At the Halfway Point…

“Kindness covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.” (Roger Ebert)

tightrope walkerI’ve reached the halfway point in my year of living kindly. As I did at the end of the first quarter, it’s time to pause for a self-assessment.

At the end of March I gave myself a report card, with an overall grade of C+. I generally felt I was on the right track, but maybe not making enough effort or stepping out of my comfort zone often enough. A few of my friends chastised me (but did so very kindly) for being hard on myself—in fact for being unkind to myself. My husband broke his silence and posted a rant, noting he had made no such commitment to kindness.

So, this time I’ll look for a less judgmental way to evaluate my progress toward living a kind life. Maybe some open-ended questions that don’t require arbitrary scoring and potential self-flagellation. This format appeals to my periodic dual persona, plus, after six months, I’ve finally realized that my blog has a delightful acronym.

YOLK: Have you noticed a difference in your life after making this year-long commitment to kindness?

Me: I have. I feel kinder inside. It may not be evident to anyone else, but I think I am kinder. I think about kindness a lot, and I actively look for it. I do believe it directs my attention in very positive ways.

YOLK: What have been your biggest ah-has?

Me: One of my biggest ah-has is how many ah-has there are, so this is not going to be a short answer. A huge ah-ha 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. I think we often 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.

Somewhat related to this is the power of the pause. That’s huge. 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 very powerful. 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. I frequently reflect on the four questions Rotarians pause to ask:

  • Is it the truth?
  • Is it fair to all concerned?
  • Will it build goodwill and friendship?
  • Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

If the answer to any is no, choose silence. Who knew Rotarians were so wise?

Another ah-ha is how much kindness there is all around. My eyes and ears are more attuned to it, and I see it everywhere. Big kindness and little kindness. They’re ubiquitous. I’ve also become more aware than ever of just how tremendously kind my husband is—to friends, to neighbors, to strangers, even to me. I married good, Mom. Bill will probably take issue with this, because he has a cynical, skeptical scientist reputation to uphold, but it’s true.

The last big ah-ha is probably that when I see unkindness, it’s easier now to see what might be behind it—fear, embarrassment, insecurity, obliviousness—and to be a bit less judge-y.

YOLK: Where do you still have the most work to do?

Me: You may have noticed that I said a bit less judge-y. I’m still too quick to judge when I see someone do something unkind (often while behind the wheel—that particular location seems to bring out the worst in the best of us…especially in Seattle traffic). I need to do a better job of activating my curiosity so I can imagine a good reason why someone cuts another person off in traffic or blares their horn and offers a rude hand gesture. I need to be more adept at giving the benefit of the doubt.  Additionally, there are always more ways to express and extend kindness; I hope to find them in the next six months.

YOLK: Has anything surprised you?

Me: I am surprised daily, sometimes hourly, and am in a perpetual state of wonder, both over the kindnesses and the unkindnesses I see, hear, or read about. I’ve also been surprised by the whole business of blogging. Putting a commitment out there in a very public way is at times scary, daunting, and certainly counter to my generally private and introverted nature. Nonetheless, I love it and I’ve connected with some wise, smart, and delightful people as a result. It’s been a great lesson in risk-taking at a time when I was ready to inject some risk into my life. It’s also been a good lesson in making my self-imposed deadlines, as I’ve often related to the wonderful Douglas Adams quote: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

But getting back to kindness, perhaps the biggest surprise has also been the simplest. This commitment to kindness feels right—it is exactly what I should be doing and want to be doing at this exact moment in my life. How cool is that?

YOLK: Okay, because I know you better than you know yourself, I know you haven’t entirely given up on that letter grade method of appraisal. What say you?

Me: B-minus, but a tarnished silver star for good intentions….

“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.” (Seneca)


When the Kindest Thing To Do Is … Absolutely Nothing

“Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”  (Winnie the Pooh)

Yellow RhodieAs I wander around exploring kindness, I’ve been surprised to realize that quite often choosing to do nothing is the kind choice.  That probably flies in the face of any image we might have of the kindest people being ones in tights and a cape, with a big K emblazoned across their chest, leaving a trail of good deeds in their wake.

Over the last week, I’ve had occasion to witness a few episodes where feelings were hurt and tempers were raised as a result of emails that never should have been sent.  That’s one of the problems with email.  It’s just so damn easy to reply immediately—in the heat of the moment—before we’ve really thought through what the sender may have intended, how our reply might be interpreted—or misinterpreted—and what our ultimate goal for the communication is.

Do we want to be right (or righteous), or do we want to keep the peace?  Sometimes, we can’t do both.

I think there was probably a time in my life when being right (or, I admit it, righteous) may have felt more important than keeping the peace or being kind.  Being right doesn’t seem all that important anymore.  I’m reminded of a line from the classic film Harvey, where Elwood P. Dowd, played to perfection by Jimmy Stewart, says, “Years ago my mother used to say to me…. ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’  Well, for years I was smart.  I recommend pleasant.”

This harks back to an earlier post about the power of the pause, and the importance of delaying long enough to decide if the action you’re anticipating will really get the results you want.  Sometimes, when we hit pause, we realize that we should make that pause permanent and simply do nothing, say nothing.

“Silence is sometimes the best answer,” the Dalai Lama wisely said.  It’s harder than it sounds, though—at least for me it can be—especially in verbal interactions.  A derisive comment or sarcastic reply may come to my lips quickly and be spoken before I realize how snarky it sounds.  I’m learning to bite my tongue, but it is not always easy.

Even if my words aren’t snarky, does what I’m saying help?  Maybe somebody in my office brings up an idea that they think is great, but there are ramifications that make it unworkable or unwise.  How I communicate that may mean the difference between their continuing to search for good ideas and their feeling deflated and put down.  Sometimes, the right thing to do or say may be nothing—to let them discover the flaw for themselves or even find a way to make the seemingly unworkable work.  Or maybe the best course is to talk through the issue in hopes that they see the unsoundness, or that I can point it out considerately.  Either way, the knee-jerk response (“No, that will never work”) is not the best choice.

I think back on the four questions Rotarians ask to decide whether and how to act or speak (mentioned in the earlier post on pausing):

  • Is it the truth?
  • Is it fair to all concerned?
  • Will it build goodwill and friendship?
  • Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

If the answer to any is no, don’t say it or do it.  Such good advice, it bears repeating!

Wise and Kind Parenting

I am not a parent, never have been, know nothing about parenting, and would surely have been a dreadful mother.  The closest I’ve come is raising a cat or three, each of whom assumed its rightful place as head of the household in very short order.

I have a few friends whom I consider to be extraordinarily good parents, and it seems that the wisdom to do nothing out of kindness is something great parents learn.  As kids grow, there are times when parents need to let them learn lessons—sometimes painful ones—on their own.  If mom or dad always steps in and clears the path or fixes the problem, the child will never learn independence.  I’m guessing (remember, only guessing, I only know cats) that it’s terribly difficult for a parent to do nothing when they know the lesson their child must learn is accompanied by pain or distress.  And to compound that, the kids—seeking rescue—rarely recognize that the parents’ choice to do nothing is exactly the right one.  But the parents know that the pain is temporary and the lesson will serve the kids for a lifetime.

And here’s the amazing part: these parents also know that there are other times when the exact right thing to do is step in and help solve the problem or avert the pain, and they do that.  How do they know the difference?  That discernment, that wisdom, fills me with awe.

There’s a reason I’ve only had cats.

I suppose, though, that the same wisdom parents have of when and when not to intervene is what good leaders and managers have with their team members.

It may be tempting at times to tell ourselves that we are choosing to do nothing out of kindness, when really our kindness is sorely needed and we are being lazy or apathetic.  Kindness requires both mindfulness and honesty.  If we pay attention, we will know what’s right, and we will respond accordingly….or not.  If kindness were always easy, there’d be a lot more of it….

“When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”  (R.J. Palacio)

The Power of the Pause

“Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight.”  (Rollo May)


Attribution: Donna CameronBetween Stimulus and Response

Some time ago, a friend happened to be looking at the huge collection of quotations I have tacked to a bulletin board that covers one wall of my den.  Inexplicably, she started to cry.  Then she grabbed a pen from her purse and wrote down this quotation from Stephen Covey:

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

“That’s it exactly,” she explained.  “Whenever I am tempted to take a drink, I need to pause in that space between stimulus and response.  If I stop and think about it, I won’t drink.  If I don’t, I slip and have a drink.”  I knew my friend was in AA and that sobriety was still a struggle for her.

I looked at the quotation again and saw how many things it applied to.  Not just alcohol, but overeating, smoking, spending… or any number of actions we take automatically with little or no thought.  We allow an addiction or a learned response to overtake our free will.  And, as Covey describes, each time we don’t give in to the reflex response, we grow and claim our own precious freedom a little more.

I think his wise words are just as relevant to kindness.  Yesterday in a parking lot, I saw a man blast his horn at a woman whose car was blocking his exit.  When she didn’t move quickly, he blasted it again, and then a third time.

Admittedly, some people are just Bozos, and they always will be.  But I’d like to think that if he had paused, perhaps he would have chosen a different response.  Maybe he would have shrugged and looked at his watch and said, “I’ve got time.”  Or maybe he would have tried for a quick tap on the horn to alert her to his car, instead of three sharp and aggressive blasts.

I know I’ve been guilty of speaking sharply in response to a real or perceived stimulus of rudeness or bad behavior.  But that’s their problem.  It’s only mine if I let it be, if I let their Bozo-ness provoke me to similar behavior.  When I react in kind, it doesn’t improve the situation and it doesn’t make me feel any better.

I also know that when I snap back at someone (more often than not, my spouse), it’s because I’m tired, feeling overwhelmed, inadequate, or—I admit it—hungry.  A timely pause can keep the snapping-turtle in her shell, and maintain harmony.  It’s one of those lessons we learn and relearn over and over, until finally the pause becomes the automatic response.  At least I hope it does.

There’s a reason why our mothers used to tell us to stop and count to ten when we got angry.  It’s the power of the pause.

The Rotary Club has the right idea (sudden segue, but stay with me).

Rotarians have a four-question test that helps them decide whether and how to act or speak.  Before responding, they consider:

  • Is it the truth?
  • Is it fair to all concerned?
  • Will it build goodwill and friendship?
  • Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

If the answer is no, they keep silent.  Wise people, those Rotarians.

A pause is not a vacant space.  It’s a place of enormous potential and growth.  It’s where we choose who we will be in this moment, and the next, and the next.

“Kindness. Easy to do. Easy not to do. Choose the latter, no one will notice. Choose the former and lives may change.”  (Julian Bowers Brown‏)