Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Lesson in Kindness: Don't be an Asshole

The day after my mother passed away, I had to stop and get gas on my way to the funeral home to make arrangements. I pulled into the pump in a daze at a haphazard angle and was filling my tank. Suddenly a car pulled up next to me, the driver rolled down the window and he and his female passenger proceeded to flip me off and shout "FUCK YOU, IDIOT! LEARN HOW TO PARK!" and then angrily pull out of the parking lot, tires squealing. 

Did they know my mom just died in a hospital bed 12 hours before? No. Did they know I was barely functioning on caffeine, adrenaline, and emotions? No. They saw an idiot who didn't pull far enough forward to let another car pass, and let their anger spill hatefully onto me. Would they have been less likely to shout at me if they knew the situation? Maybe. I'll never know. I'm sure they sped away feeling better. Somehow superior that they had "given that girl the 'what for'" and felt vindicated and lighter after having spewed out some of their emotions. I however, was left stunned, holding a gas pump the victim of what I can only call a rage vomit, wondering what the hell is wrong with people.

When did we forget to be kind?

My son is three, and kindness is a big deal in his world. We're consistently talking about it, trying to emulate it, and praising him when he exhibits it. His teacher told me at preschool pick-up one day about how his friend was sad and he gave her a toy and a hug so she would feel better.  His little chest puffed out and he smiled and said, "Mama, I was kind!" 

We get older and the luster of kindness fades somehow. Our capacity for empathy lessens as we focus on what is best for us. We turn to countless books, blogs, coaches, and podcasts for tips to help us increase our social circle/raise our profile/garner goodwill/climb the career ladder. While many are excellent resources, I'm pretty sure I can distill them all down and find one common thread:


Seriously. It's that simple. When faced with a situation you have a choice in how you will handle it. Will you take the high road? Give benefit of the doubt? Offer empathy and grace even if the other person may not? 

Now, before I go further a disclaimer: I'm not talking about engaging in toxic relationships, or giving kindness to an abusive person. This is more of your day-to-day social interactions with colleagues, acquaintances and strangers. And I can already hear you, "But why should I give the benefit of the doubt to someone who is probably just rude/inconsiderate/you insert the adjective?"


When I was 25 I worked for a group of surgeons in Austin, TX. I helped run the front office and one of my duties was the lunch run. Every Thursday, I'd drive up the hill to Luby's (for those of you not in Texas it's a cafeteria and a little slice of heaven) and pick-up my called-in order. Every Thursday, I would see *Myrna a middle-aged and surly woman behind the counter. She would demand my name (even though I'm sure she knew it) bark out my total, snatch my payment, and shove the bag of takeout my way. EVERY. SINGLE. THURSDAY. 

Here's where you get a little insight into my 25-year-old personality...I was not going to let Myrna's grumpiness win. I was going to win her over. I was going to make her like me. So over the course of the next 6 months, I would cheerfully pick up my order, generously tip on the credit card receipt, and wish her a good day every Thursday. One week a few months into our dance, the cooks were backed up and we all had to wait for our food longer than usual. The other lunch-goers were pacing, impatiently huffing, and Myrna was extra surly as a result. When I finally picked up my food, I once again thanked her, tipped, and wished her a good day. This time she responded, "You too!"

Over the next few months we developed a rapport. I'd make small talk while I paid and I learned that this was Myrna's 2nd job. That she also cared for her ailing mother, and helped look after for her young grandchildren while her daughter was in school on her rare days off. Her exhausted surly attitude was well-earned, a fact I never would have learned if I had dismissed her like so many other patrons, or hadn't persisted in being kind. She began to slide extra condiments, napkins, and the occasional treat into my bag. Turns out, Myrna like a lot of people, had a solid gold heart inside of her gruff exterior. 

I realize that this is all a bit Pollyanna, but hang with me. What if we committed to being kind to one another even 50% of the time? Can you imagine the kindness revolution we'd start? If instead of honking angrily at someone at a stop sign, what if we waved them on? What if we shrugged off a rude salesperson instead of complaining to their manager? (I'm so guilty of this one! I may have a heart for kindness, but I have a quick trigger when I perceive an injustice or slight.) What if we left a solid 20% tip even when service was terrible instead of making a point by leaving spare change. What would the ripples of that kindness be? Here's the thing, you'll likely never know, it may feel at times like you're going around depositing kindness and your own account is empty, but I choose to believe as Aesop said "No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted." 

And to the couple at the gas pump. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt that you were having a shitty day too.

*name changed because privacy and kindness :)