A Different Kind of Inconvenient Truth

“Be kind to everybody. Make art and fight the power.” (Colson Whitehead)

Attribution: Donna CameronEvery day, there’s a new one, a new allegation of sexual harassment, abuse, or misconduct, by a person in a position of power toward someone he holds power over. The perpetrator is invariably male, and his victim is usually—but not always—female. This is nothing new. It’s been going on for . . . well, probably forever.

We see it in politics, entertainment and sports, the military, academia, corporate settings, and anywhere else where people work or interact.

Is the Tide Turning?

It seems, though, that we’re beginning to see some changes. People who have been preyed upon are speaking out. The tactics abusers relied on to keep them quiet and to disguise repeat behaviors and patterns—legal settlements, money, threats against career, intimidation, warnings of backlash—are losing their power to silence and shame. Women are speaking their truth. They’re claiming their power, and they aren’t backing down.

The shame women (this includes exploited boys and men) have felt—sometimes for decades—is giving way to an understanding that they have nothing to be ashamed of. They are survivors, they are strong, and they are courageous. As more women say “me, too,” shame loses its might. Strength and resolve take hold.

I don’t like the word “victim,” it carries a lot of baggage. It implies weakness, when, in fact, carrying scars of abuse and speaking out are strengths beyond measure.

It does feel like a tide is finally turning, but before we congratulate ourselves too much on starting down the road to remedy long-overdue injustices, we need to recognize just how tenuous this path is.

There are still situations where it may not be “convenient” to condemn a predator, where some prefer to give them a pass. Take the case of Alabama Senatorial candidate Roy Moore. Five credible women have gone on record describing his sexual advances and predatory behavior toward them when they were teenagers—one as young as 14. There are numerous corroborating witnesses, more than 30 sources total. Yet there remain many people for whom it is more important to elect the ultra-conservative Moore to the Senate than to denounce his vile behavior.

For the people who still support Roy Moore, maintaining their “club” is more important than upholding justice, recognizing truth, or righting wrongs. The “club” may be white nationalism, it may be evangelical Christianity, it may be holding a Republican majority at any cost. Regardless, it’s the club that matters. To these women, and to future victims, they’re saying: You don’t matter.

When people deliberately choose not to believe women or evidence that’s clear and compelling, what message are they sending to children? We want you to speak up if someone tries to hurt you, but be prepared to be disbelieved, shunned, or dismissed if the person wields power, or if your truth is inconvenient.

Want another example? Look no further than the White House. That we elected a predator to the highest and most honored office in the land is our nation’s shame. But one we have the power to rectify.

Is Harassment Training the Answer?

Elsewhere, in our haste to fix, patch, and even minimize a problem we can no longer deny or hide, sexual harassment trainings are being looked to as the solution. Congress has deemed that all lawmakers and their staffs must undergo harassment training. Corporate America and the military are embracing harassment education and training as the solution to the endemic ill-treatment that plagues their workplaces.

That’ll fix things. Those who transgressed in the past, or who stood by and ignored or allowed the predatory behaviors of others, will see the error of their ways, express contrition, and we’ll all link arms (wait, no touching!) and advance together into a future devoid of harassment or abuse. Kumbaya, indeed!

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of sexual harassment training, but anyone who sees it as a panacea that will rout these long-standing, firmly entrenched behaviors is minimizing an enormously complex problem, and is also more than a little bit naïve.

This problem needs to be addressed long before people enter the workplace. It probably needs to be addressed in utero. How we raise our sons and daughters determines how they will behave as adults. What messages are we sending them when they see boys praised for what they do and girls praised for how they look? What messages are we sending when noisy girls are shushed and boisterous boys are encouraged?

I heard a brief, but interesting story on NPR’s Morning Edition the other day. Marketplace senior reporter Sabri Ben-Achour was speaking with Vicki Magley, professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, about the implementation of sexual harassment trainings in the workplace.

Magley cautioned that there is still very limited research about the effectiveness of such trainings. Initial outcomes haven’t been all that encouraging. In some cases, training leads to a backlash. Their effectiveness in changing behavior is uncertain and dependent upon whether the organizational culture is perceived as ethical or not by the employees.

In essence, if employees feel the training they are required to take is only window dressing—the company’s way of meeting an obligation or protecting its corporate ass—and it doesn’t truly represent the views and commitment of the organization, they are unlikely to take the training seriously or to respond in any meaningful ways.

Magley cited a 2016 EEOC report which also showed mixed results from harassment training, and suggested that it might be more effective to shift the focus from harassment to civility.

Magley noted, “When you enter into [a training program] prepared to be told that you’ve been naughty, you go in cynical.”

But if you shift the paradigm: “When you enter into a training scenario where you’re being told explicitly that we’re going to give you ideas on how to create community, on how to bond with one another in productive, cohesive collaborative kinds of ways,” it changes the mindset. The training is viewed as an opportunity for growth and professional advancement, rather than as punishment.

This makes so much sense, but again, we mustn’t wait until boys and girls become men and women and join the workforce. Civility must be instilled from the moment they begin to walk and talk. Parents must model these values and teachers must impart them—over and over again until civility and kindness become as elemental as our need for oxygen.

It starts with civility . . . . It starts with kindness.

“Many men fail because they do not see the importance of being kind and courteous to the men under them. Kindness to everybody always pays for itself. And, besides, it is a pleasure to be kind.” (Charles M. Schwab)

Are Wealthy People Less Compassionate?

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

Attribution: Donna CameronSome time ago, I came across an article citing research that I found fascinating. I wanted to write about it in YOLK, but was deterred by a concern that it’s just one more thing that divides us . . . and there’s already way too much of that.

Still, I think it’s important information and perhaps if approached with curiosity and a desire to inspire change, instead of finger-pointing or rebuke, it might be beneficial rather than divisive.

U.C. Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner conducted several studies examining whether social class affects how people think about and treat others. They defined social class by such measurements as wealth, education, and professional prestige.

In one study, they observed motorists at four-way intersections and reported that drivers of luxury cars were more likely to cut off other drivers, rather than wait their turn at the intersection. Interestingly, I had noted this phenomenon first-hand several years ago when I traveled to California’s wealthy Marin County for a business conference (confession: I grew up in Marin, but escaped in my 20s). At a four-way stop in the affluent town of Mill Valley, my lowly rental Taurus was cut-off first by a Maserati and then by a Mercedes convertible. At another intersection, I stopped, but a Lamborghini breezed through the stop-sign as if it didn’t exist. Piff’s and Keltner’s research confirmed this behavior in luxury car drivers regardless of time of day or density of traffic. They also found that these drivers were more likely than others to ignore a pedestrian trying to cross at a crosswalk.

In a different, but equally fascinating study, these same researchers manipulated class feelings to examine selfish behaviors. They asked people to spend some time comparing themselves to others who were either better or worse off financially. Then they offered the subjects a jar of candy and told them they could take as much as they wanted and that the remainder would be given to nearby children. Interestingly, the participants who had spent time thinking about how much better off they were than others took significantly more candy than those who viewed themselves as less well-off.

Yet another study by the Berkeley researchers showed that people with lower income and education levels had more compassion for children being treated for cancer than did people at higher levels educationally and economically.

It’s hard to hear about studies such as these and not conclude that wealthy people have a rather warped sense of entitlement and privilege. In a New York Times article, Keltner and Piff postulated that their research may explain why elite financial institutions, such as Goldman Sachs, have been rife with greedy and unethical behaviors. Greed can become morally defensible for those who enjoy wealth and abundance. Further, according to the researchers, the less people have to worry about their own wealth and position, the less they think about others or care about the feelings of other people. “Wealth gives rise to a me-first mentality,” they concluded.

While it would seem logical that those who have little would be disinclined to give, the opposite seems to be the case. The disadvantaged give generously. And those who are prosperous seem less inclined to care about people who are less fortunate. Author Daisy Grewal notes that this is important because people in positions of power—political and economic power—tend to be these privileged wealthy who are not inclined to make decisions that help the poor or the marginalized members of society. Relying on those in power to care for the rest of us is probably a false hope. Greed, says Grewal, “may have the strongest pull over those who already have the most.”

I find this research fascinating. Having spent my career in the non-profit world, I saw abundant research showing that those most generous in donating to causes or supporting charitable endeavors were often those least able to afford it. On a percentage-of-income basis, those with lower incomes tended to be substantially more generous than those in the higher brackets.

Generalities are dangerous, though, and we must be careful not to make blanket statements or assumptions that serve only to widen the rift between those with privilege and those without, or between classes, cultures, or communities. There are enormously generous people with wealth and power (think Melinda and Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, Lady Gaga, Paul Allen, and many more).

Recently, I found it eye-opening (but not surprising) that when presidential press secretary Sean Spicer left the White House, the parting comment for him was not a wish that he would find a new position that challenged and fulfilled him, or that he would find a new way to contribute to society, but that he would “make a tremendous amount of money.” Of course, what is to be expected from the administration of a president who has declared, “You have to be wealthy in order to be great” (as demonstrated so clearly by Gandhi and Mother Teresa…)?

It saddens me that for so many people, success and value—their own and others’—are measured only by wealth. You can’t be successful unless you make a lot of money. And for many, that translates to whatever you need to do to accumulate wealth is justified, because wealth is all that really matters.

Until collectively we can start measuring people by a new standard, it’s unlikely that the growing inequality we see will change. The question becomes: how do we change that standard? How do we stop seeing wealth—or lack of it—as a determiner of value, and see instead such factors as generosity, compassion, benevolence, action on behalf of others, and, yes, kindness? Given the current state of American politics, that change isn’t going to come anytime soon, but each of us can stand up for the values that we choose to be measured by.

We can stop admiring wealthy people just because they’re wealthy. We can stop publishing and reading articles about “the world’s richest people” or “how much do they earn” (how about articles on the most generous, or the most compassionate?). We can stop clicking on “news” that tells us about rich celebrities whose only claim to fame is their wealth and their celebrity. We can put our attention and our support—financial or otherwise—behind people and movements that seek positive change and promote values like equality, justice, and compassion. Where we put our attention should align with our intention.

Times change. People change. People can instigate change. What we’re seeing today doesn’t need to be what we see tomorrow.

“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment. We can start now, start slowly, changing the world. How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make a contribution toward introducing justice straightaway. And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!” (Anne Frank)

 

 

What Are We All So Afraid Of?

“Be not afraid.  A kind life, a life of spirit, is fundamentally a life of courage—the courage simply to bring what you have, to bring who you are.” (Wayne Muller)

Attribution: Donna CameronAs I continue to re-examine some of the key ideas that emerged during my initial year of living kindly, I note how often fear emerges as a barrier to kindness—both to our expressing it and to our receiving it. And beyond inhibiting kindness, fear is also very often at the root of unkindness and incivility.

Why is fear such a big factor in keeping us from being our best selves?

Extending Kindness

We’re often hesitant to extend a kindness because we fear the result. Is it the right thing? Will I say the wrong words? Is it enough? Is it too much? Will it be rejected? Will I be rejected? If I offer assistance to someone, will they take offense that I perceived them as incapable? Fear can be paralyzing and our opportunity to express it passes by swiftly.

We also fear embarrassment. Kindness may take us out of our comfort zone; it may ask us to do something new. Perhaps we’ll be clumsy or awkward, or we’ll call attention to ourselves in an unwelcome way. If I stop to hand a couple of dollars to someone in need, will my companion scold me and call me a bleeding heart?

The question we all too often fail to ask is, “Could my kindness here make a positive difference?”

Receiving Kindness

On the receiving end of kindness, we may fear being perceived as weak or needy. Or perhaps we want to maintain a distance between ourselves and the giver; we fear strings may be attached to the proffered kindness. Receiving can be just as awkward and clumsy as giving—maybe we fear we don’t deserve the kindness, or it is out of proportion to our own smaller generosity. Maybe we’ll embarrass the giver, or ourselves. Accepting the kindness of others with grace and appreciation is itself an act of kindness. And a pretty easy one, at that. But it takes practice. Whether you are offered a material gift, assistance, or a compliment, do your best to receive it courteously and savor the kindness.

Perhaps the question to ask here is, “What’s the most gracious response I can offer?”

Behaving Unkindly

When we see unkindness, at its root is often fear. When someone lashes out at another person, it may not be for anything the person has or hasn’t done. They are simply the nearest individual on whom to deflect blame, embarrassment, or anger. Not so long ago at a downtown hotel parking lot, a number of people were in line at the payment kiosk. The person who was trying to pay could not get his credit card to work. He turned it one way, then the next, he inserted it slowly, then quickly. He tried a different card with the same result. People behind him were beginning to get impatient, though they tried not to show it. Finally, someone suggested pushing the button that would summon an attendant. When the attendant arrived, he helped the fellow process his payment in less than 30 seconds. Instead of being grateful, the man just got angrier. He berated the attendant for the machine’s poor quality, and for the exorbitant price of the parking, and finally for the inconvenience he was subjected to. Perhaps he was angered over the inconvenience, but it appeared more likely that he was embarrassed and feared the judgment of people waiting behind him to pay. Were they thinking he was incompetent? After all, none of the people ahead of him had experienced any problem with the machine.

Many of the things we fear are threats to our pride, to the image we have of ourselves. When our pride is threatened, when we fear that others—or even ourselves—will see that we are not as strong, smart, capable, or lovable as we believe ourselves to be, we often strike out or strike back. We act unkindly.

The question to ask here is, “What am I afraid of?”

I think one of the best moments of our lives is when we stop worrying about what other people think of us or how we are being judged. The truth is that most people are far too concerned with themselves to spend much time appraising others. And those who do want to belittle, snicker, and sneer simply aren’t worth worrying about!

Change the Question

When I first wrote about how fear inhibits our kindness, I suggested that the question we often ask ourselves in the face of fear, “What’s the worst that could happen?” is the wrong question to ask. I still believe that’s true. Much better is to ask, “What’s the best that could happen?” Focusing on best enables us to see the potential our kindness holds—to brighten a life, to alter the tone of an encounter, to change the world. We need to remember that kindness has ripples far beyond our awareness. A seemingly small action could trigger others, which trigger still more, and, ultimately, might be the tipping point that transforms the world.

Focusing on best diminishes our fear and also keeps our desired goal front-and-center in our mind. If we focus on worst, our subconscious points toward it. If we focus on best, all our capacities conspire to make that happen. All it takes is practice and confidence that the path of kindness will lead us where we want to go.

The Power of Kindness

Many people still choose to see kindness as a sign of weakness. They erroneously equate it with being wishy-washy or a pushover. If I exhibit kindness, I’ll be inviting others to take advantage of me. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kindness takes strength, it takes resolve and courage, and the willingness to be vulnerable.

When fear threatens to deter our kindness, or to incite unkindness, we need to remember that kindness has the ability and power to vanquish our fears. Then, step past the fear and claim our kindness.

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” (Amelia Earhart)

Driving Miss Crazy

“Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn’t block traffic.” (Dan Rather) 

Over the last few years of exploring kindness, writing about it, and occasionally talking about it, one of the most frequent comments I encountered from others was along the lines of, “I think I’m a pretty kind person—except when I’m behind the wheel.”

What is it about driving that can turn a pacifist into a warrior, or transform Prince or Princess Charming into Freddy Krueger? As much as it pains me to say it, there are always going to be some people who will be aggressive jerks under any circumstances—and driving just magnifies that jerkiness to cosmic proportions. But there are also kind and good-natured individuals who transform before our very eyes into sneering auto-crats with the vocabulary of a Quentin Tarantino thug.

Clearly, there is no single reason for the metamorphosis that occurs when an otherwise splendid human being gets behind the wheel of their vehicle—be it a Ford F-150 pick-up, a BMW, or a Toyota Prius.

Some studies cite the protection and the anonymity offered by a heavy vehicle moving at high speed. Surrounded by a few thousand pounds of steel, we can name-call and chastise, knowing that similar behaviors directed back at us can’t actually penetrate the armor of our vehicles (unless the other driver is both psychotic and armed, then all bets are off).

I think the fact that we’re nearly always in a hurry is a big factor, too. We’re just trying to get from here to there and aggressive or oblivious drivers slow us down. They get in our way and then they won’t get out of our way. All the while, the clock is ticking.

There may also be a connection to a condition called “illusory superiority,” a cognitive bias whereby individuals overestimate their own qualities and abilities, relative to others(think Lake Wobegon, where, famously, all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average). In a famous study conducted some years ago, 93% of American participants rated themselves as above-average drivers. Even with my limited mathematical prowess, I recognize this to be a statistical impossibility. The same study also included Swedish drivers, for whom—somewhat more humbly—only 69% claim to be above average.

So, if 93% of Americans are driving around feeling superior to other drivers, who’s to blame them if they express their superiority by refusing to yield, tailgating, speeding, flashing their lights, and honking their horns. And why should they use turn signals—they know where they’re going, why let the rest of us in on it?

I’ve heard it said that if you really want to get to know someone, just watch how they drive. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. There’s something exceptional about driving—it takes certain people out of their day-to-day tranquil reality and drops them in a dystopian battlefield where they become someone else entirely, someone they’re really not all that proud to be. Again, I exempt the true jerks (jerkus americanus) from this acquittal, because they revel in letting their true colors fly as they terrorize the highways, speed the side streets, and assert their dominance across parking lots.

I came across an interesting study that ranked all fifty states and the District of Columbia by the rudeness of their drivers. It also noted what other state held each state in particular contempt for its driving. Surprisingly (to me at least), Idaho drivers were ranked as the rudest of all, and they are especially hated by drivers from Arizona (a state which is ranked 34th and has as its nemesis the state of California). My own state, Washington, comes out pretty well, ranking 43rd in rudeness, and disliked most by our neighbor to the south, Oregon. Washington drivers don’t seem to hold particular animosity for any other drivers, while California drivers appear to hate nearly everyone. Given how highly-caffeinated Washington State drivers are, our ranking comes as a bit of a surprise. But, then, based on the number of venti Starbucks cups I see in drivers’ hands, I suspect we are all just looking for the next easy-access restroom.

In yet another study of rude driving (there are many!), the author concluded that good and courteous drivers are “turned bad” by rude drivers. The courteous ones mistakenly believe that by venting their frustration they will let offending drivers know they have behaved poorly, so that they will not repeat the behavior in future. “It’s a contradiction,” says road safety researcher Lauren Shaw, “good drivers are using rude and unpleasant bad behavior to teach other drivers how to be better drivers.” All that does, she concludes, is confirm to aggressive drivers the bad behavior of all drivers.

Is there way to conquer our own aggressive driving and not be provoked by the hostile or foolhardy driving habits of others? I think there is, but I suspect few people will like it. Here goes anyway: Let go of needing to be right (or righteous)—even when you know you are. Even when you’re absolutely, positively, without any doubt, certain you are right. Let it go.

Maybe we could take a cue from some of the street signs we see all over (and often ignore):

Yield. Let the other guy in—whether he’s merging onto the highway, trying to change lanes, or snatching up the parking place you had identified as your own. Even if it clearly was your space, or if he jumps in without signaling or waving thanks, what does it cost to acquiesce, and to do so without cussing and name-calling?

Stop. Before you act aggressively or react to another driver’s idiocy or belligerence, pause and ask yourself if that’s really who you want to be and whether you will feel better or worse after yelling an obscenity or making that universally recognized hand-gesture. A pause offers us the option to be gracious and to put an end to escalating rudeness.

Seek Alternate Route. Remind yourself that you always have a choice, and when you make the choice—rather than allowing someone else’s behavior to make it for you—you’re not only exhibiting maturity, you’re modeling good behavior for others on the road or in your own vehicle.

I don’t have the slightest idea what this sign means. But maybe it’s a reminder that we can’t always know what’s going on in someone else’s life that has made them behave aberrantly. Maybe they’re a brand-new driver and they’re terrified … perhaps they’re rushing a loved one to the hospital … possibly they’re lost…. Why not give the benefit of the doubt?

Some people will never change. But if driving is one of the few places where you lose control and succumb to unkindness, challenge yourself to take another route the next time you get behind the wheel. See if you can find the road that leads to inner peace.

“When you argue with a fool, make sure he is not similarly engaged.” (Proverb)

 

 

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)

Who Are You Inviting Into Your Home?

“In my opinion, good energy—kindness, decency, and love—is the most transformative force in the world.” (Cory Booker)

TVWe don’t watch a whole lot of TV anymore, and when we do, it’s just as likely to be a vintage sitcom as a current show. Bill and I realized some time ago that there’s a lot of television other people say is top-quality—well-written, good acting, compelling stories—that we just don’t find enjoyable. And one of the reasons is that the characters are all rather unkind.

Our friends have raved about Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and several other top-rated shows, but I was turned off by the violence, and the fact that “good guys” were few and far-between. I know I’m probably missing some great stories and some tremendous acting, and perhaps even being stubbornly short-sighted, but if I listen to my gut—which rarely steers me wrong—these are not shows that serve the world I aspire to live in.

I’ll admit that I haven’t really given some of these shows much of a chance, and I may be basing my judgment on too little evidence. I like to think of myself as open-minded, so my obstinate refusal to watch shows that others—including critics—deem outstanding is somewhat unsettling. I’m reminded of the fact that I refused for five decades to eat broccoli, and then when I finally did, discovered that it’s one of the best things on the planet.

Still, if all the characters on a TV show are people we wouldn’t want in our house, chances are, we don’t really want the show in our house either. Take Seinfeld, for example. I know everyone loved Seinfeld and it’s probably sacrilegious to be saying that we didn’t. We watched for much of its first season—and saw that these weren’t especially pleasant people. They were not people we would want as friends, and, in fact, might be people we would go out of our way to avoid having to interact with. So, why were we inviting them into our home every week? The show was often funny, and funny is usually good, but this humor was frequently hurtful and mean: the main characters were smugly judgmental and mocked people with little justification, achieving laughs at the expense of others. After watching Seinfeld, we didn’t feel good or happy. We just wanted their energy out of our house. And it raised the question: does watching meanness make us more inclined to be mean, or make us more accepting of unkind behavior?

Likewise, we watched House of Cards for a couple of seasons—who wouldn’t want to watch anything with Kevin Spacey in it, after all? But, toward the end of the first season, we realized there was not a single likable character on the show. They were devious, manipulative, cruel, and immoral. It depressed us to wonder how true-to-life some of the political intrigues and plots might be. Despite great acting, the show was a downer and the characters were not people we wanted in our home.

That’s become something of a litmus test for us when we watch a new show. In addition to wanting quality writing, stories, and acting, we want there to be at least a few characters we can root for, people we’d love to live next door to or encounter in our day-to-day lives. The last thing we want to watch is a show populated with mindless Pollyannas, but a couple of intelligent and likable characters—even amidst a number of unpleasant ones—that will at least give us something or someone to champion.

Yes, we’re probably missing some great television, but we’ve got books, and Netflix, and reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show—now that’s a group of people I’d welcome into my home any day!

Who are you inviting in?

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” (Fred Rogers)

Choosing Our Cyber-Voices

“The true essence of humankind is kindness. There are other qualities which come from education or knowledge, but it is essential, if one wishes to be a genuine human being and impart satisfying meaning to one’s existence, to have a good heart.” (The Dalai Lama)

Troll dolls came originally from Denmark; inexplicably, they were one of the biggest toy fads of the 1960s in America.

Troll dolls came originally from Denmark; inexplicably, they were one of the biggest toy fads of the 1960s in America.

Over the summer, I wrote a few posts about bullying. I thought I was done with the subject, but one aspect of bullying I didn’t spend much time on is cyberbullying. The more I read and learn about bullying, the more I see how cyberbullying has taken bullying to new and insidious heights. I’ve been shocked to learn about the extent of it and the number of suicides and attempted suicides it has triggered—mostly in children and teens.

My friend Ann shared an excellent article with me from the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of Scientific American Mind. “Virtual Assault” describes the many ways people are bullied online or through social media, and the psychology of people who engage in such poisonous activities. It noted, interestingly, that “contrary to popular wisdom, bullies are not merely compensating for their own low self-esteem,” but often they are “perched at the top of the social hierarchy and demean others to cement their position.”

I also learned that people who engage in cyberbullying and attacking others on-line or through social media are referred to as “trolls.” It’s often up to the on-line community, says article author Elizabeth Svoboda, to establish norms and tell trolls in no uncertain terms that bullying is not acceptable. Svoboda also says one way to counter the damage of bullying is to step in and offer support to the victim. Silence isn’t golden.

The Damage Trolls Do

A front page article in the Seattle Times earlier this month addressed how Donald Trump is effectively using Twitter to outpace his Republican rivals for the presidential nomination. The article strayed from mere politics to describe how last year Trump devastated actress Kim Novak by posting a cruel tweet.

The reclusive actress—a glamorous movie star in the 1950s, now in her 80s—was convinced by friends to make a rare public appearance at the 2014 Academy Awards. As she was on stage making a presentation, Trump tweeted, “I’m having a real hard time watching. Kim should sue her plastic surgeon.”

Ms. Novak was devastated. She retreated to her Oregon home and didn’t leave for months, having fallen into a self-described “tailspin.” When she finally did comment, she called Trump a bully. Many other people expressed their disgust at his comment and he eventually backtracked. Later, he expressed regret for sending the tweet. He said, “That was done in fun, but sometimes you do things in fun and they turn out to be hurtful.” At the same time, he stood by equally unkind comments he has made about other celebrities.

It saddens me that so many Americans are supporting a person who believes sending so public and so cruel a message is “fun.” Just because you may have a “fun” thought doesn’t mean you should send it out to millions of people who, themselves, may forward it further. Words can hurt. Kindness counts.

YOLK Fights Temptation

I have to make a confession here: Ever since I learned that cyberbullies are called “trolls” and subsequently read about Trump’s cruel tweet regarding Kim Novak, I have mentally photo-shopped Donald Trump’s head onto a troll-doll, such as the one at the beginning of this post. Now, when I picture Mr. Trump that is the image I see.

I was oh, so tempted to actually photo-shop the picture that is in my head and post that on today’s blog. There’s no question that it would have been fun, and it would even convey a timely message about bullying, but it would not have been kind. I would be engaging in exactly what I am decrying. Although I am often willing to overstep political correctness for a cheap laugh, I knew I wouldn’t feel good about doing something like this. If I believe we have a responsibility to use the internet and social media for good, I can’t justify sending out an unkind image—however adorable it may be. I leave it to my readers’ imaginations.

Another Segue—But It’s All Still Connected

I recently watched a very interesting TED talk featuring Monica Lewinsky—yes, that Monica Lewinsky. Nearly 20 years after she was involved in one of the biggest scandals in modern American history, she is now an articulate and poised woman in her early 40s. She spoke movingly about her extremely high-profile humiliation in the late 1990s, about the aftermath that nearly drove her to suicide, about her decade-long silence, and her subsequent decision to take a vocal stand against cyberbullying. Many things struck me in her very candid and thought-provoking talk—I encourage you to listen for yourself—and one was extremely simple: our clicks matter.

We can change the unkindness being spread online and through social media by not clicking on it. Not clicking when we see a venomous, cruel, or provocative headline, not clicking when we encounter negative articles and message boards. It’s that simple: we manifest what we give our attention to, and if our attention is on the cruel and the crude, it will foster more of the same. Likewise, we can foster a positive and healthy cyberspace by choosing kindness, making kind comments, and taking the time to encourage rather than berate. With every click, we make a choice.

Trusting the Kindness of Others

When I started planning and setting up this blog nearly a year ago, I read a couple of books and a number of articles about blogging. I also talked to a few experienced bloggers. Out of the many pieces of excellent advice I got, there was one I chose to ignore.

Everyone said to set up the blog so I could moderate comments before they went public, or at least moderate the first comment someone makes, then, if I approve their comment, that individual is “pre-approved” for future comments. The other option was viewed as dangerous: to allow any comments to appear without an opportunity to weed out the crackpots.

WordPress is a great platform and it gives the novice blogger plenty of guidance and plenty of options. During set-up, I clicked the button that allows comments to appear without any moderation. It seemed to me if I was going to commit to kindness, I needed to trust that any readers who might visit the blog and take the time to comment would have good intent. I haven’t regretted it. I will also admit, though, that I did think that if anyone posted a rude or malicious message, it would give me an opportunity to test my kindness resolve—could I be gracious and compassionate if attacked online?

Without exception, the comments readers have made have been thoughtful, wise, and also kind. They’ve inspired me to think, sometimes to laugh, and always to feel grateful for the time commenters have taken to share their thoughts. If there are any crackpots out there, I haven’t encountered them (okay, maybe my husband, but being a crackpot is one of his most endearing qualities).

Through this blog and the WordPress community, I have met countless interesting, funny, wise, generous, smart bloggers. There is so much positivity in this community and I am better for the connections I have made here. That’s why I’m so surprised when I hear about the cruelty and malice some people engage in—usually anonymously. I don’t understand it; perhaps I never will. But if enough of us click mindfully, and choose kindness, perhaps the unkind voices will someday be stilled.

That will news worth tweeting….

“How would your life be different if…you stopped making negative judgmental assumptions about people you encounter? Let today be the day…you look for the good in everyone you meet and respect their journey.” (Steve Maraboli)

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)

Hit the Road, Jack

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” (Dalai Lama)

Attribution: Donna CameronMany years ago I was driving home in heavy afternoon commute traffic. As I approached my exit and switched on my turn signal to change lanes, the car next to me in the lane I wanted to move into sped up, preventing me from moving into the exit lane. I slowed down to let him get ahead and he slowed down. I slowed down some more and he slowed down some more. I looked over at him and he was looking over at me—and laughing. I sped up, and—you guessed it—he sped up. This went on for a bit longer. He continued to laugh as he continued to block my ability to change lanes. As I passed my exit, he waved, and for the first and only time in my life, I made a rude—but expressive—hand gesture.

I fumed as I drove to the next exit and made my way back to the highway to return in the other direction. What a jerk! Why’d he pick me? Where’s a cop when you need one? I also thought about the hand gesture I had made. I assumed it would make me feel better, but it didn’t. By saluting him as I had, I sank nearly to his level. He got the reaction he wanted, and I acted in a way I considered crude.

I’m not going to say he wasn’t a jerk. He was a colossal jerk. I imagine this was a trick he’d performed before, probably only with women driving alone … certainly not burly guys driving 4X4 trucks with gun racks. What kind of a person does that, and, for heaven’s sake, why? But just because he was a jerk, there’s no reason why I needed to be one. If, indeed, making a lewd gesture had made me feel better, then okay, go for it—no harm, no foul—but the act diminished me. It did, however, teach me something important: even under great provocation, that’s not who I want to be.

I’ve often wondered if I had the experience to do over—and I’d rather not, thank you, to any Seattle drivers who may be reading this and know what color Subaru I drive—what would I like my response to have been?

Perhaps if I had smiled and waved he might have had a momentary panic that he was perpetrating this nasty trick on an acquaintance, a friend, or—worse yet—one of his mother’s friends. That might have given him just enough of a pause that he would have stopped being a jerk long enough for me to change lanes. Maybe if I’d blown him a kiss….

Kindness is always a choice, as is unkindness. Every time we choose how we will respond in an emotion-charged situation, we choose what sort of a person we are going to be. And the more times we choose, the more we reinforce who we are. Eventually, maybe, we get to a point where we no longer need to choose—we know who we are and who we have become—and we act out of that now-innate knowledge. If I ever get to that point, I hope I will have chosen kindness at every opportunity. That, I think, is a life well-lived.

“A good character is the best tombstone.  Those who loved you and were helped by you will remember you when forget-me-nots have withered.  Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.” (Charles H. Spurgeon)

Brace Yourself for an Epidemic of Bad Behavior

“Let us learn to live with kindness, to love everyone, even when they do not love us.” (Pope Francis)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Wallace Falls State Park, Aug. 2015

It’s going to be a long 14 months until our next presidential election. Many other countries have very different approaches to their elections:

  • In Canada, the minimum length for a campaign is 36 days, and the longest ever—in 1926—was 10.5 weeks;
  • In Australia, the campaign must be at least 33 days; the longest ever was 11 weeks in 1910;
  • In France, the official election campaign usually lasts no more than 2 weeks;
  • In Japan, campaigning is permitted for 12 days.

Sigh.

In our wisdom, we Americans draw out the process longer than the War of the Roses. And, to add to the fun, our candidates engage in incivility that would cause them to have their mouths rinsed out with soap, or at least an extended time-out, if they were really the 8-year-olds they act like.

But they are adult men and women, and for many of them, name-calling, lying and rudeness are standard operating procedures. And, sadly, their supporters cheer and egg them on, giving tacit approval for boorish behavior. Recent research indicates that this is likely to be the beginning of an epidemic of incivility.

According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Florida, rudeness is contagious. Really, it spreads like a cold or the flu—it’s passed from one person to the next until most everybody’s got it. Not only do people who are subject to rude treatment themselves subsequently behave rudely, even those who only witness rudeness succumb to rude behaviors.

The study, published in late June in The Journal of Applied Psychology, asserts that, “Just like the common cold, common negative behaviors can spread easily.” Lead researcher Trever Foulk further stated, “It’s very easy to catch. Just a single incident, even observing a single incident, can cause you to be more rude…. Rudeness is contagious, when I experience it, I become rude.”

We Tolerate Bad Behavior

“Part of the problem,” he adds, “is that we are generally tolerant of these behaviors, but they’re actually really harmful.” Where outright abuse and aggression are far more infrequent—and less readily accepted—rudeness is something people face daily, and its effects can be widely devastating.

“Rudeness is largely tolerated,” Foulk said. “We experience rudeness all the time in organizations because organizations allow it.”

Maybe our presidential candidates should come with a warning label: Caution: listening to this man could be hazardous to your humanity.

Perhaps most concerning: the study revealed that all of this happens at an unconscious level. “What we found in this study,” said Foulk, “is that the contagious effect is based on an automatic cognitive mechanism—automatic means it happens somewhere in the subconscious part of your brain, so you don’t know it’s happening and can’t do much to stop it.”

Does that mean that those people who abhor what Donald Trump says and stands for, but who watch him for his entertainment value only, are nonetheless “catching” his rudeness? Sounds like it to me….  Also sounds like my friend Kris is wise in declaring a news fast.

Responding to the study, Barbara Mitchell, human resources consultant, and author of The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook, says rude behavior can be stopped if it’s clear to all that such behavior will not be tolerated. “To me it starts from the top…. How does the leadership behave? What kind of culture do they want? And how do they live their own values within the organization?” She further notes that bad behavior must be addressed immediately. It must be made clear to everyone the moment it surfaces that rudeness will not be tolerated. While she is talking about workplace incivility, it stands to reason that the same factors exist at a broader, cultural level: How do our leaders behave? What values do they model? What are we—as members of that culture—willing to tolerate?

If being treated rudely, or even just witnessing rude treatment, causes people to behave more rudely themselves, over the next 14 months we are likely to see an escalation of discourtesy of unimagined proportion.

If we want to advance a kind and courteous culture, we need to take a stand. We need to politely say “no” when a politician speaks disrespectfully of an opponent, a celebrity, or a mere dissenter. Or when the media or political pundits engage in name-calling or deceit. We need say “that’s not acceptable” and turn our backs if they persist. That’s how the contagion is countered.

Fortunately, It Works Both Ways

The news isn’t all bad. There’s also been research that kindness can spread like a contagion, too. Scottish scientist David R. Hamilton, Ph.D., has done considerable research into the health benefits of kindness.  He asserts that just as colds and flu (and as we now know, rudeness) are contagious in a bad way, so is kindness in a good way. “When we’re kind,” Hamilton says, “we inspire others to be kind, and it actually creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards to our friends’ friends’ friends—to three degrees of separation.” As an example of that ripple effect, Dr. Hamilton cites the story of an anonymous individual who donated a kidney to a stranger. It triggered a ripple of family members donating their kidneys to others, the “domino effect” ultimately spanning the breadth of the U.S. and resulting in ten people receiving kidneys as a result of one anonymous donor.

Whether one extends kindness, receives kindness, or merely witnesses kindness, the result is the same: it acts as a catalyst for more kindness.

So, as cold and flu season approach, not to mention the malady known as campaign season, we can choose what sorts of bugs we will expose ourselves to. We can choose to breathe the air of reckless incivility or of well-mannered courtesy. If only there were a simple shot to protect us from election affliction….

More election comparisons: In Germany, political parties release just one 90-second television ad. In the U.K.’s last major election (2010), British political parties spent just about the same amount as the American presidential candidates spent on expenses related to raising money in 2012. Sigh.

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)