

I’ve also known people who see every loss and every misfortune as proof that the world is against them and life’s not fair. More of the same is pretty much all they expect of life, and that pervading gloom is what they convey to others. Spending time with such people can be draining—I’ve heard them referred to as energy vampires.

I’m not advocating being a Pollyanna. Perpetual and mindless cheerfulness can be as tiresome as the persistent pessimist. Each of us needs to be an activist in our own life. When we see unkindness, injustice or prejudice, we must speak out and stand up for what’s right. But if our radar is focused like a heat-seeking missile on finding mistakes and shortcomings, then life is probably pretty bleak. It’s the old glass-half-full or glass-half-empty conundrum.

Mother Teresa is reported to have said, “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”

I was reminded of that quote when I read Jerry Large’s column in The Seattle Times the other day. He wrote about a woman in the nearby town of Snohomish who was being removed as a volunteer leader in Young Life, a well-established Christian organization for high-school students. Pam Elliott’s “crime” was participating with other mothers in making decorations for the Seattle Pride Parade later this month, and posting the pictures on her Facebook page. She did it in support of a friend and the friend’s gay son, and because she believes in equality for everyone.

“Love is love,” Elliott said. “I am not a big activist, I’m supporting my friend. This is what we do for each other, we love each other’s kids like our own.”

The Young Life people gave her a choice. Ms. Elliott can continue her work as a volunteer leader—work which she loves—if she retracts her Facebook posting and stops aligning herself with the gay rights movement. The choice she made was to continue to support her friend and her friend’s son … and what she knows to be right. I’m not comparing Pam Elliott with Mother Teresa, but, like Mother Teresa, Ms. Elliott chose to stand for something, rather than against something else.

The more we choose positive over negative, good over bad, kindness over apathy or unkindness, the closer we all move toward manifesting the world we want to live in, and want future generations to know without question.

That’s what I look for when I read the news…

“What we choose to love is very important for what we love leads our eyes, ears, and hearts on a pilgrimage that shapes the texture of our lives.” (Wayne Muller)