A Mindful Kind of Kindness

Its bitty, beady eyes demand a serious response…

The sidewalk sheens with midnight rain that passed through; neighbors’ holiday lights, and our holiday lights, glow in the darkness. The air is warm and fresh.

I lace up my sneaks and go out, in the dark of very early morning, to get the newspaper. It is teetering on the tip of the step before the street.

The lights, the pierced darkness, the freshness breathing: all these remind me of the Christmas vigil we attended at the church of friends. I was standing in that service, soaking in haunting violin music, when a thought rolled in and opened up.

“This year,” the thought said, “you must work harder to be kind.”

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My much-missed friend Terri had a practice of choosing a word each year. She would try to live that word, to put it into action. So one year, for example, her word was ‘joy,’ and throughout that year, she sought joy in everything she did, and in everything that happened.

I love this idea, and so I adopted it, too. Sitting next to this computer is an oval rock Terri painted for me two years ago. “Transformation,” it says, and it came to me in the year of retirement.

This year, I’ll search out another flat, smooth stone and paint the word ‘kindness’ on it. And I’ll think of Terri as I do it. (Who knows? She may have sent that thought spinning toward me on Christmas Eve.)

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I keep seeing the quote from Jennifer Duke Lee’s blog (https://jenniferdukeslee.com/world-can-anything-kind/) that says, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” It is a lovely thought, and it is a blog worth reading.

And, I think, I really need to define for myself what being kind means.

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I start looking for a definition online, and the Oxford dictionary tells me that kindness is the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. It offers a long list of synonyms, and the ones that jump out to me are altruism and decency.

The definition does not say ‘sweetness.’ Nor does it say ‘honesty at all costs.’

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I know, and I bet you do, too, people who wield kindness like a crazy shillelagh. They swing kindness in a high arc over their sweet-faced heads, and they bring it down, crashing, onto our skulls.

They are so pleasant, so concerned, so awfully, terribly giving, that they get away with the unkindest things.

They are the brutally honest friends who tell us, for example, about the blatant infidelities of a partner long lost to the past…and they tell us in a time when our life is settled, when our relationship is healthy, when that painful time is long over.

Their words heave up the pain like deadly rocks in a psychic earthquake. They transport us back there, back to where we hurt, where we were vulnerable. We learn, maybe, that he did it with our BEST FRIEND at the time. The day he was taking us out to dinner to celebrate our anniversary, he came, freshly showered and shaved, from that woman’s arms.

The bitter juice of betrayal wells up again, even though that relationship has long been put to rest, even though he is someone we haven’t thought about in decades.

“Well,” our kind friend says gently, her face a smooth mask of compassion, “I just thought you ought to know.” And she pats our hand and walks away, leaving us to digest this new, unnecessary gall.

Or they critique our wardrobes; they comment on our new furniture, and pass judgment on the accomplishments of our children.

They tell us unflattering stories their parents told THEM about our parents, who are long dead, just, you know, in the interest of honesty.

And when they do something egregious, something hurtful or betraying that we may never learn about (they lose or break the perfect gift we spent months searching and saving for; they share the secret we abjured them never to tell; they go to our ex’s party and then lie to us about it) they feel compelled to call us and to let us know.

They transfer the burden. They wound and they walk away, healed themselves, and happy in their righteousness.

And they may be righteous, but they are not kind.

It is not always kindness to be honest to a fault.

And that kind of painful honesty’s a club, I realize, that I have sometimes raised myself.

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So there’s an essential decision in practicing kindness, I realize: do we share or do we shut up?

Shutting up is the right thing to do, I think, when the truth won’t change anything. What good does it do to rake up past infidelities, for instance (and do we really think the person doesn’t, on some clear and lucid level, know those bitter truths anyway)? Even current infidelities should be considered very, very deeply before sharing.

Maybe the deciding question should be this: Does telling benefit the person to whom we want to be kind?

Or—does telling just put points in our column, raise our own sense of self-esteem, clear us of a guilty burden we’d rather not bear?

Just because a thing is true does not mean it should be shared.

Sometimes kindness tells us to clamp our teeth together and stop the words from flowing.

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At other times, though, there are hard things that need to be said. I’m thinking, for instance, of gifted people who’ve been fired from places that I’ve worked.

Those people were hired because of their gifts; they continued to be employed because their gifts advanced the purposes of the organization. But there was something…something…that was off-kilter enough about their actions to make others pause.

Maybe, for instance, the gifted person always felt compelled to play devil’s advocate, to comment on the negatives in any proposed plan. She was, maybe, trying to be helpful, or maybe, she just had developed the bad habit of being the pointer-outer of potential catastrophes. Her words bothered people and discouraged people; they made people unwilling to meet with her.

Those people complained to her supervisor, but that boss just couldn’t figure out a way to address the issue without being confrontational. And so, they let it go on.

Or maybe the gifted employee said inappropriate things at company meetings, speaking up when criticism was not welcomed or called for. Someone, say, gives a presentation on an exciting new project, and our gifted one talks about another place she worked where THAT didn’t work. (This might, actually, be useful information, but it might also be best shared in a more private venue.) Or a recent gathering is discussed and our gifted one feels compelled to talk about how much better it would have been if Jo had remembered to plug the coffee in.

The assembled roll their eyes and grumble.

Again, someone approaches the supervisor, and again, the supervisor just can’t think how to best address this contentious behavior.

But then one day the bothersome behavior crosses the line. The negative reaction appears to be generated by an unacceptable bias, even though our gifted one is truly an equal opportunity pooh-pooher. Or the shared-in-a-group criticism falls firmly, heavily onto the shoulders of the boss, who is humiliated and angry.

And our gifted one is suddenly clutching a briefcase and her favorite picture, standing on the sidewalk peering through the blank, unfriendly windows of the place she used to work. She is wondering what just happened.

The unchecked behavior has finally reached catastrophe level. The kind thing would have been to have a conversation when the behavior was merely irksome.

And this, again, is something I have sometimes failed to do.

Some things are hard to talk about, but kindness tells us to talk about them anyway.

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It’s the difference, I think, between commenting to someone on a too-tight shirt or on a shirt that’s partially untucked.  The person wearing the tight apparel already knows, clearly, that the garb doesn’t fit. They’re probably feeling frustrated about a recent weight gain and hoping no one notices those gaping buttonholes.

And they’re stuck, for the time; they can’t run off and change. Pointing out the misfit will only make them feel even more awkward and uncomfortable. This is a time to shut right up.

But if the person’s shirt is partially untucked, a quiet word will save embarrassment, allowing them to quickly amend the situation, no one else the wiser. This is the time for me to speak.

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Then  there are the everyday acts of kindness—letting the harried young dad with the sobbing toddler jump ahead of us in the checkout line, for instance. And telling the staff at the post office how much we appreciate, on crowded, cranky days, their unfailing pleasantness. And holding the door, at that post office, for an elderly man so burdened with packages he can barely see through the peephole he’s made.

That kind of kindness should be hard-wired into me; when it’s not, I need to update my programing. I need to raise my eyes from the mucky mire of my own concerns and notice.

My son James, conscious of the need to be courteous and kind, and conscious that his autism does NOT make this second nature, works hard at this. He says thank you and you’re welcome, always; he tries to address people by name. He offers his place in line, he helps people carry heavy items, and he holds doors open.

One day, leaving the library, he saw a woman who was headed toward the door but still quite far away. So he stood and patiently held the door open for her.

She was a short, head-down kind of person, and when she finally got to the door, instead of thanking Jim, she glared at him and stomped off.

He was thrown by this, and we talked about it in the car. And what we settled on was this: when kindness requires a response, it becomes reciprocity and maybe is not so kind. So Jim’s standing there and holding the door made this woman, who was clearly frazzled and rushing anyway, rush even more, so HE would not be kept waiting. Instead of being kind, his courtesy became a burden.

Kindness should never be a quid pro quo. And it should never take away from one to give to the other.

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I am even considering my ‘organizational’ kindnesses…time spent in meetings and working for causes, the donation of goods, the contributions of money. If I do these only to promote my sense of how wonderful I am, they are not kind.

If I give my time outside the home and short-change my family, I am not being kind.

And if I leave myself with no time to read, to write, to ponder and to dream, I am being unkind to myself, generating internal resentment at the very acts that should be selfless and fulfilling.

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Being kind is not quite so simple as it at first appears.

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So now, I scoop up the newspaper and wheel back toward the house. The ceramic penguin on the steps glares at me, its bold, bitty eyes ablaze with yellow light. Its piercing gaze demands response.

“This year,” I think, “I must work harder to be kind.” And to do that, I know, I need to explore the boundaries wherein kindness lives.

The penguin seems, for now, satisfied, and its bold stare is a reminder of a promise made.