Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Day 6: Random Acts of Kindness

I'd like to start this post of with a small complaint about the word "random" in the title phrase. I'm confident that it's there to imply a certain amount of serendipity and whimsy to the idea of practicing kindness, which is important (not everything needs to be serious, and that includes kindness). However, I wonder that it often gets misinterpreted to mean that an act of kindness can be spontaneous, and that such a spur-of-the-moment act is somehow better or more fashionable than one that is carefully thought out. Perhaps I'm nitpicking here, but I'd like to hold at the center of this post the idea that kindness is not simply something that happens spontaneously. It comes as a result of learning and conscious practice.

The practice of kindness is a state of mind. Like other states of mind, it can be developed in a variety of ways. One such way is no more complicated than thinking about it and what it looks like. What do I consider kindness to be? What about other people? What does it look like to them? How does kindness, friendliness, goodwill occur in my world? The more we spend time thinking about these things, the more aware we become of the concept.

One of the things you'll come to notice about the state of mind that is kindness is that it varies according to the context of the object of it. We find it easy, for example, to think about kindness when we put it in the context of people we love. We find it much harder to think about it if the context of our kindness involves that which we despise or fear. This is why kindness has to be cultivated. In order for it to have lasting value to us individually, we have to practice cultivating kindness beyond simply the context of things we find easy.

That's not to say that we don't start there. In fact, it's where the process of thinking about kindness probably should begin. A Buddhist might say to cultivate love first in the most fertile soil. Over time, the scope of this thinking grows. You can start to think about kindness toward strangers (those about whom you are neutral). Over more time, you can start to think about kindness toward everyone.

The manifestation of kindness can be developed with the same pattern. Start your expressions of kindness with those closest to you. Just remember that kindness can't occur in a vacuum. It's not about you or your definition of what is kind, but that of the object of your intention. I love giving hugs to my children and telling them I love them! NiNi sucks this up with a sponge. SiSi, on the other hand, is at an age and of a personality where this a not straightforward affair. For her (and especially in public) a hug and a big "I love you!" get a decidedly negative reception. The work of kindness is often in the search for what fits the person to whom we wish to show kindness. For SiSi, a high five or a subtle wiggle of the eyebrows accomplishes all the good of a private hug.

This brings me to the real truth about kindness that I'm learning right now: Kindness, and the expression of it, is not really about the kindness, it's about the understanding of people. I've learned how to be kind to my children in some ways. It's taken 11 years, and I don't get it right all the time. I've learned how to show kindness to my wife. It's taken more than 18 years, and I don't get it right all the time. I've learned how to show kindness to my students. I've been teaching high school for 15 years, and I haven't succeeded with all my students, or all the time even with those I understand well enough to come close. I get better every time I try, but not strictly because I try a lot. Sure, you have to try a lot to get better at something, but what's going on in all that trying is that, every time I try, I get closer to understanding.

The prompt of the day asked me to write about what random acts of kindness I've performed. Instead, I'm going to share with you the acts of understanding I'm practicing to make my acts of kindness the most effective they can be.

I'm learning to listen. Most people who know me accept that I talk a lot. It's nice, I suppose, if you're listening and I'm telling a story, but it tends to get in the way when I'm trying to really understand who someone is and how they feel.

I'm learning to take a minute. Genetically, I think I must be predisposed to a career in law or political advocacy. I'm not afraid to express my opinions or defend a cause or idea I feel has value. Yet, when I take the time to sit and get past my initial need to respond, I find I understand on a much deeper level the best intent of people and a wisdom (however different or conflicting it may be to my own) in their point of view.

I'm learning to ask, not state. Asking questions opens doors to sharing that making statements often closes. For some people, it is important to stand up for things. For me, the work is in the opposite direction.

I'm learning to accept that Rome was not built in a day. The practice of cultivating a habit of kindness takes time. You can't do it once and be done with it, and neither does it do much good to work on such a habit too far beyond where you're at developmentally (you don't throw a kid into the middle of the ocean to teach them how to swim). I'm where I am, and I'm working to move forward from there.  Every step forward brings me closer to where I want to be--kind to all.

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