Archives for posts with tag: kindness

During one of my recent walks, I was thinking about a conversation I’d had with a friend a few months ago. The friend had broken off a relationship with someone he’d previously known through the community for almost 20 years. He was surprised by how complicated her life was beneath the surface and a number of very unhealthy choices that she’d made, those that people make who have an extraordinary amount of pain and suffering, with which they are not dealing well. I told him, “I see lots of families in my practice who I imagine appear very different to people who have known them for years. You just don’t know what is going on in people’s lives.”

I was thinking about this, about the lives we lead on the inside that don’t match our outsides. We just don’t know what people are going through. Sure, some people wear their pain on the outside because they cannot contain it; some wear it like a badge of honor. But many of us go along with our daily lives carrying heavy burdens. I thought about the interactions I have with people everyday and my own natural tendency to assume that people are similar to me. Given that I am an empathetic person and a trained mental healthcare provider, I can quickly shift this set point but there are many interactions we have in our own lives that are so short that it is difficult to do this.  And even still, sometimes we just don’t know.

In my musings, I reminded myself of how important it is to be kind and to give people the benefit of the doubt. I am also mindful that to do so is also better for my health. Maybe the driver who cut me off really is an asshole? Is it really good for me to hold onto that thought and the anger that accompanies it?

By then I had arrived at my neighborhood coffee shop, Bird on a Wire. Elton John’s, Rocket Man, was playing. Angel, who was making my latte, looked up at me and said quietly, “This song reminds me of my dad.” Angel is a young man, still in his twenties. Nonetheless, I asked, “Is your dad still living?” “No”, he responded, still quietly. I asked a couple of questions and learned that Angel’s father died 6 months ago within a week of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Angel is a kind and gentle person with a spritely sense of humor. He is one of those people who exudes kindness. He loves community and will go out of his way to not only learn the names of the customers, but to introduce them to one another. Angel has made many lattes for me in the past six months. I had no idea.

He said, “I’m sorry.” “Angel, there’s no need to be sorry. That is something I would want to know.”

“I’m sorry,” he said again.

I grabbed his hand and squeezed it.

“Angel, people care for one another. That’s a very good thing.”

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been having a particularly hard time with parenting challenges. I am also working a lot, back to full time hours for the next few months. I am taking off for a number of trips this summer as well as time to entertain out-of-town guests. When I don’t work, I don’t get paid. So on the weeks that I am working, I am putting in extra hours. I am also working extra because for reasons I cannot yet determine, after 12 years of private practice, I am having a particularly hard time collecting balances from the families with whom I work. If I don’t get paid, I don’t get paid.

I may have mentioned about a thousand times that I am not currently popular with my teenaged daughter. I can tell myself over and over  and even from a point of authority as a child/adolescent psychologist, that to a certain extent, this is normative of mother/teen daughter relationships. But I can also tell you, normative or not, it is a source of great pain in my life.  A mama is built to be happy when her girl is happy. Mine is not only frequently unhappy, but often unhappy with me. I have forged a way in my life to be happy, nonetheless, but I have to tell you, it requires a LOT of effort.

This morning, I was feeling overwhelmed with my workload. This is an extremely busy week. Part of that business is related to our going away for the long weekend to a house on the beach. I am very much looking forward to it. I thought to myself, “I’m too busy to walk today.” Then I thought, “I’ll just take a 30 minute long walk. That was my original walking goal, anyway.”

I put on my walking clothes and ventured out into a foggy Seattle morning. I included the local coffee shop, Bird on a Wire, in my walk, I do this when I need an extra boost. The people that work there are always so nice to me and the coffee is a special treat. Angel was the barista today. He is in his mid-twenties and he lives up to his name. Angel customarily introduces people to each other in the coffee shop. He has brought John and me a glass of water when he thought the coffee line was really long and we might need a little refreshment. Angel is also really funny and he actually took his nephew, whom he frequently babysits, to see my daughter’s choir performance!

This morning, I saw that Angel was taking extra care with my latte. He added extra art.

DSC00965

As he handed the coffee to me, he explained, “You are the butterfly and your husband and daughter are the hearts. You are apart from them but looking on to make sure they are well.” Then he laughed. He had made up a little story.

I said, “Angel, I think you know my family better than you realize. My daughter prefers her dad. I know this may change.”

Angel looked sincerely sad for me. I know he likes John and me a lot. We like him, too.

Little moments can mean a lot. Little kindnesses can go a long way when I stop to notice them.

I’m glad that I noticed today because I really needed it.

Thank you, Angel.

P.S. I ended up walking 4 1/2 miles.

You may have heard this. A complaint about one’s life is followed by the statement, often expressed apologetically, “Well, that’s a first world problem.”

I realize that the intention of the phrase is to provide perspective, to encourage people to count their blessings and further, to appreciate the poverty and unhealthy living conditions that are typical for people who live in poor countries.

I want to let you in on a secret that I have told no one until now. I strongly dislike that expression.

Perhaps for many of you, it helps you gain perspective, a reality check combined with a big dose of empathy.

To me, it sounds like an invalidation of one’s own thoughts and feelings and a kind of intended short cut from point A, being distressed to point B, feeling calm.

I know for me, this kind of short cut doesn’t work. I tried invalidating my feelings for years. “You shouldn’t feel, angry” I would tell myself. “You shouldn’t feel sad.” “Stop feeling guilty. You are always beating yourself up.”

By not allowing myself to feel what I felt, I found that it took me a great deal of time and energy to calm myself down. And I remember a number of years when my normal state was one of a roiling anxiety in my gut and in my brain. My twelve years of chronic neck pain happened during this period of time as did my two episodes of depression.

It also didn’t make me feel any better about other people. It wasn’t like I wasn’t a nice person or that I was not kind but it took a great deal of work. Sometimes, kindness and compassion would just flow from my being but lots of the time, it didn’t. I had to at least a little digging. And then because I was anxious, I would sometimes worry that I hadn’t done the kindness or compassion “right”.

This is the way I feel about the “first world problems” expression.  I don’t deserve to be angry, annoyed, sad, worried, anxious, etc because I live in a wealthy country.

Feelings don’t have to be deserved. Feelings just are. We have them. They happen.

Stress can make our brain misinterpret situations; it can get biased toward interpreting the world in a negative way, being on the alert to find threats to our safety such as rejection and danger. Stress and anxiety can also impair our brain’s ability to differentiate between meaningful and trivial threats.

First world life is fast-paced, over-saturated with information, competitive, and demanding. In other words, it provides genuine stress. And that stress can produce feelings that we think we “shouldn’t” have.

And aside from stress, people feel stuff. We just do.  For myself I know that if I am mindful of my distressing feelings, they lose power over me. And when I validate my patients’ parents’ stress and frustration with a basic problem such as potty training, they can stop feeling stuck and ridiculous in their feelings of powerlessness as a parent.

I live in the first world and I enjoy its benefits unlike many in my country who live in poverty and unhealthy conditions. I am no more important than people who live in the rest of the world. However, I am not less important, either. When I feel happy and calm, I find it easiest to be charitable and compassionate. Being happy is not the same as having things. However, for me, it frees time for me to exercise my good will rather than perpetually questioning the validity of my petty irritations, fears, and sadness.

When I was an advanced graduate student, I helped teach new graduate students how to do standardized testing and write assessment reports. One type of test that clinical psychologists often give is an intelligence test. Now there’s no end all, be all measure of intelligence but they are useful. Often the students would chat excitedly about a child they’d just tested and describe the child as “really bright!”. This was prior to scoring the test and on several occasions, the child ended up with the numbers not matching the student’s assessment. Typically, what they really meant was that the child was sweet, hardworking, and happy. We have a habit of making intelligence equivalent to being “good”. This is a particular issue for  bright and highly educated people.

Also in graduate school, I remember having a heated argument with one of my classmates and her husband. The argument was prompted by my remarking about how damaging and insidious I thought the stereotype that Southerners in the U.S. are less intelligent. To my surprise they responded, “But Southerners ARE stupid!”

People, I’ve met a lot of highly intelligent people in my life. She was one of the smartest people I’ve ever encountered. Her husband was smart, too. I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of their mouths!

It would still be awful but perhaps slightly more understandable if they’d never met a southerner in their lives. However, we were all going to school in the South. Not to mention the fact that our southern clinical psychology Ph.D. program was and still is one of the very best in the country.

They had explanations. “It’s because southern schools are terrible.” That argument made me crazy because even assuming that it is true, intelligence and education are not the same thing and anyone in a clinical psychology program should know that because it is a basic distinction that is covered in any introductory assessment course.

A number of our classmates were southerners. I said, “Well, what about x, y, and z.” Somehow they didn’t count because they didn’t have southern accents. Well one of our classmates did, Penny, and she was and is a brilliant person. “What about Penny?” The reply was, “She doesn’t count. She’s not a southerner. She’s from Appalachia.”

People, that is a terrible argument. She was also the daughter of a coal miner and the only one from her community to graduate from college. She was from one of the poorest areas in the country.

I could go on and on about the logical inconsistencies but I won’t. They were really smart people who considered themselves to be kind people who were going out of their way to make irrational ridiculous arguments to defend their hateful views. And you know what? In general, they were decent people. Decent people with a major blind spot.

Intelligence is not the same as goodness. It is also not okay to put other people down using one’s intellect. It’s no better than using less educated sounding language to do so. Being clever does not make being unkind, okay. Dorothy Parker was clever. You know what else? She wasn’t very nice.

This has been bothering me a lot lately.  So I am looking inward because that is usually a fruitful thing for me to do. From my professional knowledge, I know that the fact that I am more intelligent than average is not a personal accomplishment. Brains are not the same, starting at birth. I consider myself to be very lucky. Further, not everyone has educational opportunities. I consider my education to have been a wonderful privilege that most do not get a chance to have. In my job, I see many hardworking children who are struggling with school. They are often treated like they are lazy and unintelligent. And by the way,  even if a person is unintelligent, why is it okay to put them down as if it were their own doing?

Okay, I am complaining and this is supposed to be gratitude week. I am grateful for my intelligence and my education. I am grateful for my opportunities and experiences. I am humbled by the chance to help children be as happy and successful as they can be.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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