Kindness is an important quality in my life. The motto of the organization I work for is “Be Kind”, and while that is a wonderful sentiment, what does it actually mean?
When I arrived in South Dakota on my recent trip home the weather was a balmy 50 degrees as we left the airport. But overnight a storm system moved in and temperatures dipped below zero. Imagine my surprise the next morning to find that the President statues that decorate every street corner were all wearing hats and scarves. What in the world? After a little research I discovered that two women in Rapid City go out in the dead of night when cold weather looms and “dress” each statue in items they have crocheted and knitted. Homeless people or others in need are invited to take the items necessary to help stay warm. When you think about it..this is a remarkable act of kindness. These women spend their time and money to make useful items, and then present them in a way that allows the receiver to maintain his or her dignity.
Many of us find it fairly simple to be kind to animals. Dogs, birds, cats and other companions are remarkably honest in their interactions with us. It is easy to be kind when you know there are no hidden agendas. Animals, even predators, have a sense of innocence that is lacking in humans. No wolf every took a trophy to hang in his den after he killed his dinner. No bear ever devised deliberate methods of torturing his prey. And most importantly, no animal would ever stage a contest between other species that he could watch for entertainment.
Unfortunately,we have grown up knowing that humans have the capacity for dishonesty and cruelty, and we can become less than kind when dealing with those we don’t know and trust. Heck, we can be pretty darn mean to those we love, when you think about it.
What does it mean to be kind? And why is it so important? Every major religion has a take on the “Golden Rule”; to treat others as you would like them to treat you. Plato said “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”. It sounds so easy, but it is so difficult to actually accomplish.
Psychological studies show us that we often find it easier and more convenient to be uncaring, rude or unkind, although we rarely admit that to ourselves. If you ask, almost everyone will tell you that they value the characteristic of kindness, and would like to be seen as a kind person. However, every single one of us has the capacity for cruelty. Often, the things we see in others that make us behave the worst, are things that we dislike most about ourselves. If we do not see ourselves as particularly trustworthy, that is the characteristic we are going to project on to everyone we meet. In a twisted kind of way, it works to make us feel better about ourselves.
Kindness doesn’t just happen. You have to make a conscious effort to develop a capacity for kindness. There is an experiment that is often mentioned on-line: make a personal and concerted effort to do something kind every single day for a month. This process can become life-changing. The mere act of looking for ways to be nicer can actually start to change our mental outlook. We start to concentrate more on the positive and less on the negative. It is hard to have an ugly conversation about a person behind their back, when you know you are supposed to be practicing to be a kinder, gentler version of yourself. Kindness, with a little determination, can become a lifelong habit.
So what are the characteristics of a kind person? Just identifying the following traits can set us on a path to becoming more positive with everyone we meet:
- Be friendly. That doesn’t mean that you have to befriend every person in your world. But it does mean that you at least acknowledge they exist. Smile and say hello to people you encounter. A smile is a warm and wonderful thing.
- Be willing to share. Learn to take joy in other’s pleasure in the things you share with them.
- Practice compassion. Everyone has their own demons and crosses to bear. One time I heard a motivational speaker talk about a time when he was driving, and a car passed him at a high rate of speed. It instantly angered him, and he allowed it to color his whole attitude, swearing and calling the other driver an idiot. Until he saw the speeding car whip into the emergency entrance of a hospital. None of us knows what another person is dealing with.
- Assign positive intent to people’s actions. Instead of thinking that someone is doing something just to irritate you, allow yourself to believe that they wouldn’t do that unless it was somehow necessary for them.
- Take interest in and actually listen to other people. Don’t spend the entire time thinking about what you are going to say when it’s your turn. Actually tune in and hear what they are saying.
- Suspend judgement. This is a tough one. It is almost instinctual for us to hear something and instantly decide if it’s right or wrong, good or bad. It will take an effort to battle this tendency, but it is one of the kindest things you can do.
- Be polite. Simple courtesy helps ease all social interactions.
- Don’t be selectively kind. It isn’t really kindness when you pick and choose who you want to be nice to.
- Don’t try and use kindness to get what you want. That isn’t being kind, it’s manipulation.
- And most importantly, be kind to yourself. Take care of yourself. Stop the negative self-talk that can color your entire outlook. Treat yourself as you would like others to treat you!
Right about now, some of you reading this are thinking “why should I bother? What’s in it for me? Why should I care when so many others are anything but kind to me?”. That’s the most amazing thing about kindness. By practicing loving behavior towards others, it improves our own lives in important ways. First, your life will be happier when you begin to concentrate on the positive. Anger loses it’s grip on your life and emotions. Secondly, you will actually be physically healthier. Positive emotions lower blood pressure and other stress related illnesses. A win/win all the way around.
I will leave you with this final thought: the Indian term Namaste translates to “my soul acknowledges your soul” or “the divine in me recognizes the divine in you”. By extending kindness towards another, you are opening up an opportunity for them to be kinder as well.