Choosing to Be For or Against … Redux

“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)

Attribution: Donna CameronOne of the things I learned during my year of living kindly was to be better at pausing when I saw unkindness and look for an interpretation that might explain it. I’m not always successful but the act of pausing also reminds me that we often respond reflexively to external stimuli—and our first response is sometimes not the best response, and is, in fact, often regretted.

So, when I heard that members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church were protesting vocally and viciously outside funerals and memorial services for some of the victims of the Orlando shooting, I paused and tried to think of some way to interpret their actions that humanized them. I couldn’t and I can’t.

Like the shooter himself, these people are haters and the God they purport to serve is a hating god. I went to their website to try to understand. It sickened me. I won’t insert a link—it’s that offensive. These are the same people who protested and disrupted the funeral of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard nearly 20 years ago. These are not people who are interested in kindness or compassion, or in listening to other views, and the God they portray is just like them. The best I can muster for them is pity.

It may be that some of them are kind to their families, or to people who share their distorted views, or perhaps they show compassion to stray puppies and kittens. But they are not kind people, and, as far as I can tell, kindness is not a behavior they would ever have regard for.

What sort of life is it that is so focused on hate?

I find I keep thinking about a post I wrote a year ago—one that explored the idea that we create our world by what we choose to pay attention to. If we choose positive over negative, good over bad, kindness over apathy or disrespect, we move toward manifesting the world we want to live in, and that future generations will appreciate. If we choose to hate, to repress, or to banish those who think or act differently from ourselves, we build a world of mistrust, intolerance, and hostility. Such a world is small and colorless, and devoid of joy.

The whole of last year’s post can be viewed here, but I want to retell a story I included. It’s a small story of a woman who is not famous and doesn’t want to be. In the wake of Orlando, and during Pride month it resonates with me, perhaps it will with you, as well:

[from June 2015]

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. 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.


This has been a year of such divisiveness, and with the November elections still several months away we can anticipate even more rancor and animosity. Perhaps if we pause to remind ourselves occasionally that we can choose to stand for something rather than against something else we might contribute real and lasting value to our social fabric.

Every day, every hour, we choose who we are going to be, and in making that choice, we choose the world we want to live in, and want our children and theirs to live in. We must choose wisely … and kindly.

“A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.” (Saint Basil, Bishop of Cesarea)

Operating Instructions for a Kind Life

“Every once in a while take out your brain and stomp on it—it gets all caked up.” (Will Rogers)

seashellMy friend Kathi introduced me to the concept of a “hermit crab essay.” The term was coined by essayists Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola and refers to writing that—like a hermit crab living in the shell of another creature—uses an entirely different form to convey the narrative. It might be a recipe, a police report, a to-do list, or countless other structures. Here’s an example of self-exploration in the form of a personality quiz, and another addressing romantic temptation in the form of a medical diagnosis.

I wanted to try my hand at hermit crabbing, so I have attempted to write operating instructions for living a kind life. Thanks for indulging me and thanks, Kathi, for introducing me to something new.

Operating Instructions for the Commitment to Kindness Kit™ 2.0

Thank you for investing in the 2016 Commitment to Kindness Kit™, version 2.0. These operating instructions should help you make the most of your investment. As you know, this is a particularly challenging year, with elections demonstrating the worst of human behaviors. Your interest in creating a kinder world places you with millions of other humans who are pledging to make kind choices, even as they witness contrary behaviors. These directions will help you become a kindness ambassador—modeling kindness and compassion wherever you are and changing the world for the better, one act of kindness at a time.

Materials Needed: Before we begin, let’s review the supplies and skills that you will need. First of all, you will need patience. This is not an overnight endeavor. You will also need courage, curiosity, and grace under pressure. A sense of humor will often come in handy, too. Manufacturer recommends a daily application of gratitude to assure optimum performance and possibly extend the life of the operator. Do not worry if you don’t always have these tools at the ready; they will come with practice, sometimes appearing when you least expect it.

Step One: Suspend judgment. When in situations where the behavior of others baffles or annoys you, switch on your ability to empathize and give the benefit of the doubt. Assume their good intent and look for a possible explanation for the behavior. Perhaps they are afraid or stressed. Maybe they are embarrassed. Could they be facing a challenge that you are unaware of? Assume that they are doing their best and not intentionally disrupting your life. If all else fails and you cannot excuse the behavior, imagine that they have been put in your path to teach you something you need to learn. What is it? Approach with curiosity and compassion. Note: Step one requires practice; nobody gets it right the first time. Remember that you are in good company.

Step Two: Start small. Unless you are a bona fide saint or holy person, you may have years of obliviousness to overcome. One good way to start is by frequently asking yourself these questions: What is the kind response here? and How can I make this person’s day? Sometimes a smile, a gracious word, eye-contact, or a door held open are all the kindness needed to ignite joy.

Step Three: Let go of fear. Fear blocks the path of kindness. Whether it’s fear of embarrassment, rejection, getting it wrong, or being vulnerable, take a deep breath and let it go. Replace fear with the courage borne of your best intentions. Think about the possibilities your kindness might manifest and proceed confidently.

Step Four: Pause frequently. Instead of acting instantly in response to external stimuli, pause and think about whether your reflexive response will improve or worsen the situation. Assess the actual need for the sarcastic comment or the clever put-down…or even the subtle eye rolls. Note: Remember that a pause is not a vacant space; it’s a choice point. Choose wisely.

Step Five: Pay attention. Kindness is all around, as are opportunities to extend kindness. Kindness requires presence and practice. It is recommended that you refer to these instructions frequently, until operation of your kindness mechanism becomes second nature.

Step Six: Remember to refuel. Sustained kindness is powered by self-care and ample rest. Kindness begins with each of us. If we can’t be kind to ourselves or don’t think we’re worthy of kindness, we can’t be consistently kind to others or to the world. Accordingly, get sufficient sleep. Being well-rested helps us make kind and ethical choices. Plus, we have the energy and reserves to deal with whatever comes up. Manufacturer cannot be responsible for actions taken when operator is running on empty.

Step Seven: Repeat as needed. Remember that kindness itself is not your destination, but it is the never-ending path you have chosen to follow. Occasionally you will stumble off the path. That’s normal, just try to stumble back on as soon as possible.

Warnings and Cautions: Users would be wise to remember that there are people who will denigrate or demean your kindness, mislabeling it as weak or inconsequential. Disregard to the degree possible. Occasionally, people will misinterpret your kindness, and may react to it in unexpected ways. Proceed with both caution and confidence. Ultimately, kindness is contagious; as others see you practice they may be inspired to do the same.

The manufacturer assumes no liability for results when product is used while operator is smug or sanctimonious. These behaviors generally reduce or eradicate effectiveness and may result in unexplained rejection, unwarranted suspicion, or warped interpretations. Should any of these occur, user is encouraged to apply fresh kindness liberally and await a different result. If instructions are consistently followed, operator will enjoy a lifetime of kindness and the associated pleasures it brings.

These instructions should assure thorough and long-term satisfaction in your 2016 Commitment to Kindness Kit™ 2.0. As further updates are made to this product, you will receive notification.

œ[Fellow bloggers: try writing a post or essay using a hermit crab format—a recipe, a letter, an obituary…whatever appeals to you. See if it brings you a fresh perspective. The possibilities are endless … and it’s a most enjoyable exercise.]

“Art doesn’t just happen by accident. It is about pulling out new tricks and trying new things.” (Nicholas Meyer)

 

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)

 

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)

I’m just sayin’ … honesty isn’t always kind

“Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true.” (Robert Brault)

Attribution: Donna Cameron“I’m just saying this for your own good.”

“Don’t be so thin-skinned. I’m just telling it like it is.”

“Hey, I call it like I see it.”

“Jeesh, you’re so touchy!”

These phrases are often used to justify saying hurtful things. Sometimes the speaker may really believe that the listener needs to hear his unvarnished opinion about the poor sap’s looks, abilities, opinions, or prospects.

Speaking on behalf of poor saps everywhere, we don’t. We don’t need someone to tell us all the things that are wrong with us or all the things we don’t do as well as we should. That’s what that persistent little voice in our own head does—and it doesn’t need any help.

There are things that need to be said and things that don’t need to be said. If we pause to think before we speak, we generally know the difference.

“You’d be so much prettier if you’d just lose fifteen pounds,” doesn’t need to be said—ever.

“You might want to get that spinach off your front tooth before you make your presentation,” needs to be said. Thank you!

“The other kids in your class certainly have more artistic ability than you do,” doesn’t need to be said, even if it’s abundantly clear to everyone but your eight-year-old.

I don’t advocate lying. I was raised in a home where honesty was valued and I consider honesty to be one of the most important characteristics of good people. That being said, I believe there are times when telling the truth may not be the best course of action. And being able to discern the appropriate time for truth-telling and the appropriate time for silence or even a downright lie is another important characteristic of good people…certainly of kind ones.

Some lies are obvious, some a bit more subtle.

To the question, “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?” any spouse who answers that with anything but, “You look gorgeous!” or a similarly reassuring exclamatory statement really hasn’t thought through the business of being married.

“It’s perfect! Thank you so much!” in response to an ugly, impractical, or totally preposterous gift is always a wise response, even if it’s a whopper of a lie. Would you really rather hurt the giver’s feelings and then live with the regret of having done so? Receiving graciously—even when the gift is unwanted—is one of the kindest behaviors we can learn.

“I’m fine, thanks for asking.” There are times—and we usually know when they are—when telling an acquaintance about our persistent rash, impending colonoscopy, or chronic foot fungus is entirely unnecessary. The depth of the relationship is a good gauge of how much detail to provide when someone asks the innocuous and automatic question, “How are you?”

If you’re contemplating telling a lie, think about your motive behind it:

Are you lying to make yourself appear to be something that you are not—smarter, stronger, more successful or more interesting? Think again, and exercise your courage muscles. You’re fine exactly as you are—why pretend to be something that you’re not? Would you rather be authentic or an imposter? Would you rather people liked and respected you for who you really are, or because they think you’re something that you’re not? Besides, when you deceive others you must remember the story you fabricated—otherwise you are likely to get caught in your lie later—and you’ll either feel foolish or have to come up with more lies. It’s not worth it.

Are you lying to make a sale, deflect blame, get recognized, or advance your career? No matter how innocuous the lie may seem, your trustworthiness and integrity are at stake here—even if you’re the only one who knows that. Are they worth tarnishing for anything?  I recently came upon a quote by Ryan Freitas that sums it up pretty well: “Your reputation is more important than your paycheck, and your integrity is worth more than your career.”

Are you lying to spare someone’s feelings? Under these circumstances, lying may be both acceptable and desirable. Add another question: is anyone harmed … if I tell my work colleague that her new hair style is great when, in fact, my first thought was that she looks like a radish on a stick?

Other questions to consider:

  • If I were in his/her position, would I want the truth or a gentle lie? or
  • Which response best serves kindness: the truth, a considerate lie, or silence?

My sister and I still commiserate (it’s cheaper than therapy) over our mother’s “truth-telling” to us as children: to Kim that her smile showed too much of her teeth and gums—causing my sister for decades to cover her mouth when she smiled or laughed, rather than display her genuine delight; and to me that I could always have a nose-job if my nose got any bigger. Until my mother mentioned it, I had been totally unaware that my proboscis was anything less than perfect. Thanks, Mom! Fortunately, my husband thinks my patrician nose is beautiful.

It seems to me that another consideration of whether to tell the truth or to dissemble is whether you can make a contribution to the outcome.

If your colleague has already gotten the haircut, or your spouse has already bought and worn the loud Hawaiian shirt, then little is served by telling them what you really think. But if they ask you in advance how you think they would look with a radical ‘do, or wearing a bright yellow shirt with orange and purple parrots, a diplomatic truth might help them make a different decision.

Similarly, we don’t need to be the people who point out the typo, criticize the amount of cumin in the soup, or correct a stranger’s mispronunciation. If someone asks for my input, I’ll gladly give it—unless it appears that they really just want support and kudos—then I’ll give those. I’ve found as I’ve gotten older that I’ve also gotten quieter. I don’t need to point out somebody else’s foibles and failures. I’ve got plenty of my own.

But my nose, fortunately, is quite perfect.

“If you have to choose between being kind and being right, choose being kind and you will always be right.” (Anonymous)