“Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a harder battle,” says the Plato quote that is on the plate displayed in my kitchen. “Be kind…be kind…be kind…” Why is it so hard to keep that mantra in my head?
For instance, I’m always baffled by how quickly after finishing a yoga class I can sometimes be not nice to someone! Whether it’s swearing at another driver, or snapping at a store clerk, it seems that my mellow mood evaporates as soon as I walk out the door. Why is that?
Like compassion, kindness is easier when the recipient is someone we love, or someone vulnerable, or someone clearly suffering through no fault of his own. It is much more difficult to practice when the other person is a stranger, or someone unlikeable, or someone who has clearly done something wrong. Being kind in that situation requires a degree of mindfulness and intention that needs to be cultivated purposefully in most of us.
Emotions like anger or impatience are always preceded by a thought, if only for a split second. That’s the moment when we have a choice of how to respond to a situation. Too often, we get trapped by our notions of how things should be, and our “choice” of response is harsh and unkind. Strangely, though, we don’t usually feel better after yelling at someone, but we do have feelings of well-being after acting kindly.
Olpin and Hesson have developed a framework of “levels of responding.” At one end of the spectrum are attachment, rightness, judgment, blaming, resistance and complaining – responses that are usually not effective and result in negative emotions. At the other end are observation (noticing without judgment), discovery (seeking to learn and understand), acceptance and gratitude – responses that are more effective and result in positive emotions. Studies conducted by Sonja Lyubomirsky and others also show that people who practiced a variety of random acts of kindness experienced an increase in happiness.
It’s so easy to make every situation personal. Why did she do that to me? Why did that person cut me off? Why is he so mean to me? It might not have anything to do with me. It might be accidental, it might be that the person is having a bad day; it might be that the person is in pain. When we stop judging, stop personalizing, and start trying to understand, it becomes a lot easier to respond with kindness, or at least with acceptance.
Kahlil Gibran wrote, “I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.” Plato’s reminder in my kitchen makes me realize that kindness is not something to master, but something to practice. Luckily, I meet someone every day who gives me the chance to do just that.