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Remembering Kindness

I think that when things feel crazy in the world, we often resort to our most primitive responses. If I feel stressed, my body almost immediately becomes tense and my dukes go up. I do everything I can to keep the chaos away. It’s hard to relax and go with the flow; it’s almost impossible to just slow down and stay in the moment. Whether it’s a reaction to politics, the result of too much to do in too short a time, or the trigger of some long-held fear about losing control, my first response comes so quickly I barely have time to figure out what’s really going on. Later I can see the way that fear and anxiety might have caused me to be defensive and curt, but in the moment, it’s pure self-protection.

This morning I was thinking about this and about how many of us feel threatened right now by forces that seem bigger than we are. This sense of powerlessness heightens the tension that’s already bubbling over. It would be a mistake to oversimplify what we can do to manage our apprehensions, but we shouldn’t discount the power of small gestures. With this in mind, I am reminding myself today of what no doubt feels like the most basic concept—being kind.

Simply stopping for a moment to consider the kindness option could slow me down enough to remember rationality.

A woman I worked with for many years died recently and I have been thinking of her so often in these weeks since. She was the secretary of a large college division, faced every day with stressed students and faculty, each requiring her undivided attention. I know that her every response was probably not perfect, but I never saw her be less than kind to anyone. And in the face of that kindness, I imagine that each of those agitated people felt at least a touch of compassion, the reach of a hand, the warmth of her smile. No matter how urgent my mission was, how important I had determined my task was, or how worked up I had become about it, Mary Terese’s humanity always softened me, even if I didn’t want it to at first. This doesn’t mean she never got angry or anxious herself, but her kindness to all of us was always present.

It isn’t easy being kind when we feel threatened, bullied, manipulated, or out of control. Bad behavior rarely begets generosity and empathy. And yet, I am fully aware that when I open the gate to the arena of sniping, passive aggressiveness, and defensiveness, I’m doomed. It brings out the worst in me. I suddenly feel as if I’m in fourth grade, almost surprised when I don’t say, “That’s you, but what am I?”

I’m not simplistic enough to believe that I can will myself to be kind at all times. I also know that some situations call for a strength that being kind could perceivably dilute. It’s difficult to be emotionally responsible adults when we’re dealing with people who are not. But simply reminding myself that kindness is an option in practically every setting could probably go a long way toward calming things down and bringing us to a place in which we could communicate more productively.

Most of us grew up with a mom or dad who reminded us that “if we can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” In my family that only led to a lot of silent pouting, but there is still some truth to the concept. I’m thinking that when I feel that the top of my head is about to explode, simply stopping for a moment to consider the kindness option could slow me down enough to remember rationality.

Human beings and our sophisticated machinations are a little like 5-year-olds in the pilot seats of 747s. We don’t have quite enough command over our emotions to actually be trusted with all of what we have to do. But we do have love and compassion and kindness in there somewhere. I’m working on finding mine a little more quickly and more often, and I’m banking on that to bring me to a much more civilized place when I need it to.

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