“To err on the side of kindness is seldom an error.” (Liz Armbruster)
In the spring of 1991, my mother decided it was time to die. Eight years of thrice-weekly kidney dialysis had taken its toll. Her frailty was compounded by more than a half-century of cigarette smoking and alcohol excess. The final straw was her doctor’s warning that she could no longer live alone. He advised a care facility or moving in with one of her daughters.
Neither option was palatable. Despite being a card-carrying member of the demographic, she frequently said that she couldn’t stand old people. And just as frequently, she vowed never to be a burden to her children. With memories of our somewhat bewildering childhood, we didn’t argue the point. She refused any further dialysis.
“Unkind people imagine themselves to be inflicting pain on someone equally unkind.” (Marcel Proust)
Recently, I was honored that Elephant Journal published an article I had written about countering the epidemic of incivility in our political discourse. A key point was that politicians and pundits are not going to change unless we stop fueling them. It’s up to us (remember that quaint notion of “we, the people”?) to repair what’s broken and restore civility. We do that by making it clear that we will not tolerate bad behavior.
Because the article included a link to my website, I’ve received a few very thoughtful comments and questions. One particularly struck me. A woman named Sophia asked me how, when we see someone behaving rudely or unkindly, can we confront them without coming across ourselves as condescending or ugly?
This is such an important question and it’s why—even understanding the benefits and importance of kindness—we sometimes still struggle to be kind.
“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.… Find what’s wrong; don’t ignore it; don’t look the other way. Make it a point to look at it and say to yourself: ‘What can I do to make a difference?’ That’s how you’re going to make my child’s death worthwhile. I’d rather have my child but, by golly, if I got to give her up, then we’re going to make it count.” (Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, killed in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017)
On this one-year anniversary of the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, we need to pause and consider where we are, how we got here, and where we want to be—as individuals and as a country. And we need to commit—or recommit—to being activists in whatever ways we can—whether that means marching, running for office, writing letters, writing checks, or even just living our own values fiercely and consistently.
“When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.” (Jimi Hendrix)
Recently, I was interviewed for an article about my soon-to-be published book, A Year of Living Kindly (yes, it appears I am something of a one-trick pony). One question the interviewer asked me was what I think the biggest misconception is about kindness.
That’s an easy one: the biggest misconception about kindness is that it is weak, that it is soft, bland, and insubstantial. That kind people are pushovers, ineffective, and easily manipulated. That kindness itself is feeble and puny in the face of power or authority.
“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” (Elie Wiesel)
Following my last post on civility, I had some great conversations with friends—both via the comments section of the blog and in actual face-to-face conversations (yes, we still occasionally have those—and they’re remarkably energizing!). Some of the conversations have centered around specific instances of incivility:
What do you do when it’s your boss who says…?
I don’t know how to respond when I see someone do….
My father-in-law says things like….
I thought of just the right thing to say while I was driving home….
I’ve talked before about theoretical kindness and practical kindness, and how understanding kindness and even having kind intentions doesn’t always translate to kind actions. Stuff gets in the way. And one of the biggest barriers is our own uncertainty, clumsiness, and hesitation. It’s not that we don’t want to step in or speak out, but we want to do it right. And acting in ways that are constructive may take deliberation. There are plenty of people who speak without considering the effect their words may have. I don’t want to add to that cacophony unless my words are beneficial and healing.