Be kind whenever possible.
It is always possible.
Three seconds. Just enough time to slam on my brakes, grab ahold of the steering wheel and hope for the best. Between good brakes and good luck, I stopped barely an inch short of the car that had suddenly pulled out in front of me.
After a long exhale and a count of my blessings, I shifted to park and shut off the engine. Other than the fact that my travel mug was slowly emptying its contents into my handbag, I was fine. Shaken, but fine.
When I was ready to get going, I saw that the other driver had gotten out of her car and was walking toward me. What now? I thought, my heart once again revving up. Bad enough that she’d almost gotten the two of us killed, now she’s looking to fight?
“I’m so, so sorry,” she said as she approached my open window. “You looked so frightened that I didn’t want to just wave at you and drive off. You feel okay to drive?” she asked, placing her hand on my arm.
“Terrifying how life can change in an instant,” she said.
Every day we hear touching stories of kindness. People paying for a stranger’s groceries. People driving cross-country to rescue a dog.
We’re touched because acts of kindness remind us that there’s goodness in the world. And because we have come to expect the opposite.
What if kindness were the rule and not the exception? What if the next time someone bumped your cart in the supermarket, charged ahead of you at the drive-through or blamed you unjustly, you respond with kindness rather than anger? What if, like the woman in my story, you took the time to acknowledge the impact of your actions, to be of comfort, to make amends?
Clients regularly tell me that their relationship feels unfriendly, that the climate in the household is chilly, or they feel like they’re living in a war zone. Still, when I suggest kindness, more often than not, they’re reluctant to do it.
Some fear that they’ll be taken advantage of, thinking kindness is “niceness” which translates to wimpiness or weakness. “Won’t I be giving a message that invites my partner to walk all over me?” they ask.
Kindness is not to be confused with over-giving or pleasing others as a way to avoid conflict. Kindness is heartfelt, sincere giving. Our kind gestures and kind words say “I care about you and I’m willing to show it.” Kindness comes from strength as opposed to weakness.
Others worry that their kindness will go unreciprocated. “Why should I be nice when other people are nasty?” they say, setting the bar for their own behavior at the low-level of others.
Then there are those who are reluctant to let go of their anger and resentment. “People need to be taught a lesson” they say, as if nastiness is an effective teacher. As a strategy, nastiness usually backfires. The nastier you are, the more likely the other person will focus on your misbehavior and not consider their own.
One client said this: “I’ve discovered that my relationship is better when I’m warm and open. It feels good to be kind, but it’s also a lot of work. Sometimes I don’t want to put in that much effort in order to be happily married.”
Her husband countered that it takes just as much effort to be crappy, and life is better when she’s not. Though the three of us laughed, I could see her struggling with the concern that being kind would somehow deplete her.
Kindness does take effort. Human beings are basically war-like, self-protective creatures who must learn how to get along well with others. Though we start out tender and open as children, we all have painful experiences in life that teach us to be wary. We’re easily hurt and seek to avoid rejection and exposure. Kindness requires that we risk, that we go against our instincts to self-protect in order to have more loving connections.
A friend of mine recently thought twice about putting a nasty note on the windshield of a car that had boxed him into his driveway. Though giving that person “what-for” would certainly have vented his frustration, he paused to imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving end.
“I asked myself: On a scale of one to ten, how much will your note contribute to world peace? When the answer was zero, I tossed my note in the trash and started again.”
Whatever reasons we have to withhold our kindness— our knee-jerk defensiveness or impatience, our fear of rejection, our wish for things to be fair— we can always choose to override them.
Genuine kindness is never a mistake. I’ve never regretted being kind, though like most people, I sometimes have to talk myself into it.
As my client discovered, being warm and open, speaking respectfully, being affectionate, expressing her love, all significantly improved the quality of her marriage.
“Still, I’m not always sure I want to make the effort,” she said. “But, I am sure I won’t have much of a marriage if I don’t.”
Ready to see what kindness can do for your marriage?
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