2020 Mid-Year Report Card

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” (Maya Angelou)

We’re halfway through what will undoubtedly be one of the most significant years of our lifetime. It’s certainly not the year anyone was expecting. This seems like a good time to engage in a bit of introspection and self-evaluation, a “report card,” if you will.

Tom Bodett once said, “The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.”

What lessons have we learned over these last six months? How have we been tested? Individually and collectively, are we passing, or has our failure been illuminated? Let’s take a few moments to think about the classes we’ve all been enrolled in, and how capably we’ve faced the tests they’ve put before us.

Our first mandatory subject came to us in March, Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced Coronavirus. Try to imagine what it would have been like if, in high school, you had progressed directly from freshman algebra into advanced calculus. That’s pretty much what happened about four months ago. But, instead of suddenly facing differential equations, multilinear functions, and finite-dimensional vector spaces, you are tasked with navigating a world in which “normal” has been replaced by invisible hazards, ceaseless anxiety, and a rapidly-spreading pandemic.

Then, in May, a new class was added, 21st Century American History. This one has a twist: it’s history in the making, and we are more than mere students and observers—we are the history-makers. The curriculum for those of us with white skin and white privilege is to look around and look within and assess whether as a country and as individuals, we are the best we can be. Many of us took the pretest and saw that we’ve been failing for a long time, in ways both obvious and subtle. The pledge of liberty and justice for all is, at best, provisional. It’s time to do some remedial and hard work. Continue reading

Third Quarter Report Card: Wherein Our Heroine Rambles Aimlessly in Hopes of Finding Something Sensible to Say…

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” (Leo Tolstoy)

Dostoevsky's grave, Tikhvin Cemetery at Aleksander Nevsky Monastery, St. Petersburg, Russia

Dostoevsky’s grave, Tikhvin Cemetery at Aleksander Nevsky Monastery, St. Petersburg, Russia

Whose dumb idea was it for me to do a quarterly “report card” on my progress during this year of living kindly?

That must have been me.

A few people have pointed out—very kindly—that such an instrument may not be the best example of self-kindness, and that my observations about judgment being a barrier to kindness extend to judgment of myself, as well. Yeah, but where were they when I was coming up with this cockamamie idea?

Hence, in keeping with my commitment, and in an attempt to be reasonably kind to myself, I will hasten through the grading portion and then engage with my inner guidance counselor to start thinking about what I’m going to do when I “graduate.”

First the Grades…

Stretching for an analogy from my husband’s field of physics, there’s the theoretical and the applied. While not mutually exclusive, as I understand it (and I confess that I don’t understand it, though I have nodded sagely for decades as Bill explained things like quantum mechanics and string theory), theoretical physics focuses more on exploring concepts, assessing and predicting based on both discovery and conjecture. Applied physics is more about the real-world application of the science—its practical use to build, create, or prove something. I did not run this explanation by Bill before posting it—which would have been the intelligent thing to do—precisely because he would have clearly and carefully explained the distinctions between theoretical and applied physics, I would have nodded knowingly, and then would have proceeded to mangle it just as badly. I skipped the middle-man to achieve the same result. But I digress….

With kindness, too, there is the theoretical and the applied. Both are essential. Theoretical kindness is exploration of the ideas and concepts, linking of related principles (e.g., kindness and curiosity, kindness and vulnerability, kindness and abundance). Theoretical kindness may be identifying connections that hadn’t been evident before. I’ll give myself a B+ here, maybe even an A-. This favors my somewhat introspective and introverted nature.

Applied kindness is putting my thinking into action, vigorously engaging in kind deeds and going out of my way to extend kindness at every opportunity. While I have made some good efforts, I don’t think they’ve been sufficient. I’ll give myself a C+ here, B- if I’m being generous. While I can honestly say I have not been unkind (that I am aware of), I can also honestly say that I have not been kind enough.

What Happens Next?

In high-school, we met with our counselors about twice a year, more than that if we were struggling with classes or had behavior issues (which I wasn’t and hadn’t). My meetings with my counselor were pretty innocuous; she praised my grades, we talked about what classes I liked best and what electives I was choosing for the following year. In my junior year, she started asking me about college—where did I want to go, what did I want to study? She showed enormous restraint in not trying to talk me out of studying Russian literature and not asking me what (on earth!) I thought I was going to do with it.

I have never for a moment regretted my chosen field of study, or the later decision to add philosophy as a dual major … clearly not thinking about the already saturated ranks of college graduates in the job market who were conversant in both Tolstoy and Teleology.

The parallels between Russian literature and kindness may seem evident only to me, but, dear counselor, I assure you that they are there and I can trace the slightly circuitous steps from my first introduction to Dostoevsky at age 16 to the first blog I posted on kindness. You may have to trust me on this.

So, you ask, if this is where Russian lit led you, where is kindness going to lead you, and what are your intentions once this year of living kindly has concluded?

Good question, inner counselor. While I have no idea whether the blog will continue after December 31 (ideas and suggestions most gratefully welcomed), I know my commitment to kindness will continue. Kindness is not a destination, but a path. I may occasionally stray or be distracted by bright and shiny diversions, but the path is always there and kindness is always a choice. The Dalai Lama has said, “My religion is simple. My religion is kindness.” As someone who grew up with no religious training or affiliation, this is a religion I can embrace.

While kindness will surely—as it already has—lead to new people and places, and hopefully some new opportunities to serve, it will also be the lens through which I view the world and the filter through which I make choices.

Given my less than satisfactory grade in Applied Kindness, in the remaining three months of this year of living kindly—and beyond—I want to engage more actively in kindness, and extend myself more often and more directly.

I don’t, however, want to use this blog as a forum to say, “See what I did,” so YOLK may continue to be an exploration of ideas, observations, and perplexing digressions.

When I sat down to write this week’s post, knowing only that it was to be my quarterly report card, I had no idea where it would go. Eight hundred words later, I have strayed into theoretical and applied physics and revisited my passion for Russian literature. To anyone who has persevered to the end of this rambling post, I can only say: I am so sorry … and thank you.

“Learning to love is hard and we pay dearly for it. It takes hard work and a long apprenticeship, for it is not just for a moment that we must learn to love, but forever.” (Fyoder Dostoevsky)

Kindness Report Card

 “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong.  Because someday in your life, you will have been all of these.”  (George Washington Carver)

gradesThe first three months of my year of living kindly have passed like a kid on a skateboard.  Since the end of a quarter seems like an appropriate time for a report card, I will indulge in some self-evaluation.

Am I kinder than I was three months ago?  I think so, but my husband says he hasn’t noticed any difference.

Admittedly, Bill sees me at my worst.  He’s also quick to alert me when I fall short of my intent.  After an apple-green Fiat pulls out right in front of our car from a side street causing me to mash down my brakes, and then slows to a crawl ahead of me, I say, “Oh, come on, lady, really, how about looking both ways?”

Bill’s response: “Was that kind?”  No, probably not.

[Note to self for next time I embark on anything of this nature: do not share intentions with husband—assuming same husband; do not invite him to follow blog.]

As I review the concepts I’ve explored over the last three months, I see that there are some areas where I have taken my ideas to heart, and some where I may not have picked up my own gauntlet.

Overall, I guess I’d give myself about a C+.  Just looking at that grade makes me shudder.  When I was in school (back in the days of crinoline and manual typewriters), anything less than an A was terribly upsetting, and anything lower than a B—well—other than a C in penmanship in 4th grade—I never got any grades lower than B’s (and very few of those).  So giving myself a C+ in kindness feels like failing a test in a favorite subject.

In our office, we’ve been talking a lot about evaluations, and we decided there’s a lot to be said for a simple “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” method.  Thumbs up indicates that one’s on the right track, and thumbs down indicates the need for a lot more work.

thumbs downUnder the “needs a lot of work” area of my report card, I would list the following:

Kindness awareness – My tendency toward obliviousness throughout most areas of my life extends to kindness.  I am missing opportunities to be kind by simply not seeing them.  Just as I step over piles of clutter in my office and totally don’t see dirty dishes on the kitchen counter, I am often oblivious to situations where I could offer a kind word or deed.  It is not intentional, it is my own failure to be present and mindful.  I think it’s called GAD (general awareness disorder), and there’s undoubtedly a pharmaceutical company looking into it, or a support group for us somewhere, but, well, who’s paying attention…?

Being judge-y – I think I am doing better here, but I still catch myself with unkind or critical thoughts.  I am, however, far less likely to voice them and more able to brush them aside.  I still find myself wondering, though, about the people who allow their screaming kids to run around the restaurant, or the ones who leave their carts blocking the grocery aisle while they talk on their phones.  I guess they are oblivious in their own ways, too.  Someone told me that it’s okay to think snarky thoughts if I keep them to myself.  I’m not so sure about that, but I’ll take a pass whenever offered.

Risking rejection or looking foolish – At times, I am still hesitant to extend a kindness if I fear it will be rejected.  Likewise, I have passed on opportunities to be kind if I feared they would draw unwanted attention or if I might appear incompetent or foolish.  I play it too safe.  I am incompetent and foolish in so many areas of my life—might as well admit it, get over it, and plough through.

thumbs downMy report card might classify these as “on the right track”:

Patience – While still a long way to go, I am more patient.  I am taking to heart my own perspective that if my #1 job is to be kind, then it’s much easier to be patient when someone or something gets in my way or slows me down.  If being kind supersedes all else, the time it takes shouldn’t bother me—and, more and more, it doesn’t.

Kindness expectations – I am making an effort to expect kindness and smooth sailing in all my interactions, and with very few exceptions that is what I am experiencing.  It does appear that given a chance most people’s default setting is kindness.  The downside to this is that I have had almost no opportunities to see how I do at expressing kindness in the face of unkindness or rudeness.  People are all just so nice.

Kindness awareness – Yes, this was also on my “needs work” list, but there are areas of progress.  I have gotten in the habit of frequently asking myself before I say or do something: Is this the kindest action?  Is this the kind response?  And there have been times when that pause has enabled me to adjust my course or choose differently or more wisely.  A couple of weeks ago, I was stopped for speeding—first time in 35 years.  As the policeman walked up to my car, I reminded myself to be kind and friendly—that this part of his job was not always pleasant.  Are you thinking that I charmed him out of writing me a ticket?  No, that didn’t happen, but he very kindly wrote me up for only five miles above the speed limit, instead of the thirteen I was actually going, which saved me about $70 on the ticket.  I thanked him very sincerely.  Now, on my way home from work, when I see him parked in that same hidden driveway, I am tempted to wave, but I fear he may misinterpret the sign.

Expressing appreciation – Going back to that oblivious thing, I know I am still missing a lot of opportunities to express appreciation, but I am also doing it more: commending people for their work, notes of appreciation, sincere thanks.

So, as a new quarter starts, I see that I have some work to do: I want to extend kindness more even when it may be out of my way or inconvenient—always mindful that it’s my #1 job.  I want to take some risk and be kind even if it might not be comfortable.  I want to overcome inertia and obliviousness and expand my kindness radar.  I want to continue to pause, to express thanks, and look for the kind response.  I also want to get at least a B next quarter, or find a teacher who grades easier….

“The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.”  (Tom Bodett)