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Practice Random Acts of Kindness
Bring More Peace, Love, and Compassion into the World
By Rabbi Harold Kushner
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2007 Rabbi Harold Kushner
All rights reserved.
Kindness Is an Attitude and an Action
Since you get more joy out of giving joy to others, you should put a good deal of thought into the happiness that you are able to give.
As we move through our lives, we carry with us the accumulated experiences that mold our attitudes and our behavior. When we are young and inexperienced, we are often more vulnerable to being pulled in different directions by the events of life. One bad experience, in which our trust is betrayed, our generosity scorned, or our love rejected, can cause us to build unconscious defenses that have the unintended effect of isolating us, of making us fearful or tentative, and that can cause us to pull back from the world.
Later, as we grow in maturity and wisdom, we learn that although we cannot choose what life will deliver to us, we can choose how we will respond. As we begin to live our lives more consciously—going back and sifting through the events that helped shape us, examining how and why different emotions are triggered in our hearts—we can begin to build an entirely new framework for who we want to be, instead of simply accepting who we ended up being.
Through this deeper understanding of the events that have influenced our lives, of the values we hold most dear, and of the things we need to be happy, we can begin the exciting process of taking control of our lives. At the most fundamental level, this begins with the conscious choice of how we wish to be in the world. From that solid foundation, we can act freely and fearlessly, knowing that our actions will reflect our being out into the world.
The practices in this section focus on the intricate underpinnings of a strong foundation of kindness and will assist you in your exploration of how to release that kindness into the world through your actions.
I've decided to try to be a better person.... But not right away of course.... Maybe a few days from now.
—SALLY TO CHARLIE BROWN IN A PEANUTS CARTOON
"I spent four years 'getting ready' to start a diet. I'd get brochures for weight-control programs and look them over while eating a pastrami sandwich. I'd buy the latest diet books and read them with a bowl of chips. My losing weight was such a topic of conversation that finally—over a substantial lunch at my favorite Italian restaurant—my best friend got so exasperated she said, 'If you really want to lose weight, then put that damn fork down right now!' Shocked, I dropped the fork and just sat there with my mouth hanging open. When I closed my mouth, I realized I had started my diet."
Most of us carry around an image of ourselves as we would like to be—a little thinner or stronger, more patient and reliable. But what we want to be means nothing until we stop intending and start acting.
Like dieting, when it comes to the practice of kindness, right now is the best time to begin. It doesn't require much work or sacrifice—no giving up desserts, no one hundred leg lifts, no pushing a rock up a steep hill. Just a commitment, right here and now, to smile at the bank teller, give a kind word to the grocery checker. Let the driver in front of you cut in. Simple, really.
Remember What's Important
In the end, nothing we do or say in this lifetime will matter as much as the way we have loved one another.
—DAPHNE ROSE KINGMA
In the hustle and bustle of our busy days, full of faxes, phone calls, and a thousand and one errands, it's really easy to get caught up in the daily details and forget What's important in life. Often it takes some kind of trauma—the death of a loved one, divorce, a life-threatening illness—to wake us up to what matters. After all, no one on his or her deathbed regretted not spending more time at the office.
Fortunately, we don't have to be facing a personal tragedy to make our relationships our number one priority. No project, no deadline, no clean kitchen is as important as the quality of your relationship with the person sitting across from you at the breakfast table, as the child who needs your attention right this second, as the mother who is alone in the nursing home.
Remembering What's important gives us the graciousness to take the time, make the phone call, send the card, not say the bitter retort on the tip of our tongue. When we remember What's important, we generate more loving-kindness in our lives.
Take the Risk
In the long run, we get no more than we have been willing to risk giving.
"When I was in second grade, a new boy, Derrick showed up halfway through the year. He had a bad leg, and all the kids teased him. I never teased him, but I was afraid of being too nice to him because I didn't want the other kids to think I was a sissy or whatever second-graders think.
"That summer my mom made me take swimming lessons at the city pool and Derrick was always there. He was a great swimmer, and I found out later that he swam every day to build up strength in his legs. One day during a break in lessons, I was sitting on the side of the pool and he swam up and said hi and thanked me for not teasing him at school. I said something like, 'Oh, no big deal', but inside I felt like a jerk for being afraid to be friendly with him. Now I'm in fourth grade and Derrick is my best friend. In fact, he's the best friend anyone could ever want."
So many of us are so afraid of one another—of having our hearts crushed (again), our spirits broken—that we miss out on the love and connection that is available if we would only take the risk. Acts of love and kindness are risky—we risk looking foolish or being rejected; we risk being laughed at or ignored. But if we don't act, we risk losing even more—the potential for love, for friendship, for communion with another soul. Today, take a risk with just one person.
Accent the Positive
People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong.... Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?
—THICH NHAT HANH
"I had one of those days when everything went wrong. It started when I was late for work, wound its way through a mountain of irritated customers, computer breakdowns, shorttempered colleagues, car trouble on the interstate which found me walking to a telephone in a drenching thunderstorm without my umbrella, and ended in a totally irrational and emotionally bruising fight with my husband.
"I ran out of the house, trying somehow to outrun all my problems, but the dark cloud just hung over me. As I walked through our neighborhood remembering all the bad things that had happened that day, the storm that had so rudely soaked me earlier began to clear. I came around a corner that overlooked a valley and was treated to one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen: The clouds had thinned to long, tailing wisps and were floating gracefully apart like some kind of celestial doorway, and the biggest full moon I had ever seen was slowly moving into view. I watched as the light from the moon passed like a hand over the valley, turning the entire rain—soaked valley into a kaleidoscope of reflected light. I just started laughing and crying at the same time. Here I was mired in my own little dirt clod and was being so magnificently reminded by the night sky that there was much more to life than what I was feeling in the moment."
We are very clever at finding everything that is wrong. And once discovered, we get stuck, like a deer caught in the headlights, intensely focusing on it. In order to be kind to ourselves, we need to learn to see our problems in their real context-to open our eyes and hearts wide enough to drink in all the beauty and joy that is always around us, no matter what is going on.
Don't Let Fear Stand in Your Way
Do not be afraid.
Several decades ago, sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, who founded the Institute for Creative Altruism at Harvard, identified five obstacles to love: fear, stress, limitations, self-devaluation, and tribal altruism. Not surprisingly, they are also the obstacles to kindness.
When we are afraid, we contract—our muscles tighten, our vision narrows, we physically pull away. In other words, we retreat into a private world, cut off from human connection. When we are stressed, we operate like an robot on the fritz—twitching physically and emotionally, obsessively focused on the narrow issues that are causing our stress, unable to see, much less reach out to, others. When we believe that we are limited, ineffectual, we seal ourselves in a cocoon of apathy. When we see ourselves as "not good enough," we constantly re-create a lonely and self-limiting world.
The last obstacle to love and kindness is the most complex: tribal altruism—the sense that the small group is more important than the whole. Tribal altruism is the driving force behind racial conflict, religious intolerance, and war. It is also the dangerous halfway house we can become stuck in when practicing kindness.
When we first overcome our fear, stress, sense of limitation, and self-devaluation to extend kindness to others, we often start with what is near to us—our family, our "tribe," our religious group, our local community, our nation. But if we stop there, we risk the danger of perpetuating greater harm to the whole of humanity in the name of love for our smaller group. It is only when we can move beyond all five obstacles, when we can see every man, woman, and child as a precious and indispensable part of humanity, that we bring the practice of kindness to its fruition.
What obstacles to kindness do you most often experience? Today, just notice what blocks the free flow of kindness in your own life.
Where we've gotten mixed up is that we believe actions follow belief. But experience creates belief.
—THE REVEREND CECIL WILLIAMS
"I've always thought of myself as a good person who wanted to do something to make a positive difference in the world. But for years I was paralyzed by the sheer scope of the world's problems: they seemed so overwhelming to me. In the midst of my private despair, I happened to have lunch with a friend who mentioned that he had been volunteering at a local food project, and he asked if I would be interested in helping out occasionally. His request surprised me. I realized that I wanted to help, but at the same time it just seemed to be so futile. I asked him how he managed to keep his spirits up when the lines of hungry people kept growing.
"He smiled and said, 'I have to confess, part of the reason I do this is because it is what keeps my spirits up. I can't solve the problem of hunger in the world, but when I am working in that kitchen, knowing that every plate of food I prepare is going to feed someone who really needs it, I feel more alive, more like the man I want to be."
It is so easy to get lost in the circular motion of our own thoughts that we forget that it is our actions that set everything—including our thoughts—in motion. Even the most insignificant-seeming action reverberates out into the world, setting off a continuously self-perpetuating chain reaction.
We don't have to believe that what we are doing will have a significant impact or even make a tiny difference. All we need to do is act—to begin and watch what happens.
Give Up Keeping Score
Blessed are those who can give without remembering.
"Coming home from work the other day, I saw a woman trying to turn onto the main street and having very little luck because the traffic was a constant stream. I slowed and allowed her to turn in front of me. I was feeling pretty good until, a couple of blocks later, she stopped to let a few more cars into the line, causing us both to miss the next light. I found myself completely irritated at her. How dare she slow me down after I had so graciously let her into traffic! Even as I was sitting there stewing, I realized how ridiculous I was being. Suddenly, somethingjon Kabat-Zinn wrote in Wherever You Go, There You Are came floating into my mind: 'I heard someone define ethics as "obedience to the unenforceable...." You do it for inner reasons, not because someone is keeping score or because you will be punished if you don't.' I realized that I had wanted a tit for tat: If I do this nice thing for you, you (or someone) will do an equally nice thing for me."
Kindness is the currency of our hearts, the only currency that can never be subtracted and never be balanced in anyone's ledgers. We choose to be kind because it is the way we want to live our lives, not because we will be rewarded in some way. When we start to keep score, we become closed-hearted: I'm not doing anything nice until someone does something good for me.
Our acts of kindness are whole unto themselves. They require no acknowledgment and no reward, for the act itself returns us once again to the heart of our own humanity.
Make of Yourself a Vessel
Pain can be an incubator for compassion if we keep our intention toward healing, learning, and serving.
—SUE PATTON THOELE
"There is an old woman in our town who is simply incredible. She has lived a very difficult life, full of suffering. Two of her children died, one from a terrible lingering disease and the other in an automobile accident. Her husband had a very bad stroke many years ago and then lingered on for twenty years before dying. Yet she is the most generous and compassionate person I have ever met.
"One day, I asked her how she could still wake up every day with a smile and a kind word for everyone around her. She looked at me with this really surprised expression on her face and said, 'Oh, but my life has been full of so many wonderful people. We all have our troubles, but those are only doorways we must walk through. Each of the terrible things that happened to me also brought me some unexpected surprises—moments of connection with others, opportunities to become a better person. I guess I do wish it could have been easier, but really I feel that my life has been blessed nonetheless.'"
When times are tough, it's easy to shut out the rest of the world. And sometimes it is necessary to turn inward, feeling the depth and breadth of our sorrow so that our wounds can heal.
But, ultimately, we need to come back out into the light, scars and all, and allow our suffering to make us more compassionate toward others. Precisely because we have known pain, we can empathize more truthfully with the pain of those around us; we can offer the example of our own journey to healing as encouragement for those still taking the first steps. In so doing, we not only inspire fellow sufferers, we make sense of our own pain.
Rather than close off our hearts and sink into despair, we can let hardship hone us into a vessel overflowing with wisdom and compassion. And there's no doubt that the world could use more of that!
Be Willing to Connect
If I hazard a guess as to the most endemic, prevalent anxiety among human beings— including fear of death, abandonment, loneliness—nothing is more prevalent than the fear of one another
—R. D. LAING
When we are very young, we fearlessly devour our world and reach out to people with eagerness. As we grow up, surrounded by the daily outpouring of bad news, we become more and more afraid and too often end up retreating farther and farther into our isolated shells. We find ourselves looking at the world in terms of control, possessions, and power instead of growth, understanding, and feeling. But we can begin to connect again.
"Every time I went to the grocery store," wrote a woman named Molly, "I passed this homeless woman who seemed to be living on a bench in front of the store. She never said anything, but she was dirty and I felt threatened somehow. At first I would hurry past her, but it started to bother me. I was angry at her for being there, but I was also upset with myself for getting so flustered.
"Gradually I began to give her whatever loose change I had. One day, I stopped and talked to her just long enough to introduce myself and learn her name. After that we would always smile and greet each other by name. It may sound strange, but I began to look forward to seeing her smile and ask me how I was doing.
"One day, I sat with her for a while, and she told me a little about her life and how she had gotten to this place. She told me it was people like me—those people who were still willing to see her as a person—who gave her the strength to keep trying. All the way home I thought of her and realized that she had shaken me out of my tiny little world and, in a way I can't easily describe, had made my life much richer."
Like Molly, to break out of our shells and return to the joyful richness of life, we need to become fearless again. We can reach out and share in one another's experience—who knows what amazing thing will happen as a consequence. Try talking today to a stranger and see what magic is created.
Let Go of Outcome
It reeks of paradox. The only way you can do anything of value is to have the effort come out of non-doing and to let go of caring whether it will be of use or not.
"One day last year, my daughter took a handful of roses to school with the intent of simply handing them out to random students. After she had given out a few, she was mobbed by students all begging for a rose. She gave them all away but told me later that night that at first it had felt bad because 'That's not the way I had planned it', she said. By the time we talked, however, she had already recovered, and at the end of our conversation, she laughed and said, 'Dad, you should have seen all those girls' eyes begging for a rose.'"
Excerpted from Practice Random Acts of Kindness by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Copyright © 2007 Rabbi Harold Kushner. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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