I have been the recipient of thousands of acts of kindness during my life. I think most people could say the same thing if they reflected on this statement. Now, traversing my later and ultimately last years, the acts of kindness seem more frequent, though it could be I am simply paying attention: the travel agent who graciously encourages me to board the plane early, the dentist who after asking me a question actually listens to my answer and lets it influence him, the college student who holds the front door open for me with a grin and hello.
All these small acts of kindness sprinkle through our lives. And more often than not, we barely let them register, may not even think of them as acts of kindness, do not reflect upon them or feel joy and encouragement from them. In contrast, a gesture from another person that we view as unkind can garner not only our attention but also our obsession. The actions of others we experience and describe as rude, crude, vicious or cruel can hold us captive for a life time. When someone asks “How was your day?” we are more likely to describe the unkind event than the quiet small act of kindness.
We collectively point to our limbic system, lament the “lizard brain” and its propensity for focusing on danger and evoking defensive behavior. As is of course obvious, we have limbic system responses, however we are not without choice: we can see that response and imagine our neocortex might be useful in the experience, offer some clarifying information and options. We actually have a “human brain” with more options than your average lizard. We can actually make the choice to pay attention to the kind acts rather than obsessing about the unkind acts.
A brief moment of reflection is useful to help in making this distinction. The reality is that there is very little I can “do” about unkind acts directed at me, or perhaps more accurately, things I would be willing to “do”. Here the list is kind of interesting: ridicule, counter attack, defamation of character, revenge…there are many more options but none look all that lovely. So often most of us do nothing. We may stew and fret, but nothing changes from this and we burn precious psychic energy achieving nothing.
So why not just abandon the whole enterprise: If someone is unkind to me, and I register that fact, the next step could be to simply let go of my responses immediately so I don’t waste any life energy on a dead-end side road that will not take me to my preferred destination. “Unkind” is not life threatening. I have options about how I process the experience and how I respond. I have found humor helps me with this “letting go” when I so deeply want to “hang on”. Watching yourself throw a silent inner tantrum can be fairly funny if you view the show with an open mind.
Conversely, if I successfully let go, I can then opt to pay attention to acts of kindness. This actually is also fairly entertaining, since the variance and creativity are impressive and sometimes amusing. A Lyft driver, invited to help me learn more about my new community, provided 20 uninterrupted minutes of detailed information. Her enthusiasm for her place of birth was contagious. And I find that noticing the act of kindness is itself a contribution to my personal joy and well-being. Returning the gesture can become a life challenge, something to imagine and create and act upon. She appreciated my gratitude and my assessment of her capacity for comprehensiveness.
We humans can create a way of being from all this. An example may help here. I have a policy when soliciting help from others, particularly the challenge of all manner of “help lines”, where the website says “Contact Us” and you then discover this means that you will first have to experience a range of digitized processes. If you hang in there though, you may actually get to talk to a person, a breakthrough of sorts. Once I have connected with this person and explained my “need for help”, I perceive myself as creating a relationship. As we sort through my concerns, I pay attention. If this person manifests kindness, I make sure that before I end the conversation, I tell them that I noticed how thoughtful they were, that I needed that kindness and that I am grateful for it.
I am always a bit sobered at how persons react to this message. Most are obviously emotionally reactive, first surprised, then expressively grateful, then eager to assure me that they are willing to help me even more. It is almost as if they are accustomed to their kindness being ignored, even invisible. To increase their comfort with my feedback, I sometimes joke with them that if they had been unkind, we both know they would have heard about it, so why not hear about it when they are kind. Then we laugh.
This is a little kindness ceremony that I engage in both on the phone and in person with others, usually people I do not really “know”. It has taught me a great deal about kindness. There is the obvious first lesson: you can focus on kindness rather than unkindness if you decide to do so. The discipline and deliberateness of this focus is a personal decision: anyone can make it. Knowing you can make the decision to focus on kindness, and then not make that decision is itself a decision.
The second lesson leaves me reflective: people who make the choice to be kind are often surprised that someone even noticed. We seem to have hoped for a lot of kindness but then fail to applaud the kind person. We have a few high-profile practices as a nation; however, the small and quiet kindnesses simply go unheeded.
Like most humans, I am distressed by the large and disabling events on our planet, our wars, natural disasters, cruelty and violence against one another, climate destruction, moral vacuousness, despair and cynicism. There are not many practices that can serve as antidote. I watch for ones that help. For me, a watchfulness about kindness is a balancing practice, a decision to ensure that my awareness attends to options where I have self-agency.
Here, tucked in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I share a reflection that posits mindfulness always can find light, and can always increase that light. One way is to be kind; another is gratitude for the kindness of others.
“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.”
- Amelia Earhart -
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