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)

 

9 Barriers to Kindness

“I expect to pass through life but once. If, therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.” (William Penn)

kindness highlightedWhen things get out of hand, we all have different ways of regaining control of our lives. When I am feeling overwhelmed, I organize.

I need to make a distinction between organizing and cleaning: I don’t clean, my husband will be the first to tell you that, so to prevent him from posting an unflattering—but entirely true—description of just what a slob I am, I will repeat: I do not clean, I rarely straighten, I tend to be entirely oblivious to clutter. I’m not proud of that fact, but sadly, it’s absolutely true.

However, when I am besieged by deadlines and overcome by the sheer volume of tasks and responsibilities facing me, I get busy organizing. Once I have organized my life, I feel like I am back in control and able to tackle all of my obligations steadily and timely—and even enjoy doing them.

My first step in organizing is to make a list, or, more accurately, multiple lists. I make lists of everything I need to do and then sub-lists of the various steps to doing them. I make lists of things I need to remember. I make chronological lists, shopping lists, task lists … and when things get truly overwhelming, I make a list of lists I need to make. That is the point I have reached this week.

It was in this list-making frenzy that I realized I haven’t made many lists related to kindness. Maybe I hadn’t yet reached the stress-level needed for that. Fortunately, the universe has conspired to remedy that, and kindness has joined the ranks of lists that I employ to organize and bring order to my life.

The first list I sat down to write enumerates the barriers to kindness—the things that get in the way of our being kind or compassionate. I’ve identified nine factors that might keep us from being our best self. They are in no particular order, but the first is probably the biggest:

Fear – I could write an entire post just about fear (oh, in fact I did), but to condense it here, there’s a smorgasbord of fears to choose from:

  • Fear of Rejection – the gift of our kindness might be misunderstood or spurned. Ouch!
  • Fear of Embarrassment – what if I extend kindness clumsily and look foolish? Ouch, again!
  • Fear of Judgment – people will say I’m weak or maybe gullible. More ouch.

Better to do nothing than to risk the vulnerability…or is it? Part of the solution to dealing with fear is to focus not on the bad things that might happen but on the good outcomes you are seeking to bring forth. That’s a sure way to banish fear.

Laziness and Inertia – While there are certainly kind actions we can take that don’t require a lot of energy (a smile, a compliment, a door held open), many kindnesses do require that we extend ourselves. They require that we get off our butts, go out of our way, and sometimes even leave our comfort zones. Usually it’s just a matter of taking the first step and then our intentions take over and kindness ensues. But the hurdle is that first step and overcoming the inertia to take it.

Indifference – The antithesis of kindness, indifference is a barrier to living a kind life. One cannot be kind if caring is absent; one cannot be kind if one is willing to shrug and say, “It’s not my problem.” Indifference may be how we protect ourselves from strong feelings, from the caring that moves us to action. It may be comfortable to wallow in indifference, but kindness requires that we stop being a spectator and jump into life.

Entitlement – Sadly, there are many people who see kindness—if they see it at all—as something that can be selective. It’s not as essential to show kindness to the clerk, the cashier, or the homeless person as it is to the VIP who can help one get ahead or feel powerful. There’s an adage that says “a person who is kind to you but rude to the waiter is not a kind person.” It’s so true; selective kindness isn’t kindness, it’s opportunism. Kindness is something we extend to everyone at every opportunity.

Obliviousness – It’s easy to miss opportunities to be kind if we aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around us. We may not notice that there is a person behind us for whom we can hold a door, or that someone needs help carrying their groceries, or that a child is frightened or sad. Too often, we allow technology to take precedence over human connection—we are constantly absorbed in our hand-held devices, oblivious to the life around us and the myriad opportunities we have to offer the gift of our kindness. We can even be oblivious to our own need for self-care—unaware that we have depleted our energy and need to engage in some personal renewal if we want to be able to care for others. Paying attention to our lives is easier said than done, but it’s one of the essential elements of a kind life.

Habit – If we are in the habit of saying no, it’s hard to say yes—to someone who asks for assistance, for our time, or for a dollar or two to help them make it through the day. Of course, we can’t say yes to everything or everyone, but whichever answer we choose should come out of conscious conviction, rather than robotic routine.

Not enough timeIt takes time to be kind—to pause and think about what the kind response is, to offer assistance knowing that it might delay us from our tightly-packed schedule, to connect on a human level with the people we encounter throughout the day. It even takes time to be kind to ourselves—an essential quality to being able to extend kindness to others. In the face of so much hurrying, it helps me to remind myself that my number-one job is kindness; all else comes second.

ImpatienceImpatience might be a subset of feeling one doesn’t have enough time, but it’s more than that. We may have all the time in the world and still be impatient with someone who lacks skill or understanding in something. It’s just easier to roll our eyes and do it ourselves than to extend the kindness—the patience—to teach, or coach, or watch while someone fumbles or stumbles. Offering genuine patience is always a kindness.

FatigueResearch has shown that when we’re over-tired we’re not only more prone to accidents, have difficulty learning, and feel stressed, but we are also more likely to commit unethical or unkind acts. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to value sleep more than ever—and knowing that it helps make me kinder just makes my bed even warmer and cozier.

Having made a list, I already feel better. No OCD tendencies here. Have I left anything out? When you miss an opportunity to be kind, can you ascribe it to any of the above, or are there other reasons?

“Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.” (Albert Schweitzer)

Kindness Requires Presence

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

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Blue Moon at Storm Lake, July 2015

Remember how annoying it was as a child or adolescent to hear teachers repeatedly admonish their students to “Pay attention”? Sometimes it was code for “this will be on the test.” Other times, it was said over and over because the teacher had lost the students’ interest and instructing them to “pay attention” was probably easier than exploring new ways of making geometry or 18th century European history exciting. The best teachers rarely said “pay attention”—they didn’t need to.

All these years later, I keep a little slip of paper bearing the words “Pay Attention” taped next to my desk. I think it’s one of the secrets of a good life.

I’ve also come to see that it’s one of the requirements of a consistently kind life. If we are unaware of what’s going on around us, it’s so easy to miss opportunities to be kind. It might be something simple like holding a door for a stranger, making eye-contact and smiling, or offering to help someone who is struggling with heavy packages. Or it may not be so simple—it might be recognizing despair on a friend’s face and taking time to listen to their story, or thinking about just the right words to say to help a child deal with disappointment or rejection. If we’re oblivious, we miss all these opportunities to make a difference.

Opportunities to extend kindness are all around us, but they’re also easy to miss if we aren’t paying attention. And these days we’re all so distracted by technology that we lose awareness of what is going on around us.

Choosing Presence

people textingMeetings are a major component of my profession: educational seminars, conferences, board meetings, committee meetings, breakfast/lunch/dinner meetings. It’s how we learn, how we network, how we get the business of our non-profit organizations done.

It used to be that during breaks at meetings and conferences, people would help themselves to a cup of coffee and chat with others attending the meeting. Now, people still grab the coffee, but then they stand in solitude at a distance of about four feet from one another and they stare intently into their devices. They check email, they text, they surf the net. What they do very little of is connect with other people in the room. I’ve had people admit to me that sometimes they pretend to check emails because it’s what everyone else is doing and they feel self-conscious just standing there with no one to talk to. If I’m going to be completely honest, I’ll admit that I’ve done it myself.

That person-to-person networking of days gone by was often as valuable as the formal education of the meetings. It’s where practical, informal learning took place, not to mention cultivating business connections and making friends. Have we all really become so important and indispensable that we can’t disconnect for two or three hours? And if it’s true that we are expected to be constantly connected, is that a good thing? I don’t consider myself a Luddite—though some may call me one after reading this—but I do think we’ve become too connected to our electronic devices—to the detriment of connection with our fellow humans.

I think we’ve lost sight of our own capacity to set boundaries. We’ve let the devices rule us, when it should be the other way around.

At the park near our house I see parents absorbed in their smartphones, oblivious to their children’s exuberant cartwheels or triumphant heights on the swings. I wonder whose loss is greater here….

I see couples in restaurants, apparently on a date, but both of them repeatedly checking their phones and responding to texts or emails. I see people walking along busy streets and sidewalks, oblivious to everything but the phone in their hands. At the symphony, I saw the glow of many hand-held devices—their operators oblivious to the magnificence of a Sibelius concerto. What are we missing when we choose not to be fully present to our lives?

When I lead groups in strategic planning I remind them that everything they say “yes” to means there is something else they must say “no” to—so they need to think hard about what is most important to them. It’s the same for us as individuals: what are we saying “no” to as we say “yes” to perpetual connectivity?

Mindfulness Fosters Compassion

There is research from Jon Kabat-Zinn and others that mindfulness cultivates compassion and altruism. Experiments have shown that mindfulness training makes people more likely to recognize and help others—even strangers—in need. It doesn’t seem like rocket science: 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.

I suspect it works for self-kindness, too. If we are aware and awake to our lives, we are more likely to recognize that we are tired and we need to rest, or we are stressed and need to pause. As we cultivate awareness of our own lives, we will be better able to recognize and respond to the needs of others. We can’t live a life of kindness toward others if we are not kind to ourselves.

And it all begins with the simple act of choosing to be present, and choosing again and again what we will pay attention to.

“Every day, we are given countless opportunities to offer our gifts to those at work, in our families, our relationships…. If you give less than what you are, you dishonor the gift of your own precious life.” (Wayne Muller)

The Fundamental Things Apply … As Time Goes By

“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)

By User:S Sepp (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By User:S Sepp  via Wikimedia Commons

Time seems to be our most precious resource these days.  We all have the same 24 hours, but for most of us, it’s never enough.  There’s rarely enough time to do everything we want to do.  And using some of that precious time to extend kindness may not be a priority.

Last February on Forbes.com, contributor Tim Maurer wrote a thoughtful article entitled, “Time Is More Precious Than Money.”  That’s right, Forbes, not High Times.

Maurer, a financial advisor, is part of a group of advisors that is deliberately asking new questions of themselves and their clients—questions that are intended to go beyond portfolios and financial investments to explore the values that make our lives richer in every sense, not just ka-ching.  When he explores asset allocation with his clients, he wants to probe beyond securities and talk about how they allocate their time, their lives, and their love.  Maurer states:  “We have the choice to order our loves, to acknowledge the limited nature of time and our own capacity, and to prioritize our work and life.”

As we allocate our time, are we creating space for kindness?  If it’s a priority, we will.  But, it’s a choice we need to make consciously, otherwise it may be squeezed out by the myriad other things clamoring for our time and attention.

It takes time to be kind.

  • It takes time to pause and think about what is the kind response.
  • It takes time to step out of our routine and enter into a genuine conversation, or provide assistance when doing so might delay us from our appointed rounds.
  • It takes time to be patient—to allow someone to fumble, stumble, and learn—without jumping in to fix, show them how to “do it right,” or do it for them.
  • It takes time to reach into our pocket and find a dollar that might help someone make it through another day and then to look that person in the eye and say a kind word as we hand it to them.
  • It takes time even to be kind to ourselves—to stop and think about whether what we need most is to slow down, take a walk, relax….

When I was working 60+ hours a week, and also trying to maintain some sort of a life outside of work, I think I often blew off opportunities to be kind.  The few moments it would take to drop someone a note, or to go out of my way to pick up a small gift, or to invite a friend to lunch or bake a treat for a neighbor…all were just too much, like dumping a bathtub full of water into an already sinking rowboat.

I have friends and colleagues whose workloads were as crazy as mine who nonetheless often went out of their way to be kind.  Their kindness, and their priorities put me to shame.  What great examples they are.  These are people who are just naturally kind and who would probably think it ridiculous to set an intention of kindness, or to spend time pondering the nature of kindness.  To them, kindness is like breathing, it requires no thought.

Kindness isn’t something we do only when we have time for it.  Kindness is how we choose to live.  I’m reminded of Robert Corin Morris’ lovely quote:

“The way we live our life is our spiritual practice—no more, no less, nothing but, nothing else.”

Now that I’ve cut my workload by half, I’m trying to look for those opportunities I used to overlook, and I’m also seeing that fitting them into my previous life might have been just what I needed—for kindness is energizing.  Isn’t it curious how many great lessons we learn through our rear-view mirrors?

It may not always be a good time to extend kindness, but it’s almost always the right time.

There are so many barriers to kindness.  I suspect, though, that once I can make kindness a natural, first response, the barriers begin to crumble.  Once I no longer have to tell myself to pause, to engage, to connect, kindness will become second-nature … at least that’s my hope.  For now, time and I are still skirmishing.  And I remind myself daily that taking time for kindness is what gives meaning to life.

“When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening.” (Madeleine L’Engle)

Kindness Begins With … Who, Me?

“Self-compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others.” (Christopher Germer)

Attribution: Donna CameronIn the previous post, we talked about the need to be kind to ourselves if we are going to be able to give genuine kindness to others and to receive kindnesses.  The challenge is to feel worthy and not to listen to that voice—ours now, but probably once that of a parent or teacher—who says putting ourselves first is always selfish.

Selfish and unselfish is a polarity we must manage, recognizing that there are times when our need is greater and other times when someone else must come first, and still other times when putting someone else’s need above our own is our greatest need.

“Self-care” is not a term that will mean the same thing for everyone.  It’s also a term that can get a bad rap.  For some, self-care may be analogous to selfishness, or self-absorption, and taken to an extreme, like anything else, it ceases to serve us.  It’s no fun spending time with someone who has nothing of interest to talk about but herself, or anyone above the age of eight who still believes that the universe revolves entirely around him.  Yet, those people are all around us and they are as exhausting as they are unwelcome.  We can’t change them, but as a gesture of kindness to ourselves, we can limit the time we have to spend with them.

Let’s look at a few more methods we humans have devised for being kind to ourselves:

Recognizing Boundaries 

I look at boundaries as something like values.  My friend Lynn describes values as “decisions we make in advance” and I think boundaries are much the same.  They are the demarcation of what I will and will not do, and what I will and will not allow as I interact with others.  They are both external and internal.  External boundaries protect us from invasions of our space, our emotions and beliefs, and even our possessions.  Internal boundaries help us manage our time, our emotions, and our impulses.  Without a sense of our own boundaries we can deplete ourselves by trying excessively to please, serve or fix, by tolerating abuse, byaccepting criticism without evaluating it, by overscheduling our lives ‘til we reach exhaustion, or by taking on other people’s baggage.  Learning to both establish and hold to our boundaries is a big element of self-kindness.

 Forgiving

As someone who has done her share of stupid and thoughtless things, I have finally learned that continuing to carry them around with me in the form of regrets and self-recriminations serves no one … and it’s a dreadfully heavy weight.  That doesn’t mean ignoring them, but rather learning from them, forgiving myself, and letting them go.  There is a quote of unknown origin that says it well: Your past mistakes are meant to guide you, not define you.

Small Indulgences

Somewhat related to the satisfaction triggers we talked about earlier, “small indulgences” is a term I first heard from trend-watcher Faith Popcorn.  She was referring to the tiny “affordable luxuries” that we allow ourselves—they don’t break the budget and they offer a quick and easy respite from stress.  In the commercial world, Starbucks is the embodiment of a source for small indulgences, having convinced us that the answer to our immediate need is a caramel macchiato, a chai tea, or simply a good cup of Ethiopian blend.  But we can find small indulgences all around us: a piece of dark, artisan chocolate … a magazine we enjoy but don’t usually spend five dollars to buy … a visit to a museum or library … a massage … just about anything by a couple of guys named Ben and Jerry … or maybe it’s buying that new bestseller we’ve been wanting to read, rather than waiting months to get it from the library.

The barriers that prevent us from being kind to ourselves are generally the same obstacles that keep us from being kind to others: time, fear, fatigue, apathy, obliviousness….  We’ll be exploring some of these in upcoming posts.

If we are to have a long-term perspective on compassion, as the Dalai Lama encourages, that means recognizing that kindness begins with self and radiates outward.  Unless we replenish ourselves periodically, we cannot offer our gifts to others and to a universe that is in dire need of our kindness.

What’s the kindest thing you could do for yourself right this minute?  What’s stopping you?

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”  (Anna Quindlen)