Kindness Withheld is Kindness Lost Forever

“It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.” (Moliere)

Attribution: Donna CameronLast week, I had the pleasure of speaking at a conference about kindness in business—its benefits to the workplace, to the bottom-line, and to both business owners and employees. It was a receptive group and we had a lot of fun (well, at least I did!). Afterward, a number of people came up to me to share their stories of kindness—kindnesses extended, kindnesses received, and kindnesses witnessed. There were stories of roadside assistance, found wallets, Starbucks’ gift cards, and neighborly sharing.

I was struck once again by a notion that is both obvious and subtle: Most acts of kindness are easy to do, but they’re also just as easy not to do.

It’s easy to dismiss the idea as either gobbledygook or a statement of the glaringly obvious, but to my simple brain, it’s also somewhat profound.

Nobody’s ever going to know or notice if you don’t stop to assist someone whose car is stuck in the snow. Or if you don’t offer to help someone who’s struggling to carry a heavy load. Or if you don’t stop to chat with the homeless guy and hand him a couple of bucks. Nobody’s likely to comment on its absence if you don’t smile, or if you don’t speak some words of appreciation to the waiter or the cashier. What we don’t do is lost forever and the potential it held to begin never-ending ripples of kindness is lost to the world. Who knows where those ripples might have reached and what difference they might have made?

I wonder if that’s why some people pooh-pooh kindness as feeble and inconsequential. How could anything as simple as smiling, holding a door, or offering a compliment make any difference in a world where countries are on the brink of war, where city streets could erupt in violence at any moment, and where inequality and mistrust divide us every which way?

I am reminded of the many times in my life when I was buoyed by a kind word or inspired to be a better me after witnessing the kindness of others. I can also recall times when I held back—afraid of how my words might be received, or reluctant to draw attention to myself. The ease of not doing or not saying offered me a safe haven…but at what cost?

Even this post, describing the simplicity of kindness and the allure of inertia, offers a similar choice. No one would ever know if I hit delete, fearful that the inanity of the obvious will be received with a roll of the eyes or a sigh of impatience. But, if I put it out there, maybe one person (maybe me!) will choose to extend a kindness they might otherwise have allowed to slip away. And who knows where that could lead?

Only one way to find out….

“If you want to be a rebel, be kind.” (Pancho Ramos Stierle)

 

 

Hello In There, Hello…

“The saddest thing about old age is our idea of it.” (Marty Rubin)

attribution: Donna CameronOne of the common insights expressed by elderly people is that with age comes invisibility. In a Psychology Today blog post, psychiatrist Tamara McClintock Greenberg noted that many of her elderly patients describe feeling invisible as they shop or stroll or ride a bus. Once aware of that impression, she began to notice it herself: “And then it happened to me. I realized that when I walk down the street, younger people simply don’t see me.” She explains it thus:We live in a youth-fixated culture where people are afraid to age and to be vulnerable to growing older; where ideals about attractiveness are oriented around those with young, healthy bodies.”

How sad that people who have worked, and struggled, and contributed all their lives often fade from view, perceived—if at all—as insignificant and irrelevant. Still very much alive, they disappear like phantoms, forgotten and alone.

Hello In There” was a beautiful song from John Prine’s first album in 1971 (this YouTube version is accompanied by fantastic photos). It piercingly describes the loneliness of old age. I was touched by it when I first heard it in my teens; today, its powerful refrain strikes much closer to home:

You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”

If a kindness movement is going to take root and grow, it must encompass everyone, including our oldest and most invisible citizens. That means changing many prevailing attitudes toward aging and the aged.

Recently, I’ve come across stories that have illustrated the loneliness many elderly people experience, and kindnesses extended to them:

  • Officers in Manchester, England, responded to a call for help from Doris Thomson, assuming that either she or her 95-year-old husband, Fred, had fallen or injured themselves. What they found, though, was that Doris and Fred “were simply lonely and wanted to share a chat and, perhaps a cup of tea with someone.” The responding officers recognized the more subtle facets of their job as protectors of the public; they brewed a pot of tea and sat down to chat with the elderly couple. The two officers later faced some criticism for “wasting time,” but they stood by their decision to provide comfort during a time of need. Fortunately, their act of kindness was perceived by many to have been an appropriate and splendid deed.
  • Earlier this month, police in Rome responded to a report of crying coming from an apartment to find an elderly couple who had been “driven to tears through a combination of loneliness and viewing upsetting news reports on TV.” The four responding officers offered companionship—as well as a warm meal. They visited with 84-year-old Jole and her 94-year-old husband, Michele, as they cooked up a meal of pasta for the couple.
  • In another story from England earlier this month, an elderly woman who had fallen while running a bath tried to call her daughter for help, but misdialed and instead reached a BMW dealership a few miles from her home. When the manager realized what had happened he had his receptionist stay on the phone with the woman while he drove over to help her. He found her front-door unlocked and entered to find her on the floor, with blood on her face, and her tub overflowing. He helped her to a sofa and covered her with a blanket, then waited with her until her family arrived to care for her.
  • And in Hartford, Connecticut, 911 dispatcher Katherine Grady was at the end of her shift when she took a call from an 86-year-old woman, Francis Royer. Francis is disabled and has a heart condition and just wanted to know if there was someone who could help her take her garbage out the next day, as it had been two weeks since she had been able to roll her garbage barrels to the end of her driveway. Grady promised Ms. Royer that she would come over to help the next day, which happened to be her day off. She not only came to take out the garbage, but she stayed to visit and to help dispose of some heavy items and newspapers from Royer’s basement.

The responses to these cries for help are moving and encouraging, but what concerns me most is that very few elderly people who need help will ask for it. They’re proud, they’re afraid, and very often they simply have no one to call. They continue in their isolation, hoping for a knock on the door, a call from a friend or family member, even a smile from a stranger—someone to say to them, “Hello in there, hello.” But they remain invisible.

We can’t turn away from people because they move more slowly, or perhaps no longer hear as well as they once did. Nor can we discount them even if they’re sometimes—or always—confused or frail. Growing old is a condition we cannot ignore or avoid. Sure, we all want to be as healthy and able as possible in our final years, but for some of us that will not be possible, and we need to honor every person for the sum and complexity of who they are and the life they lived.

What goes around comes around. If we teach our children that old people don’t matter, if we condone the invisibility our society confers on the aged, we invite that same experience for ourselves when our time comes, and for our children when it’s their turn. And, most importantly, we discount the value of every life.

Maybe it’s fear that causes us to look away, perhaps discomfort, or obliviousness, but we owe it to our elders to treat them with respect and kindness. For those of us who choose to live a life of kindness, extending kindness to our oldest and frailest companions on this journey is a privilege. There is much we can learn from the oldest members of our society. Let’s appreciate all they have to teach us and give them the respect they deserve.

“When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel)

 

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 Courage: Part 2 of an Interview with Sandra Ford Walston

“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” (Mark Twain)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Wallace Falls, August 2015

Last week I posted Part 1 of my interview with Sandra Ford Walston, who is internationally known as The Courage Expert. Sandra is an author, speaker, human potential consultant, and courage coach. In this year of living kindly I’ve seen countless times that a life of kindness often requires courage. There are times when kind actions make us vulnerable, or when our kindness is rejected or even ridiculed. Sometimes kindness means standing up to a bully or acting contrary to what is expected of us. Sometimes it means speaking up, and sometimes remaining silent. Courage is required if we are to overcome all of those risks and extend the kindness that comes from our most authentic self.

If you missed last week’s introduction to Sandra Ford Walston and her work on courage, you can read it here. Now, we pick up where we left off…

YOLK: It’s clear from your work that it takes courage to live with intentionality every day, or to say or do something that may be counter to prevailing attitudes or behaviors. It takes courage to live authentically and be willing to put yourself out there. How can one claim their courage or perhaps reinforce it?

SFW: I don’t think you can ever have too much courage—and I don’t mean being foolhardy. I know when my reservoir is low. Most people will change when the pain of staying in the old pattern is greater than the pain of change. But, why go through so much suffering? There is choice: you can choose to build and draw from a reservoir of courage. This supports you to stand up for the self you know to be you. The choice is yours and it starts with whether you will choose to give yourself permission to claim your individual courage, and to be conscious about your spirit’s dignity and true essence. This is not found in Business 101! You know when you’ve stayed on a job far too long because it’s bleeding your heart, not feeding your spirit. When you choose to design new choices you limit the residual of regret. The more you exercise your courage, the more courage you will have.

YOLK: Could you talk a bit about vulnerability? I’ve seen that true kindness often requires us to reveal our most vulnerable self. You’ve expressed a similar connection between vulnerability and courage.

SFW: Self-awareness offers us opportunities for an honest assessment of our vulnerabilities. We discover that vulnerability comes in many forms, such as acknowledging our unhappiness, learning to move on through calamitous events, and learning not to deny or manipulate failures or mistakes. The more intense the circumstances, the more risky it seems to admit our vulnerabilities—especially in the context of work—but trying to manipulate these circumstances serves only the ego’s need to feel in control and generally backfires. Few people have the courage to reveal vulnerability, acknowledge it and overcome it.

Revealing vulnerability demonstrates maturity in the development of your true self and demonstrates great courage. It takes enormous courage to forego manipulation.

YOLK: What are some of the ways we can move through our vulnerability and claim our courage?

SFW: With self-awareness, we begin to notice our personal forms of manipulation—from bullying, to indifference, to passive aggressive behaviors. Facing a decisive moment provides an opportunity to reveal vulnerability. Do you confess your shortcomings and missteps? For example, if you lack knowledge about a topic, do you respond in a deceptive manner that keeps your ego intact? The honest response would be to reveal your vulnerability by admitting that you do not know the answer. Confessing is good for the spirit when done in a timely manner and with positive intent. The process helps us face the truth. We take responsibility for our lives and our actions.

Revealing vulnerability allows our best lights to shine. Where our ego mentality insists that vulnerability is a sign of weakness and must be hidden, the deeper truth is that revealing our vulnerability represents integrity and conveys our true identity. The alternative—hiding our mistakes and weaknesses and pretending to be what we are not—can only be accomplished through manipulation, which undermines our integrity, breeds distrust and stifles our true “heart and spirit” identity. As poet e.e. cummings wrote, “It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.”

In summary, vulnerability supports self-realization, underscoring a human being’s essence—the true Self. Far from being a bad thing, vulnerability leads us to our most authentic self.

YOLK: I know you’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the years in your research about courage. Has kindness emerged for you as a courage issue?

SFW: Indirectly…. I often use a phrase that reveals a higher integral level of courage consciousness: “where courage meets grace.” I would say that this intersection of courage and grace requires an inbred kindness. I also detect kindness in courage advocacy, such as speaking up on someone’s behalf or, or saying kind words about someone to set the tone for receptivity. Kindness shows up when you’re “a word en-courager.” A word en-courager boosts people rather than busts people. If you think of a list of virtues such as compassion, grace, tolerance or humility, I feel they all fall under courage, since it means “heart and spirit” or coming from your true Self. Hence, if I am centered in my courage I will naturally display kindness.

YOLK: You’ve also written about the epidemic of incivility and discourtesy in modern society. About how the manners that were instilled in so many of us—by our parents and our teachers—seem to be disappearing. Why do you think that is, and do you see any role for courage in bringing back civility?

SFW: Courage and civility are essential to foster good citizenship. It often seems that common courtesy and simple manners have gone the way of one-speed bicycles and black-and-white TVs. Regaining those niceties could do a lot toward redefining the workplace environment as a place of willing and generous productivity. Those of us who were raised with manners have gotten lazy. In our laziness, we’ve raised a second generation of individuals who are simply and often sincerely ignorant of such values as respect for others, kindness, generosity, and common decency, such as holding the door open for the person following you. These are not dated, “old fogey” concepts. They take virtually no additional time or energy, and their returns are great.

Broadening this issue, we find ourselves at the heart of moral courage which I define as an attitude of willingness to choose differently in spite of personal hardship or prevailing attitudes. It requires a higher level of integrity than required for the easy alternative. Moral courage is like a compass. If we stay on-course, we will get to our desired destination. But if we are even one degree off-course, we will eventually find ourselves far from where we wanted to be.

YOLK: What would you say to someone who would like to increase their capacity for courage, or claim the courage that often gets stuck inside? Or to a parent who wants to help their child grow up confident in their courage?

SFW: Some of the things we’ve talked about already, such as being mindful and courage-centered, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Make use of the Source Wheel; place it somewhere prominent where you can see it and be reminded of the energies and actions of courage.

I also encourage people to support their courage with some form of meditation. Meditation is the protective shelter from the ego’s storms. It helps us to become more centered and more able to recognize when and how to claim our courage.

To a parent I’d say start using the word courage with your kids. Talk about what courage means and let them talk about and claim their courage. We need to help our kids grow up comfortable in their courage and able to see it in others. My nine-year-old niece and I talk about courage. She was just telling me how it takes courage to speak up and to refuse to engage in saying unkind things about other girls. She’s going to be a courageous woman.

YOLK: Any last words for us?

SFW: In my coaching I often ask my clients two questions. I’ll pose them here:

  1. Are you willing to give yourself permission to claim your courage? This is something that only you can do for yourself.
  2. What action would you do right now if you had unlimited courage?

YOLK: Those are great questions, and ones we can ask ourselves over and over. Sandra Ford Walston, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your courage expertise with us. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” (Anaïs Nin)

Kindness and Vulnerability

“A gift is like a seed; it is not an impressive thing. It is what can grow from the seed that is impressive. If we wait until our seed becomes a tree before we offer it, we will wait and wait, and the seed will die from lack of planting…. The miracle is not just the gift; the miracle is in the offering, for if we do not offer, who will?” (Wayne Muller)

Attribution: Donna CameronPeriodically, the universe sends me a message. It’s not some disembodied James Earl Jones voice, or a bolt of lightning that rattles my foundation; more often than not, it’s a barely perceptible tap on my shoulder that says, “Pay attention here.”

I was at a conference last week where I happened to overhear two people talking about vulnerability and about Brené Brown’s TED talk on the subject. Then, last night, I was reading an article in a writer’s magazine that spoke of the writer’s need to be vulnerable, and also referred to Brené Brown’s TED talk. I felt that tap on my shoulder and heard that inner whisper, “Pay attention.”

The wonderful and sometimes dreadful thing about modern life is that we can easily and instantly access almost anything. Within seconds and a few keystrokes on Google, I was watching Dr. Brown’s 2010 talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.”

Wow! If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth your time, I promise you. This delightful and insightful talk explored a trait that whole-hearted people share: vulnerability. It described the willingness we must have to “allow ourselves to be seen,” with all our imperfections, in order to fully embrace our lives.

I can’t do justice to her words. You want to hear them first-hand. Really.

Whether we’re committing to love, or art, or business, or kindness, we must have the courage to do it whole-heartedly, with full awareness that there will always be those who find us lacking. In a way, knowing that frees us—if we can just embrace our vulnerability—for if we stop trying to please everyone, we can focus on being who we were meant to be. And isn’t that all life is asking of us?

Of course, this talk about vulnerability got me to thinking about kindness, and the connection between kindness and vulnerability. I’ve talked before about the difference between being kind and being nice. I don’t think “nice” requires us to be vulnerable. I can be nice without risk, and without exposing too much of myself. I can be nice without making a connection, or without really caring whether or not you benefit from the encounter. Nice, while often pleasant, doesn’t require sincerity or commitment.

To me, “kind” is very different. Kind means connecting; it means being conscious and intentional about the impact my words or actions may have; it means expending energy and effort and caring about the outcome. It also means suspending judgments and accepting people as they are. Kind can be messy and may take me to places where I am awkward, clumsy, and tongue-tied. Kindness requires me to take a risk. Kindness requires me to be vulnerable.

Since starting this year of living kindly, I have tried to make a conscious effort to do things kindly that I once may have done nicely. Outwardly, there’s probably not a lot of difference. In the past, if I chose to give a dollar or two to someone who asked me for money, I would do so quickly, and hurry on, sometimes wondering if the person was really in need, or if they were just lazy and saw me as an easy mark. Now, I try to pause and exchange a few words, make eye-contact, and wish them well. In most cases—though not all—I feel a connection between me and the person I am engaged with. For a brief time, we are both vulnerable, and it feels good. I don’t worry about whether their need is genuine or whether I am being a schmuck; I just hope in some way I am helping.

There is even a vulnerability to writing about kindness and to inviting people to read my periodic musings. Am I saying too much about myself? Too little? Am I pontificating (God, I hope not!)? Has it all been said before and said better? Am I missing the point entirely?

If I allow myself to be vulnerable, the answer is it doesn’t matter. As Brené Brown eloquently explains, connection is why we’re all here, sharing this planet, and it’s what gives meaning and purpose to our lives. To make that deep connection, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. That means having the courage to be imperfect, to expose our flaws, and the willingness to be vulnerable.

Living our most authentic life, whatever that means to each of us—for me it’s choosing kindness—requires that we let go of our shield and lower our guard, and that we embrace our flaws and our vulnerability. It’s scary, but, oh, the rewards of living an authentic life are beyond measure!

“Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.” (Jean Vanier)

[Before I close, I want to encourage you to watch Brené Brown’s TED talk. I promise it’s worth 20 minutes of your life—maybe it’s even a message from the universe to you.]