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)

 

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)

Bippidi-Boppidi-Boo: The Magic of Kindness

“When you open a door for others, you sometimes open doors for yourself.” (Donald L. Hicks)

CinderellaImagine if Cinderella had been too shy to go to the ball. It would have been a very different story, or, in fact, no story at all. Had she demurred when her fairy godmother offered her a shimmering gown, glass slippers, and a golden coach, her fate would have been to continue as servant and drudge to her demanding stepmother and selfish stepsisters. Years later, tired and worn down by life, she might have thought regretfully about the night she said no because she was too afraid to say yes. So much for happily ever after.

Fortunately for her—and for six-year-old girls everywhere—Cindy was confident and eager to suit up and ride her pimped-out pumpkin to the palace where she became belle of the ball.

But there are thousands of people who face Cindy’s choice daily—though on a smaller and less-Disneyesque scale—and they hold back, out of fear and social anxiety. They feel a paralyzing dread at the thought of entering a social situation—be it attending a party, meeting new people, or speaking out at a meeting. Help is at hand, though, in the form of new research from our friends to the north, showing that kindness alleviates social anxiety.

Social anxiety is more than shyness. According to the Social Anxiety Institute: ”Social anxiety is the fear of interaction with other people that brings on self-consciousness, feelings of being negatively judged and evaluated, and, as a result, leads to avoidance, … feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.” It is a debilitating condition, isolating the sufferer and often preventing them from developing intimacy or close relationships.

A study recently published in the Journal of Motivation and Emotion by researchers Jennifer Trew of Simon Fraser University and Lynn Alden of the University of British Columbia revealed that engaging in acts of kindness reduced levels of social anxiety and social avoidance.

The study divided college students with social anxiety issues into three groups. One was directed to simply keep a diary of their experiences and emotions, another was exposed to different socialization situations, and the third was instructed to perform acts of kindness—three acts of kindness a day for two days a week over the course of four weeks. The kindnesses could be as simple as mowing a neighbor’s lawn, donating to charity, or washing a roommate’s dishes, and were defined as “acts that benefit others or make others happy, typically at some cost to oneself.”

After a month, the group tasked with performing acts of kindness reported lower levels of discomfort and anxiety about social interaction than either of the other two groups.

The researchers concluded that “acts of kindness may help to counter negative social expectations by promoting more positive perceptions (and expectations) of the social environment. This is likely to occur early in the intervention as participants anticipate positive reactions from others in response to their kindness, decreasing the perceived need to avoid negative social outcomes.”

So… we feel better about ourselves and our environment when we extend kindness, and we also expect better reactions and results. Thus, we are less fearful. Makes sense.

I suspect, also, that when we are engaged in kind acts, our attention is on the act or the object of it, and we are less aware of our own worries. While this study didn’t specifically look at people performing kindnesses in the social situations that frighten them, I imagine entering such situations with the intent of finding opportunities to be kind would go far to alleviate the fear. It would divert us from feeling self-conscious and worrying about how we are being judged.

While most of us don’t suffer from debilitating social anxiety, this study of kindness can likely be extrapolated to anyone who experiences discomfort in social situations—whether a cocktail party, public speaking, weddings, funerals, or the dating scene. If we replace worrying with looking for opportunities to be kind, we may very well discover that the event we dreaded was enjoyable and painless. And perhaps we’ll be the proverbial belle of the ball.

As Cinderella might, say, “If the shoe fits….”

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”  (Dalai Lama)

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)

Kindness and Curiosity

“Curiosity is the single most important attribute with which humans are born. More than a simple desire to discover or know things, curiosity is a powerful tool, like a scalpel or a searchlight. Curiosity changes us. It is also a way to effect change, perhaps even on a global level.” (Loren Rhoads)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” (Albert Einstein)

Twice in the last week I’ve seen kindness equated with curiosity.  That made me curious. I’ve always thought curiosity is an important quality to have if one wants a rich and insightful life, but I hadn’t directly connected curiosity with the value I hold dear: kindness.

In an article entitled “Kindness and Curiosity in Coaching” that recently appeared in the Huffington Post, business consultant and executive coach Ruth Henderson described how her mother would posit a kind explanation for other people’s behavior: after being cut off by a speeder, Ruth’s mom speculated, “Maybe his wife’s having a baby and he’s trying to get to the hospital.”

Later, when Ruth was a business professional, her own coach encouraged her to approach difficult or frustrating situations with an inquisitive mind.  She told Ruth:  “Kindness and curiosity leave no room for anger and resentment.”

I think it’s true.  If I ponder a work situation where a colleague did something that seemed terribly inappropriate, or a client blew up and offended everyone within earshot, it’s easy to get angry or judge that person harshly.  But if I tap into my curiosity first, I have a very different response.  What made that colleague choose to act inappropriately?  Was she acting out of fear?  Was there a misunderstanding? Did she somehow not realize the nature of her action?  Was something else going on that I’m not seeing?

And what made that client blow up?  Fear is often behind many such outbursts—what might he be afraid of?  Or maybe he’s not feeling appreciated, or perhaps there’s a personal calamity in his life that has stretched him to his limits?  What don’t I know that might explain his behavior?

As soon as I yield to curiosity and allow for the possibility that there may be something going on that is beyond my awareness, I can replace my reflex response of anger or disgust with a desire to understand and even a desire to help.  Curiosity leads to kindness.

“When we aren’t curious in conversations we judge, tell, blame and even shame, often without even knowing it, which leads to conflict.” (Kirsten Siggins)

Curiosity vs. Discipline

In a recent article from the Harvard Business Review—one that I think should be required reading for anyone who manages or supervises other people, or who wants to—Stanford University research psychologist Emma Sepppala, PhD, describes how compassion and curiosity are more effective than frustration and reprimand in responding to an underperforming employee or one who has made a serious mistake.

Traditional, authoritarian management approaches tend to focus on reprimanding, criticizing, even frightening the employee—the rationale being that fear and embarrassment might teach the individual the error of his/her ways.  Instead, the research shows, it serves mostly to erode loyalty and trust and to impede creativity and innovation.

A more effective response to an employee’s error or underperformance is to first get our own emotions in control, and then view the situation from the employee’s eyes.  Here’s where curiosity comes into play.  What caused the mistake or what might be the reason for the poor performance?  What is the employee feeling about the error that he made?  Chances are he is horrified, embarrassed, and frightened.  A kind response—this doesn’t mean overlooking the error, but using it as a teaching or coaching opportunity and doing it compassionately—will engender loyalty, trust, and even devotion.  It will also be far more effective than reprimand or punishment in helping the employee avoid such mistakes in the future.

The loyalty engendered by the kind response extends beyond the particular employee you may be dealing with.  Seppala notes that “If you are more compassionate to your employee, not only will he or she be more loyal to you, but anyone else who has witnessed your behavior may also experience elevation and feel more devoted to you.”

It makes sense.  Everyone makes mistakes, and if our employees see their boss or manager respond kindly to a coworker’s blunder, they can feel secure in the knowledge that when they make a mistake, the response is likely to be similarly compassionate.  This fosters a culture of safety, one that encourages innovation, creativity, productivity, and loyalty—these are the qualities that the best and the brightest are seeking for their career homes.

Whoever said “curiosity killed the cat,” had it wrong.  Curiosity is one of the most beneficial qualities we can cultivate.  Combine it with kindness and magic happens!

“Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides. The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow.” (Tony Schwartz)