Kindness. Oh, what a wonderful word, one that holds unlimited possibilities and promises. A word that appears so simple, yet when examined is also incredibly complex and becomes even more so as its various nuances and permutations begin to surface.
Search for Kindness
To adequately delve into the subject of Kindness is a somewhat daunting proposition and certainly deserves far more than one blog to help both author and reader come to grips with its full meaning and the promise that kindness holds for ourselves and our planet. And coming to grips with Kindness – or its absence – is what we all need to do if we are even mildly interested in altering the incredibly precarious path we as individuals and as a body appear to have chosen.
So, over the course of the coming weeks, I’d like to open up the wonderful world of Kindness…what it is, what it is not, its mercurial nature, and how we can adopt it for ourselves, regardless of the circumstances at any particular moment. I invite you to join me in this search for Kindness.
Kindness has been formally defined as “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.” I would posit that this provides us with a somewhat shallow definition rather than one born out of deep, considered reflection. Consequently, this definition would not be incorrect, but simply inadequate.
With all due deference to our dictionaries, their definitions are consistently two-dimensional, and while they succinctly define what words mean, they do little to provide the full meaning or essence of things, and there is a difference. Rather than delivering a skeleton of a word, the full meaning gives it a more robust, three-dimensional sense. Meaning involves a greater investment on the part of the reader, one that energizes both cognitive functioning as well as stimulating the emotional parts of our brains and, thus, our hearts.
On any particular day, if you pause for a moment to look around and observe the behaviors of others and yourself, for that matter, it might appear that what they and you are doing reflects the dictionary definition of kindness, and yet it fails to fall into the kindness cubbyhole.
To clarify, setting up a kitchen and serving meals to the needy at Christmas certainly contains all of the pieces required to fit the basic Kindness definition of
…being friendly, generous, and considerate.
What’s missing and what is required to determine if it is, in fact, an act that is coming from Kindness, is the intention of the actor.
If the Christmas meal provides a tax write-off, it does not diminish its kindness quotient. However, if the write-off is no longer allowed and the Christmas meals are discontinued, this is a good indication they were not being provided as pure acts reflecting the robust essence of kindness but, rather, for personal gain. And there is nothing wrong or unkind about this. It just is not an example of being friendly, generous, and considerate. It is an example of doing friendly, generous, and considerate acts for some personal gain. Doing something and being some way are two very different things.
Don’t get me wrong. I think serving meals to the needy is a wonderful thing to do. And we as humans do many things that are kind, but they often do not stand up to the test: Is the act a function of being kind, or is there some gain to be had by the action separate and apart from simply being kind? Behaviors that appear kind are not necessarily a function of being kind. And only you know the motive, the reason, if there is one, behind your actions. Only you know if you are being kind.
Deciding to be Kind
Now, having said that, being kind for the sake of being kind is, in fact, being kind for a reason. The difference is that it does not take any sort of external doing to achieve. It is all a matter of deciding. I have to decide that I am going to be kind. I have to choose and commit to being kind. Once chosen, it is up to me to make certain that I hold my own feet to the fire to make good on my choice.
So, in order to have any kind of success at following through on our choice to be kind, we’ll need to raise our awareness level of, and be able to identify, what it is that drives us to do what we do. Are we coming from real kindness or the desire to appear kind? If we want to come from true kindness, we’ll need to bring the unconscious into our conscious awareness so that we respond to and initiate events and interactions out of kindness and concern for the other.
This is a tall order for those of us who have developed a repertoire of responses, a way of interacting with the world. It is our own, well honed, personal style that serves to first protect ourselves, and then, secondarily, attends to the fallout that might occur. We all do this, some less frequently than others. But no one can say, “Not I.”
It will require a commitment to monitor our thoughts and feelings on an ongoing basis to identify and understand the drive behind the things we might say and do in response to the various bumps encountered in our lives, moment by moment. Only then can we follow through on our commitment on anything more than a random basis. The “how do I do this?” part will be the subject of upcoming blogs. Just know that there is a “how to” that produces remarkable, demonstrative changes.
Learning to be Kind
For those who have done this necessary personal work, they soon learn that their choosing to be kind does not mean they have arrived and landed on the Kindness spot in life where there is no further need to be concerned about their motives. Quite the contrary. They learn that it is, in fact, a life in which they are continually faced with the choice of coming from kindness or not.
So, you might be thinking, “That’s a lot of distraction, a lot of work. Why not just be ‘natural’ and have my responses to persons and life events be made in the moment based on how I feel?” And if this is where you are, you are like most people. The problem is that we do not always feel friendly, generous, and considerate. Maybe some of us feel these things most of the time, but what about when we don’t?
During those times, if what we do is based on how we feel, we will go on automatic with our behavior being driven by a very primitive but powerful part of our brain…the Amygdala. It resides in the developmentally oldest part of the brain that serves as our guardian, while keeping a constant lookout for what it believes might be or is an actual ‘threat,’ something to defend against. When the amygdala senses something it considers to be a sign of danger, it acts accordingly and drives us into a defensive mode. At such times, if we are going to ‘just be natural’, the behaviors that follow will almost certainly not be those that reflect or foster kindness. Quite the opposite.
Get into an argument? Misplace something that causes you to run late for a meeting, and then you are caught in traffic that adds to the delay? Hear a scratching sound on your bedroom window at night that wakes you? Encounter a rude, dismissive person on the other end of the line when you are trying to get some vital information? In a conversation with your partner or someone you feel particularly close to, and they aren’t really listening?
We might feel entitled in these moments to respond in a less than kind way or withdraw into ourselves or any number of other defensive responses we have in our repertoire. In short, we are being stimulated by the amygdala with thoughts and behaviors that most likely would not fall into the Kindness category. We are on automatic, and thus, in that moment, we have abdicated control. These and countless other mini events that we might run into all serve as opportunities for the amygdala to jump in and come to the rescue.
If this were to occur infrequently, it might predict periodic difficulty. However, we are all hijacked by our amygdala to some degree a countless number of times each day. But, for the most part, we are not aware of that which we are not aware. We are basically re-actively unconscious.
Why Kindness Matters
Perhaps this sounds familiar and you are still thinking, “Who cares if sometimes I screw up if most of the time I’m a good guy and what I do looks and feels like kindness and benefits others. Really, who cares?”
First of all, there is a reason for you to care. You would be wise to care if you are the least bit concerned about maintaining the health and goodness of your important relationships, specifically with your significant other and children, if or when you have them. You would also be wise to care if you have concern at all about the direction things are heading generally in your partnerships, family, community, or your country and world.
You see, if you are unable to decipher the difference between being kind and doing kind, and you continue to careen down the doing track with your reptilian brain in charge, things will continue in the direction they are going.
Being Intentionally Kind
Some of you who have read this far may not see that as all bad. If, however, you are saying to yourself, “I would like to be able to take a little more control over how I am feeling and acting in my life and my relationships,” then as simple as it sounds, getting a handle on this Kindness thing will go a long way towards accomplishing that goal. Guaranteed.
We will be dedicating the next several blogs to this issue so that by the time we have finished, you will have a very clear picture of what being kind looks like, the possibilities it offers, and how to get there.
Until then, I have added a link below that I thoroughly enjoy. It will give you a sense of how a simple act coming from being kind can have a significant impact on both you and those you do not even know. It’s a good place to start.
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