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.]

The Jerk Shall Inherit the Earth?

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies, God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” (Kurt Vonnegut)

Bandalier,NM-ladderWellcrap.  I’ve spent the last fifteen years reckoning the importance of kindness in my life, and the last five months deeply immersed in an exploration of kindness.  And I have become convinced that despite local, national, and world current events to the contrary, people are growing kinder; we are on the verge of a kindness Renaissance.

Turns out I was wrong.

At least that’s one interpretation from an article that appeared in the June issue of Atlantic magazine.  Entitled “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk,” author Jerry Useem asserts that—consistent with the old adage—nice guys generally do finish last.  He further claims that some of the most successful people in business are also some of the biggest jerks—think Steve Jobs—and that their jerkiness is exactly what led to their success.

Useem does caution that being a jerk can also backfire and lead to abject failure, but bad behavior done right in certain circumstances is often the path to the top.

For example, stealing supplies or provisions just to benefit oneself doesn’t advance you in the eyes of colleagues, but stealing and sharing the bounty with others puts you at the head of the team.

And someone who aggressively claims to have the answers, even when they don’t, is seen as a leader and often elevated to the leadership position.  Further, it seems that the more unaware one is of how unfounded and even deluded one’s self-confidence is, the more swift and direct is the narcissist’s propulsion to the top.  UC Berkeley Research Psychologist Cameron Anderson explained, “By all indications, when these people say they believe they’re in the 95th percentile when they’re actually in the 30th percentile, they fully believe it.” And somehow they make others believe it, too.

I think this explains so much about our political system, or “jerkocracy,” as I am moved to call it. It would seem that some politicians think they’re a lot smarter than they really are and we’ve bought into their delusion.  Okay, I know that’s a totally unkind thing to say, but really—do a quick run-down of presidential contenders—doesn’t it explain a lot?

Another distressing example in the article showed that people who are treated rudely and condescended to by salespeople in upscale brand stores (e.g. Hermes, Gucci, Louis Vuitton) tend to spend more money than they do when treated well by another salesperson in the same store.  There were some qualifications to this: the shoppers needed to value the brand, the salesperson must convey the image of the brand, and such tactics by the salesperson generally only work once with the same buyer (of course, if you’re selling Rolexes, one sale is probably sufficient).  It also completely backfired if it wasn’t a truly upscale store, i.e., don’t try this if you work at Kohl’s or Target.

Givers and Takers

If anything’s clear from the article, it’s that the whole subject is murky.  Useem cites research by Wharton professor Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our SuccessGrant depicts “givers,” those whom we would generally describe as kind and generous, and “takers,” who are often labeled narcissists and jerks, noting that both givers and takers occupy the top—and the bottom—of the success spectrum.

The conclusion seems to be that you can be successful if you are kind and a giver as long as you are perceived as strong and are consistent in your behavior.  And you can be successful if you are an overconfident, narcissistic jerk as long as you are convincing and seen as someone whose success will have a spillover effect on those around him.  For both giver and taker, if you don’t convey your understanding of and ability to bring others along on your success journey, you can expect to make a nose-dive to the bottom.

So, it appears we have a choice if we want to be successful: we can be kind or we can be jerks—we just have to do either effectively.  While I have undoubtedly been a jerk at one time or another, I hope those episodes have been rare.  I choose kindness.  Being a jerk to achieve success would be soul-crushing.

Perhaps the choice between the kindness route and the jerk route depends upon how you define success.  I’ve never viewed it as either wealth or power.  Increasingly, I do define success as spreading kindness and helping others.  As long as power, intimidation, and obscene wealth constitute success for some, it looks like jerks will continue to lead.

So, the Atlantic article is discouraging.  There does not appear to be a straight path to a kinder and more respectful world.  Jerks are still reaping the rewards of their bad behavior.  There’s still a long way to go to reach the kindness tipping point.

Nobody ever claimed it would be easy.  But, we’re in this together and each time we choose kindness we move that much closer.

“Our lives are made of these moments.  Simple words and actions, taken together, weave a single day, and our days become our life.  Every gesture is a seed, and the seed determines the harvest.” (Wayne Muller)

Enough IS Enough! Kindness and Abundance

“True kindness is rooted in a deep sense of abundance, out of which flows a sense that even as I give, it is being given back to me.” (Wayne Muller)

TulipsThe world offers us two perspectives on abundance.

It’s easier to be kind when we have that sense of abundance that Wayne Muller talks about above.  If we are always worrying that there is never enough, or that if I share my bounty with you, there will not be enough for me, it will be hard to extend kindness.

Have you ever felt resentment or envy toward someone who experienced good fortune or great success?  Maybe you found yourself rationalizing it (“Well, sure, with his family connections, getting that job was easy”), or minimizing it (“What’s the big deal? So she got a MacArthur Genius Grant—they’re a-dime-a-dozen”).  Or maybe you noticed the grinding of your molars as you congratulated someone for their success.

Thoughts like that are focused on scarcity: if she gets a lot, there will be less for me.

Pie, Anyone?

Attribution: By jeffreyw (Mmm...Blueberry Pie!  Uploaded by Fæ) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsCultural anthropologist Jennifer James often speaks about the concept of the limited or unlimited pie.  If we view our world as a limited pie, our slice is smaller if someone else gets a big piece.  But if we can see the pie as unlimited—expanding endlessly from the center—then we have no reason to feel threatened or diminished by someone else’s success or prosperity: there’s plenty for everyone and the size of mine isn’t impacted by the size of yours.

Rarely does someone else’s abundance mean a dearth for us.  It doesn’t work that way.  Success and good fortune—like sunshine—are not rationed.  There’s an ample supply for everybody.  In fact, the more we all recognize the plenty surrounding us, the more there is for everyone, because—through kindness and our own contentment—we start helping others to experience abundance.  And we share what we have because, after all, there’s plenty.  And, like a boomerang or an eager puppy, it bounds right back to us.

This doesn’t mean that kind people never experience envy and pettiness.  They’re as susceptible as the rest of us, but perhaps more able to acknowledge and move beyond those feelings quickly.

For the rest of us, on those days when we wake up feeling less than, it is easy to lose sight of what really matters.  That’s when a sense of abundance needs to be summoned.  Maybe we feel less than attractive, or less than smart, or less than capable, or less than secure. Or maybe we are aware that we don’t have the wealth or resources that others do.  Focusing on what we don’t have—whether real or imagined—only ignites a downward spiral.

As trite as it may be, it’s the old “glass half-full or half-empty” conundrum.  We create our own reality by how we look at the world.  If we view it through the lens of “not enough,” that is what we train ourselves to look for and we are never satisfied.  If we view it through the lens of abundance, then how easy it is to be satisfied, and to see that there is enough to share.

Without a sense of abundance, we can neither give nor receive.  We hold our own possessions too tightly, and we have neither the open eyes nor the open hands to see and receive all that the world is offering us.

A Different View of Abundance…

To believe we have enough, we must first believe we are enough.  We are surrounded, though, by messages that tell us we are not.  These are messages of a different kind of abundance: the copious consumption and assiduous acquisition that are so prevalent in Western society.

Even if we’re lucky enough to have family and friends who see us as whole and perfect just as we are, the media bombards us with messages that we’re not.  Magazines show us the fashions we’re lacking, or the youthful skin that we’ve lost.  Television shows us—both through advertising and Hollywood’s relatively narrow view of beauty—that we’re far from adequate: some bits are too small and some are too big, some are too curly and some are too straight, but, good news, there’s a product to fix all our faults.  Ads about weight, skin, and hair plague us online, and continually remind us that there’s a wonder drug or serum just waiting to solve our problems.

We are subtly and not so subtly taught to believe in our own inadequacy: we are not enough, something is missing.  And the solution is always out there—something that will fix us or make us whole.  If we just buy the right stuff, acquire the missing magic ingredient….  If we allow it, it becomes an endless quest for more.

The view of abundance we see from the lens of kindness tells us we have what we need to live a life of joy and meaning and service, and we are fine just as we are.  The commoditizing view of abundance whispers to us that we aren’t enough and need to acquire more to be adequate.  We hear them both … which voice resonates more deeply with you?

“He who sows sparingly will reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will reap bountifully.” (St. Paul)

The Fundamental Things Apply … As Time Goes By

“We become what we love.  Whatever you are giving your time and attention to, day after day, is the kind of person you will eventually become.” (Wayne Muller)

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

By User:S Sepp  via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

It takes time to be kind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Fear Gets in the Way of Kindness

“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)

Attrib: Donna CameronThere are many barriers to extending kindness, and fear may be one of the biggest.  Fear is also frequently the cause of people acting unkindly.  In an earlier post, I described an ah-ha I had when dealing with a disgruntled conference attendee a while back (does this mean that the other conference participants were “gruntled”?): much of her unpleasant behavior was the result of her fears in the face of a new and intimidating experience. When I see unkindness—my own or others—I can often trace it to fear: fear of judgment, fear of rejection, fear of not being enough, fear of being vulnerable, fear of looking foolish.  It’s true not just with unkindness, but also with that netherworld between kindness and unkindness—indifference. There’s an old proverb that “pride goeth before a fall.”  As with so many old proverbs, this one holds a ring of truth.  Fear and pride do often go hand-in-glove.  Most of the things we fear are threats to our pride, to the image we have of how good, strong, smart, capable, and lovable we are.  When these are shaken, we either strike out or strike back. Sometimes, if we are able to see someone’s unkindness toward us as an expression of their own fear, it is easier to forgive and respond to them with kindness, rather than retaliating and escalating the encounter. Just as fear can often be the impetus for our acting unkindly, it can just as easily be a barrier to our extending kindness.  Sometimes the thought of putting myself out there or taking the risk to do something kind can be enough to stifle the impulse. Two Key Questions I’ve often heard that when dealing with my fears I should ask, “What is the worst that could happen?”  Then, assuming “worst” is not a fiery death or a lengthy prison term, further evaluate whether I could handle “worst.”  In the case of extending a kindness, what’s the worst that could happen?

  • I might be embarrassed. I could deal with that—it won’t be the first time.
  • I might be rejected. I can get over that, I always have.
  • I might do it badly (whatever it is). Well, that’s how we learn—very few of us get it right the first time. But if we never try….
  • I might be judged as foolish or stupid, or weak. Well, so who does judgment reflect on, really? The judger, not me.
  • I might be put in a vulnerable position. Well, life is a pretty vulnerable condition, might as well accept that.

I think it’s a useful exercise to ask “what’s the worst that could happen?”  But I also think that’s only half the question.  The other half—the more important half—is “what’s the best that could happen?”  Let’s look at our potential action from that perspective: What’s the best that could happen if I extend a kindness?

  • I might help someone feel good or make it through a tough day.
  • I might grow closer to an old friend or make a new one.
  • My words or actions might be just what someone else needs to extend a kindness themselves.
  • I might be appreciated.
  • I might be judged as loving, compassionate, or wise.
  • I might become more confident in my own values and actions.
  • I might overcome a fear and be the better person that I want to be.
  • I might change the world.

This last one might sound a bit grand, but, truly, we have no idea where or how our kindnesses reverberate.  The small kindness I extend to one person might cause them to extend a kindness they might otherwise not have acted upon.  And then that person might … you get the picture. We’ve all heard the stories of someone suffering the depths of despair whose potential act of self-destruction was suspended by a seemingly small act—a kind note, or word, or gesture from someone.  What if we approached every encounter with a sense of the sacredness of our words and actions, and of the potential each of us carries to change the world for the better? I think looking at the best that could happen is a great way to overcome the fear that keeps us from being kind to others … and perhaps also to ourselves.  Also, if we’re focused on best, rather than worst, then our eyes are on the prize—we’re thinking about what we want to happen, not what we don’t want.  The world and our own unconscious inner resources will conspire to make it happen. It requires a change in our perspective and our paradigms.  It may not be easy, but it’s worth it.  After, all, what’s the worst that could happen … and what’s the best?

“Each smallest act of kindness reverberates across great distances and spans of time—affecting lives unknown to the one whose generous spirit was the source of this good echo, because kindness is passed on and grows each time it’s passed, until a simple courtesy becomes an act of selfless courage, years later and far away.” (Dean Koontz)