As I write this post, I have just experienced a perfect example of the difference kindness can make.
Recently, a friend took me Salsa dancing. And while I have taken a couple classes in the past, it has been ten years since I practiced, especially in any kind of public setting. Personality-wise, I am prone to overthinking. I like to plan multiple steps ahead, to avoid being caught unawares or making mistakes. As such, a dance floor is an intimidating place: one where (as a follower) I am asked not to plan, not to strategize, not to interperet nor analyze… but to simply be in the moment, follow the leader, and allow my body to freely move with the music. (Yeah, right…)
The dance lesson itself went pretty well. Choreographed dancing is not usually too difficult for me (there’s a plan to follow!); it’s once we get to the improvisation that I tend to panic. When the lesson ended and a steady stream of dance partners came, I could feel my body betraying me… nerves were rising as the dancers attempted to whip me around in flashy moves and combinations, and I kept botching the directions, footwork, and spins. Passed from one dancer to another before I could get off the floor for a break, there was a period where the tension was building, and I was getting sloppier and sloppier, out of nervousness. During that stretch, many of the leads said to me, “relax,” “feel the music,” or “go with the flow.” Readers, let me tell you — I am good at exactly none of these things.
So, it was a breath of fresh air when one of the leads (and there were a handful, throughout the night), would take a moment to start with the basics and see how that went. Then, he would slowly add a simple spin. Maybe try that one a couple times, to build my confidence, and then telegraph a new spin was coming. The amazing thing to me is that these dancers, too, were quite skilled when I saw them with more seasoned partners. At the very heart of it, they were putting aside their egos to truly engage in the best dance that could be had at my skill level, rather than force me to try to perform at their level. They could have blown everyone away with their fancy moves. They could have tried to shove me into moves I couldn’t do, and then rolled their eyes at my ineptness, looked over my shoulder, and “checked out” for the rest of the dance (as many leads actually did). But rather than insist on showing off their own skills, these few dancers “dumbed down” to my level, with the result that we moved seamlessly and enjoyably to the music, and I rarely gaffed, stepped on their toes, or lost my footwork. They stayed engaged with me the whole time, maintaining eye contact and a pleasant expression… even if that few minutes of dancing was, stylistically speaking, beneath them. The kindness they showed me made all the difference in calming my nerves and making the experience a pleasant one.
But even more interesting to me than the impact of their kindness on my nerves was that these few — who were willing to truly have a conversation through our dance, at my beginner level — were able to successfully twist and throw me around in much more exciting combinations, once we had found our rhythm. And even as I was whirling around unexpectedly, I had a sense of calm, and a feeling of bliss at moving easily, in sync with their movements, which was the opposite of the panic I had felt trying to keep up with other dancers. That simple gift of giving me time to acclimate, rather than forcing me to ascend to their level (or “fail”), made all the difference, not only in the pleasantness of the time we shared, but also in the level of skill we were able to display.
I get a kick out of the fact that this evening happened just after I finished reading The Power of Kindness, by Piero Ferrucci, and that the difference between these two groups of dancers — put simply: kindness — became so obvious.
It also makes me wonder… in how many areas of life are we the “expert”, acting impatiently with the newbie? And beyond, perhaps, the obvious result of making their experience more difficult, how often are we shooting our own experience in the foot? I’m sure many of those I danced with that night would have preferred the smooth grace I was able to achieve with those who showed me kindness (instead of the tromped upon feet they ended up getting). And all it really takes is mindfulness… taking a moment to notice where someone truly is… and then a simple reigning in of the ego — allowing one’s self to shine slightly less than we could possibly do — to help someone else relax and flourish.
As with The Obstacle is The Way, I will break down this post into the main sections from The Power of Kindness, to summarize and address each method discussed therein, with my own thoughts and interpretation added. Here we go! 🙂
The Power of Kindness
We are, in essence, programmed for honesty. When we lie, our brains have to go through a series of complex operations, and our bodies react with measurable stress (“sweating, heart rate, muscle tension, and blood pressure increase” (P13)).
But sometimes telling the truth can be awkward, and if we are trying not to harm others, should we tell them uncomfortable truths? Ferrucci argues “yes”:
“To act honestly – even at the risk of saying the unpleasant truth, or of saying no and causing distress to others – if done with intelligence and tact, is the kindest thing to do, because it respects our own integrity and acknowledges in others the capacity to be competent and mature.” (P16)
Being willing to tell someone a difficult truth is putting a vote of confidence in their ability to handle that reality. It also gives them the necessary information to become their best selves.
This is one of the easiest, and yet most oft overlooked factors of kindness. The difference between a tight-lipped smile and a wide grin that crinkles the eyes… between distractedly nodding while your partner shares about their day, and making direct and engaged eye contact while they speak. Not just our words themselves matter, but the intention and tone behind them. Receiving our loved ones with warmth is an easy kindness we can suffuse into everyday interactions.
Ferrucci also includes touch in this concept of warmth:
“Ashley Montagu, in his classic book, Touching, has demonstrated how touching boosts the health of all mammals – animals, children, adults. Another classic study, conducted in forty-nine cultures by neurophysiologist James W. Prescott, shows that in societies where physical affection is lavished on infants, invidious displays of wealth, incidence of theft, killing and torturing of enemies are all low. In societies where infant physical affection is low, instead slavery is present, the status of women is inferior, and the gods are depicted as aggressive. Prescott sees warmth during infancy, and openness to bodily pleasure, as the best and easiest ways to transform our psychobiology if violence into one of peace.“ (P27, emphasis mine)
I am lucky enough to have received warm affection throughout my childhood, but I know not everyone had that advantage. Ferrucci points out, however, that Prescott also sees “openness to bodily pleasure” as a method for healing. When one is open to giving and receiving bodily pleasure in its many forms, it is easier to pass on the warmth and kindness to others.
As a last thought in this category, this quote completely bowled me over:
“Ten thousand Israeli men were asked, among other questions about their health, habits, and circumstances, “Does your wife show you love?” A negative answer to this question was the best predictor for angina pectoris.“ (P27, emphasis mine)
We all have more power over the health and well-being of our loved ones than we realize.
“We cannot be kind while we carry the weight of our resentments. Nor while we remain too rigid to ask forgiveness. Nor if our emotions are colored by guilt or vindictiveness. We can be kind only if the past no longer dominates us.” (P38)
Ferrucci gives one of the best explanations of how to find forgiveness (for the really tough stuff) that I have ever heard. He argues that, in all of us, no matter how damaged we are by the events of life and actions of others, there is a whole, unpolluted core, which is protected from the corruptions of suffering, anger, and bitterness. He encourages us to reconnect with that vital part of our being, buried within us, in whatever way works for us individually. For some, it may be mediation, prayer, or kind acts of service. For others, physical exercise or artistic expression. Whatever the method, the goal is to nourish that part of ourselves where the beauty still lives, unaltered. As we strengthen that central self, forgiveness will be a natural byproduct, instead of something we struggle to achieve from a still-broken place.
“Thus, if we find in ourselves the place where we feel happy and whole, forgiveness is already a fact. … It is not something we do, but something we are.” (P40)
Initiate and maitain contact. It is vital to health, and an easy kindness to give to others.
SENSE OF BELONGING
Attempt to see the “other” (anyone you do not naturally feel drawn to, or anyone from an opposing group/school of thought/etc) as part of a larger family of humanity.
In Buddhist traditions, one is encouraged to imagine this person (which perhaps you do not like) as having been your loving, caring mother in a previous life. Imagine the sacrifices they may have made for you. Can you then find compassion for them?
The more we acknowledge that we are all part of the human race, the greater the sense of belonging we will feel, and the easier kindness becomes.
When we don’t approach the world around us with trust, our alarm systems are always activated, which is detrimental to both ourselves and others. Of course, most of us have had enough experiences of having our trust violated to leave us hesitant about giving trust, even to those who have demonstrated their trustworthiness.
The reality is, we can never have guarantees that our trust won’t be broken, but we can give the people we love the kindness of putting our faith in them anyway.
“The gift of trust us a statement about our relationship. It empowers the other person and expands his or her possibilities.” (P65)
“If we are in the present, we truly see the person in front of us – otherwise he or she is just an idea. In fact, being in the present is the only way we can enter into relation with another. To be in the present with someone else is a gift. The gift of attention is perhaps the most precious and envied of all, even though we do not always realize it. To be there. To be totally available. This is what we secretly hope other people will do for us, and we know it will give us healing relief, space, energy.” (P77, emphasis mine)
This, to me, may be the ultimate kindnesses… especially in a world as distracted as ours.
As Ferrucci says, attention is a gift… to give someone the entirety of your attention – despite the incoming notifications on your smart phone; despite that thing you just remembered, mid-conversation, that you’ve been meaning to google; despite the tv screens playing the game (or whatever) behind your dinner partner’s back in a restaurant…. you get the idea. I think we have all experienced the frustration of staring at our (supposed) conversation partner’s face, while they stare at their phone. But how often have we forced this frustration and unkindness upon others?
Ferrucci’s words also reminded me how important it is to think of “paying attention” more deeply. It’s not just the absence of an external distraction (e.g. “not looking at your phone”). It’s also…
- not getting distracted from their words by planning what you want to say next,
- not letting your mind wander to that stress or worry that keeps nagging at you,
- making sure you’re listening to really hear what they’re saying,
- tuning into their body language so you can respond appropriately to their feelings,
- appreciating and enjoying the time you have with that person, as you’re having it.
Ferrucci put it best:
“Attention is the medium through which kindness can flow. No attention, no kindness. And also, no warmth, no intimacy, no relationship.” (P80, emphasis mine)
“Some time ago while driving, I abruptly stopped the car to let a child, who had suddenly run out, cross the street. The driver behind me bumped into my car. As we got out of the cars and approached one another, I saw he was on the warpath. Even though he had not uttered a single word, I could feel he was in emergency mode. Yet, there was no damage to either car. So, I spoke first. I could have said, “I am right.” It was true but useless, if not harmful. Instead I said, “I was going quite fast and stopped suddenly. You did not expect that. Sorry. Are you okay?” Immediately, the man changed. Every line on his face moved imperceptibly. In a fraction of a second, his defenses dropped. Yes, he was okay. I saw surprise in his eyes: His opponent was interested in how he felt. Then I saw a relief: No need to fight. Finally, he simply shook my hand and left. What could have become an argument full of rage and fury was resolved in a few seconds.” (P84)
When someone expresses their pain or frustration to you, first try to identify with it. They do not need answers, explanations, or even solutions as much as they need your empathy.
Ferrucci points out that while we all would acknowledge the fact that “other people exist in this world,” oftentimes, we do not act in accordance with this fact. Acting in light of that understanding might include choosing not to:
- take up two parking spaces for a single car
- smoke in a location that affects people who want to avoid the smoke
- cut in line, or otherwise cheat to get ourselves ahead of others
- take an item off a shelf in a grocery store, and put it back on a different shelf
It is, in essence, having the humility to realize that we are not the center of the universe, and that many of our actions do have an effect on others. If we want to be kind, we want to minimize the negative fallout of our actions, and perhaps even take steps in the daily mundanities of life to ease the way of others. This could look like:
- pausing a moment to hold a door open for the person behind you
- letting the shopper with only a handful of items skip ahead of you and your cart full of groceries at the checkout line
- smiling at the tired mom trying to reign in her temper-tantrum toddler, rather than glaring at them
- letting another car merge in front of you
Be mindful of other people’s rhythms. Ferrucci points out that we feel a sense of violation when someone imposes on us a rhythm that is not ours. Whether that rhythm is faster/slower or steadier/wilder than ours, there is a sense of offense at being forced to alter our own, personal pace. As such, we can do a kindness to others by trying to adjust our rhythm to theirs, and meet them in the middle.
Understand that our haste comes from our fear of death. If we can learn to be okay with ourselves in the moment and satisfied with our existence, we will be able to find patience for others, and thus treat them more kindly.
Meditate to experience other perceptions of time. Meditation can help us slow a harried pace, learn to sit with discomfort, and understand the flexibility of time.
Generosity is more than giving of financial resources. Be generous with your time, resources, trust, and possessions.
Do it for the altruism of it, but know that generous givers also receive a self esteem boost for themselves.
Gift your attention to others. Channel energy into their being, and take efforts to validate their existence.
See the potential in people. Acknowledge that potential as if it were reality, to give them permission to inherit that reality.
“Various studies have demonstrated the Pygmalion phenomenon – if I change my perception of you, you will change. The students who are seen by the teacher as the most intelligent become the most intelligent. The employees who are seen by their bosses as the most competent and efficient become the most competent and efficient. Our perception is like a ray of light falling on a plant – it makes it more visible, nourishes it, stimulates its growth. Think of how many talents and qualities in everyone that are not fully manifest because they are not seen.“ (P128, emphasis mine)
Really listen. See what you can fully understand what the other person is saying, and learn from them, without trying to compose your next speech.
I’ll admit that I initially thought this was kind of an odd category. What does flexibility have to do with kindness? As it turns out, quite a bit.
Being flexible gives people the freedom to be themselves. When people change, surprise us, or become/do something unexpected, we can hold firm to what we wanted or expected from them, or we can trust that they have good reasons and justification for their choices. In doing so, we validate their authority over, and competency in, their own life.
“The ideal is a world in which older children and their parents reciprocally give permission to one another to dye their hair, attach any ring to any part of their body they want, follow their sexual preferences, dress as they desire, spend their money as they deem best, choose whatever chemical substance they wish to introduce into their organisms (well, with a few exceptions), change their personalities, and suddenly depart for distant and mysterious lands. To give the people we love the freedom to be what they want to be. To give them the space to experiment, make mistakes, be creative, fail or succeed. To allow them to discover their thousand faces without freezing them in the immutable mold of our beliefs. Without protecting, preaching, pushing, or pulling accordingly to what we believe is best. What a great way to relate. Would you not want others to trust you and treat you this way?” (P143)
Be flexible also in the sense of yielding – using your own flexibility to give others grace. This can be expressed in yeilding an unimportant, ego-driven argument, or a place in line when driving. It can be forgoing, on a particular evening, your dinner or movie preferences for those of someone you love, or ceasing to carry out minor punishments for another’s past offense.
Ferrucci asks us to remember all those who were part of our story.
Be true to your commitments to people, even when it’s disadvantageous to you. Stand by those you choose, even on days when they are grumpy or boring.
“In these relationships, what counts most is not extracting from another a tangible benefit, but the peculiarly good feeling that comes from giving presence, support, and friendship over time to a person, whatever may happen and even against one’s own advantage. It is right to do so. This capacity to last even in difficult and uncomfortable moments is an essential ingredient of kindness. It is called loyalty.” (P161)
“According to some psychologists, depression is caused not by what happens to us but by what we tell ourselves day after day – our own inner monologue. If we continually criticize ourselves and others, find only what is wrong, and feel sorry for ourselves, we will surely be unhappy.” (P175)
If we are unhappy with ourselves and discontent with our lives, it can certainly be more challenging to find kindness in ourselves to give to others. But finding contentedness in our lives isn’t an easy task, and the directions society gives for this task are often misleading.
Chasing happiness through the acquisition of possessions or achievements of positions will ultimately leave us feeling empty and wishing for more. Wanting what we don’t have is an endless cycle. Even if we were given each new thing we yearned for, we would acclimate and yearn for more, growing again dissatisfied. (See: What is Hedonic Adaptation and How Can it Turn You Into a Sucka?)
Instead, if we learn to value what we already have, we become content with our lives and can more easily share that happiness with others. As an added bonus, as we grow our gratitude, we also become more successful, as explained in my favorite TED talk of all time:
Learning to appreciate and express gratitude will help us directly in our relationships, by teaching us to appreciate the people in our lives for who and what they are (rather than who we’d like them to be or what we want them to do). We will naturally focus more often on all the reasons our loved ones are special and worthy of our love, rather than dwelling on their day to day foibles or flaws. And in this appreciation of all that they are, we are more likely to treat them with kindness, naturally.
Bestowing kindness on others through acts of service is fairly self-explanatory. But Ferrucci also reminds and encourages us to do these acts for their own sake, without hope of any recognition or praise. When we remind people of the good we have done for them, we put an after-the-fact price on the act. We exact a toll.
“It is like making love passionately, then finding out that it was a professional performance and here is the bill. A spontaneous gift has become an item in a budget: Its original beauty has suddenly vanished.” (P188)
Recognize that every day holds the opportunity for acts of service, small and large, and never remind others of what we have done for them.
“… true kindness is given happily. You cannot be kind unless you are at least a little cheerful. Yet many people do not think this way. On the contrary, joy is often considered as almost a form of egoism or shallowness.” (P200)
When someone is kind to you, it is (of course) far more meaningful when the kindness is bestowed with warmth and joy from the giver. So how do we find joy? Ferrucci mentions that there are two primary potential paths to joy: hedonism (pleasure) and meaning. He argues for the latter. When your life has meaning, you will be buoyed through the darker times, and filled with light that you can bestow upon others.
“Ultimately, it is all very simple. There is no choice between being kind to others and being kind to ourselves. It is the same thing.” (P124)
Seek out the experiences, work, and relationships that make you feel alive and give you a sense of fulfillment and purpose. That joy will radiate into both your casual interactions and long-term relationships. With that sense of purpose, and conscious effort in the above categories, we can become kinder to those around us.
While I have tried to do this book justice in summary, there is so much more expressed in Ferrucci’s words and examples. Check out The Power of Kindness for the full experience. 🙂
Non Fiction Bingo 2018 Progress
Ferrucci’s advice brings us to a total of three completed #nonficbingo2018 books:
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