On Kindness

I try not to bang on about things of a philosophical nature, since I don’t consider myself especially philosophical, or even particularly thoughtful. I mean, I *think* about a lot of things, but for the most part, these things are tangible things that I can do something about. There is one area, though, where I think philosophy and action sort of collide, and that’s in the area of human interaction, the way we deal with each other. (Plus, I’ve been turning this over for a long time, like years, so I guess it’s finally time to put these thoughts down on paper. Um, “paper.”)

Specifically, I am considering how to be kind.

This gets batted around a lot: “Be kind to one another,” “be kind to yourself,” people say to each other, in passing, in conversation, but I’m not sure they are getting to the root of the issue, which is something my friend Andrew posited years ago, over a decade ago, I think, we when we were both riding our legs and hearts out through Montana on behalf of an AIDS charity: “Kindness is a function of time.”

That is to say, the more time you have, the more apt you are to be kind.

That’s not to say that you should have to carve out minutes in which you should be kind–“Oh, look, it’s 2PM; time to be kind until 2:15”–but that if you just take the time to consider, anything, you might actually gravitate towards being kind on a regular basis, and maybe you get to stop reminding yourself.

That’s the summer I started reminding myself to say thank you, with intent, wherever I went and to whomever. Bus drivers, retail clerks, people who held the door open. I’m not sure I ever thought anything like, “Well, it’s their job; why should I thank them when they’re getting paid?”, but I know I said it with more gravitas, more point, than I used to. Thank you. Some people were startled. They hitched laughs and said, “You’re welcome.” Some stopped, surprised, and said, “No one ever says that. Thank you,” which was just sad and weird all around.

Eventually it became habit.

I think this spills over into other, smaller, things, too. Like, okay, so I have an acquaintance whose default setting is to try and be funny. I don’t know why she does it. I just know that sometimes this knee-jerk reaction causes undue hurt. But I think if she stopped to think about the things she was saying, she’d find herself being kinder to people, even if it means sacrificing the laugh (rueful) or the giggle (half-hearted; puzzled). Hell, even if she just took time to pay attention to the reaction she’s getting, she might stop.

And the other day, as I was trying to finish up some planning for a big event and complete all my work and get out the door so I could (ha!) have some time to myself, my phone rang. I saw who it was, and I knew what the caller wanted, and I knew that hearing what she wanted would make me completely crazy, so I just didn’t answer the call. I left it until I could get onto the mountain, where I would lose the signal and not be able to call the person back or even listen to what I just knew would be an infuriating voicemail, and then, two hours later, when I got off the mountain and listened to the voicemail, it wasn’t nearly as awful as I thought it was. I mean, it was exactly what I knew the person would want, but the time had dulled the import of the thing, and really, it wasn’t that big a deal at all to fix. Or acquiesce to her request.

I should say that Andrew and I were thinking about this kindness thing a lot because the whole point of the trip across Montana was a purpose larger than ourselves. The whole point of the six days in Montana, riding from Missoula to Billings, was to raise money for AIDS research. And that we were puzzling over how hard it was to go back to our regular lives, when, here in Montana, the whole point was to get everyone safely from A to B; that was the task at hand, and that was all that mattered. So all over, on lunch breaks and snack stops and at dinner, you’d find people looking at each other–“How was your ride? Do you feel okay?” and volunteers asking the very same thing, and it was a good thing.

Later that year, in the aftermath of 9-11, it was much the same. There wasn’t anything to do but look after other people. It was all that mattered.

I wish I had some bullhorn, some way of telling people about all of this, because lately I have caught a lot of people saying or doing things that they wouldn’t say or do if they had just taken the time. Just consider, folks. It is worth the extra energy. And no, I don’t always remember, either.

But this the best way I know of to be kind to yourself.

Onward.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

2 Responses to On Kindness
  1. Wendy Wahman says:

    I happily, easily, say thank you for writing this YiShun. I’m a ‘thanker’ from long back. I say thank you to grocery baggers and kiddy cross walk guards. I say thank you to my dogs when they stop barking, and thank you to green lights who stay green for me and the cars with me. I say thank you to my back when it’s having a pain free hour. I say thank you to those I could naturally take for granted, like my husband. I thank him for dinner, I thank him for taking our dogs running, and washing their feet. Not one time, but every time I see it, cause I do feel it. Act, and it becomes part of you. Treat others like they’re your best friend. One of my little mantras is, ‘We’re all doing the best we can.’ So, thank you, YiShun, you did good.

  2. margaret siber says:

    Dear YiShun, thank you, thank you for your post “On Kindness”.

    A couple of years ago, the women in my family were asked by a young family member who was about to get married, what advice we might have from our personal experiences, for a “happy and successful” marriage. I thought that being divorced might discredit me, but no that was not the case. While composing my response to this young woman, I came to the realization that all my suggestions boiled down to one: Be kind to each other. KIndness was a prominent theme in their marriage vows.

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