In my quest to be the most loving kind of person I can be (even in the most difficult of situations), I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between being nice and being kind. “What’s the difference?” you may ask. Good question. The answer, I think, lies in the motivation behind the actions that are often characterized by those two words.
In my opinion, the words “nice” and “kind” are erroneously used interchangeably all the time. In fact, I think it is a far greater thing to be kind than it is to be nice. Confused yet? Let’s consider an example.
This morning, I was walking into a store for coffee. The man in front of me waited for just a moment to hold the door. Most would say he is nice. And maybe he is. But I wonder if he is also kind. In other words, did he hold the door because it would have seemed rude to not hold it? Was he afraid of being judged? Did it feel awkward? Or, did he wait and hold the door because of a genuine respect for another human being? Did he have a true desire to demonstrate graciousness and consideration? In the most basic of terms, is he kind beyond the nice gesture?
Maybe in this situation the distinction doesn’t really matter all that much. But if we step back to consider our actions in this way, what we might find is that many of the “nice” things we do every day are really just rooted in our effort to appear a certain way, to fold into a convention, or to avoid criticism. And if that’s the case, isn’t it also possible that our efforts to be nice are doing nothing to make us better people? Certainly, a simple thing like holding a door for a stranger is a menial example. But think about all of the things we’ve done or said simply because we were being nice. In this way, nice is a passive thing. It becomes something we are often guilted into out of fear, insecurity, or a desire to maintain peace. For those reasons, the nice person may indeed be a fake.
Kindness is, on the other hand, a more proactive approach to the world. It is a choice that we must consciously make. Most importantly, kindness is not veiled in pretense or expectations. It does not judge and is not characterized by lies or fear. Instead, I believe that kindness is rooted in a deep desire to want to help, to be there for someone, to demonstrate love for ourselves and for others. There is no pressure in kindness. The kind actions are those motivated by a true desire to make the world a better place, even if just for one person at one moment in time.
All of this is not to say that people shouldn’t be nice. Perhaps it is that basic courtesy that gives the world order. It is probably what creates a sense of politeness in our every day. But kindness, I believe, goes deeper than this superficial response to the world. It motivates us to look at every situation from a variety of perspectives; it generates empathy. It connects us to others. While it may be easier to just be nice, I believe we have to practice being kind. And to demonstrate kindness when we are tired, or sad, or angry, or feeling slighted in some way is an even loftier goal that requires a good amount of courage.
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about new year’s resolutions and I proposed the formation of the “Be List.” My resolution this year is to be less nice and more kind. That means being kinder to myself and then kinder to others. I honestly don’t care if people think I’m nice. But kind? Yeah. Kind matters.
With the dawn of the new year, there is no shortage of resolutions out there. People are pledging to get healthy, to get more organized, to get a new job, to get out of debt. I call this list of resolutions the “Get List.”
I wonder what would happen if the thinking behind traditional new year’s resolutions was to change? What if, instead of thinking about the things we need to get, we thought about the things we’d like to be? In other words, instead of focusing on the traditional “Get List” of resolutions that often result in outward physical or monetary results, what if we made resolutions that focused more on character and the way we interact with the world? I call this list the “Be List” of resolutions.
This shift from the “Get List” of resolutions to the “Be List” of resolutions is not for the faint of heart. After all, part of discovering what you want to BE requires that you identify what you already are, or maybe what you already aren’t or aren’t enough of on a regular basis. It involves an introspective look at yourself; maybe even some work to uncover the things you’ve worked a long time to hide. It requires you to be honest with yourself about your own prejudices, fears, and shortcomings. And it requires you to be brave in your efforts to improve and to apply those improvements to interactions every day.
So why bother? Well, from my perspective the answer is a simple one. The problem with the “Get List” of resolutions is that once the thing, or action, or behavior is achieved, it gets scratched off our list of things to do. Come next January, many of us are making a similar resolution to go out and once again get the thing we were after the year before. Sound familiar?
The “Be List,” however, pushes us to think more carefully about what motivates us. It challenges us to think about how we could interact or respond to the world in ways that improve not only our own lives, but the lives of others. A “Be List” has the power to reshape ideas, attitudes and behaviors that manifest themselves in many part of our lives. It becomes a definition of our character.
Cavett Robert, recognized as the founder of modern day speechwriters once said, “Character is the ability to carry out a good resolution long after the excitement of the moment has passed.” Probably a good reflection for the countless folks on treadmills in January and February who are back on their couches by April.
Worst case scenario, the “Be List” results in a bunch of people who have made conscious choices and honest efforts to be more of what they’d like to see in the world. Perhaps we find ourselves surrounded by people who are working to BE kind, to BE generous, to BE focused, to BE brave, to BE healthy. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? In addition, my guess is that in their efforts to become the people they’d like to be, they also get much of what they want.
Might be worth some consideration.
I ordered an egg salad sandwich in Wawa today. It was well after 1 p.m. and I was hungry. I had also just come from a funeral.
I used the automated order machine, went to get a soda and chips, paid for my order, and then went back to the counter to wait …and wait. Suddenly, there were a whole bunch of people around me who were not there when I first placed the order. And the numbers being called were well above the number on my receipt. “Hmmm,” I began to think. “I think I got missed.” I waited a few more minutes.
As I approached the counter, I thought to myself, “Don’t be that annoying person.” And so I wasn’t. I very politely asked if my number had been called and suggested that perhaps I missed it. The young woman said that it had not been called and asked to see my receipt. The order, itself, was missed. The sandwich was never made. Kindly, I thanked them and stepped back to wait.
Just then, a man about my age leaned over to me and commented on how patient I am. This made me laugh because if you know me at all, you know that patience is not always my strongest characteristic. “Most people aren’t that way,” he said. “It’s nice to see.”
And so why am I blogging about an egg salad sandwich? What kind of lesson could possibly be found in a Wawa? Actually, not much of a lesson at all. But where the lesson is found is in the fact that this happened right after a funeral and that the man’s comments to me were about being patient.
Today’s funeral service held a message about moving. No, not moving as in exercise; but moving as in from one place to another. The pastor talked about how much he hates to move; how the places we’ve grown familiar with hold memories, and friends, and all our “stuff.” Moving, he suggested is an inconvenience. But he also affirmed that every one of us – through the nature of our lives – is destined to move at least once. The movement he referred to was, of course, a movement from this life to the next. But between the sermon and the experience in Wawa, I began to think about how we not only move through life, but how we so often rush. For a complete stranger to comment on my demonstrated patience says to me that the norm must be one of hurriedness and haste. There is almost an expectation that we’ll finish with something and move onto the next – the next project, the next chore, the next relationship. If this consideration had not come to me, I would, in fact, have rushed through even my lunch.
But there is no greater reminder about how short life can be than a funeral. And it is not a usual experience to have a stranger comment on a characteristic like patience in a Wawa. So, the combined experience has made me reflective.
How often do you rush through the day? When do you take time to reflect?
I know that life is busier than it should be; that the demands on all of us are far greater than we’d like. But I also know that it is in the moments we take to savor, to think about our actions, and to appreciate our blessings, that we find gratitude, or peace, or even patience. Today I was grateful for that egg salad sandwich – and I slowed down to really appreciate how good it was. It was only a sandwich. But if so much meaning was found in just a sandwich, imagine how much meaning there is to be found when we slow down to enjoy the bigger things. Those things – the things that matter – they shouldn’t be part of our “to do” list. In fact, when we do move to that other life, it will be those things that people remember most about us. Worth considering, isn’t it?
“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” ~ e.e. cummings
When was the last time you paused to think about who you are? I don’t mean what you are, how you feel, why you did something. I mean under all of that – the WHO. I’ve been doing that lately. I’ve been taking a sort of personal inventory to assess the who of who I am.
It’s a funny – and really sort of difficult consideration to make. I mean, think about the last time you went somewhere and met new people. How long did it take someone to ask, “So what do you do?” I’d bet it was within the first 10 minutes of the conversation. Am I right? I ask that question, too. It’s a casual ice breaker; one of those questions we learn to ask to demonstrate an interest in another person. The problem with the question is that people often respond with their job title. “I’m a teacher,” or “I’m a lawyer,” or “I work at Target.” And from that response about how they make money, we make judgments about WHO they are.
You’ve only had to live on this earth and deal with people a short amount of time to know that WHAT someone does for a living and WHO they actually are can be complete dichotomies. For example, I’ve known teachers who really don’t want kids of their own and healthcare professionals who make poor decisions related to wellbeing. And so, especially in this day and age of online everything, I think it is so important to look beyond the titles to understand what makes a person tick.
The real challenge in all of this is that I don’t think most people stop to think about the WHO of themselves, separate from the titles they hold. Additionally, the WHO is often clouded by the expectations of others, the list of things we need to get done, or the things we think we need. We spend so much time trying to be all things to all people that I fear we are completely losing ourselves in the process. It is easily plausible to think that today a person woke up and within the first two hours of the day was expected to be dad, husband, carpool driver, bill payer/provider, and CEO … all within the first two hours! When did that person even have a chance to think about his “who”?
But the consideration of the who is, I think, so important to our overall happiness. I mean, how can we really know what we need, how we should spend our time, or even with whom we should be friends, if we don’t have an understanding of our authentic selves? It is so easy to lose ourselves in the day to day. And when we do, we are left open to make decisions or choose courses of action that ultimately leave us unhappy. A year or a decade suddenly goes by and we’re left looking in the mirror at a person we no longer recognize. This, I believe, is the greatest cause of anxiety and depression we face. And I don’t think people even think about it.
And so I am taking that personal inventory to understand my “who.” I am considering my values and trying better to understand what motivates me. It is not easy work. But my goal is to live a satisfying life – and through that life I’d like to add value to the world around me. Do you know your truth? If not, maybe it’s time to start looking. You might not always live perfectly within that truth, but at least your life won’t be dictated by what everybody else thinks you need.
I was reading an author recently who tied intimacy and vulnerability together. She said that “to receive the former, I must freely and willingly express the latter.” Wait? You want me to actually make the choice to be vulnerable? Haven’t we always been told to be strong?
I think that if the author’s words are met with resistance, it is because we have turned vulnerability into a sign of weakness. But if I think about the idea of vulnerability more carefully, what I soon realize is that to be vulnerable takes a decent amount of courage. So it follows that vulnerability isn’t a sign of weakness; it is, indeed, brave.
In a post I made two years ago, I referenced Theologian William Shedd who said, “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” Applied to our hearts, we can make the same argument. Certainly, our hearts are safer when they are kept secret. There’s no hazard to our ego or our emotions if we keep our frayed edges, secrets, fears, and affections tucked neatly inside our chests. But there is also no real chance at connection. I, for one, believe that each of us has a true capacity to give and receive love. But to make that deep connection with someone, we must be vulnerable.
All that said, I also believe that a large number of people have chosen to simply “settle.” What I mean is that they have chosen to be (or stay) in relationships that are comfortable. Maybe they’ve been hurt deeply in the past by a lover or friend. Maybe the world has taken too many punches that felt undeserved. Maybe they are just tired. Whatever the reason, these “comfortable” relationships are easy. And of course they are. If no one is looking into the crux of who you are or diving deep into your motivations, fears, longings and desires, it’s pretty easy to be superficially happy. One can just go day to day with a companion who provides company and to some extent stability. Shared experiences and history are what sustain these relationships (instead of intimacy and passion). And I guess if that’s all you need, that’s ok. I wonder, though, if people in these kinds of relationships ever feel truly alive.
I worry about us – as a community of people. In our efforts to protect ourselves from hurt, to avoid conflict, or to get through continually challenging times, how often do we decide to just “settle”? I know that life happens – good or bad – it happens. But in our efforts to be strong, to be protected, are we closing down our willingness to be vulnerable? And in that, are we also blocking out the possibility to know true love, intimacy, and connection with another person? While vulnerability can be terrifying, what is more frightening is the idea of wanting something that feels important, to have a deep desire for something more, but never being able to drop guard to let it in. The greatest regrets, I believe, come from the times when we had the chance to assume a vulnerable position and didn’t. Contrarily, greatest joy comes when a vulnerable heart opens to another who says, “I see you. I know you. And I love you.”
There’s a saying that goes, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them – the first time.” If you’re anything like me, you’ve given the benefit of the doubt (maybe more than once) to someone who hasn’t deserved it. Perhaps you’ve trusted or put faith in someone who talked a good game. I think it is the nature of an optimistic spirit. We always want to see the best in people. We always hope.
Recently, however, I’ve been thinking about the relationships in my life – over the years – where at the end of the day, I just should have known better. In all of these instances, I can look back now and see where I made my mistake. Instead of believing what the person showed me to be true, I just hung too long on the potential of that person to be something they weren’t. (I actually married – and then divorced – “potential.”) This holding on was motivated by what I thought was a noble effort to see the good in the person, to overlook mistakes in judgment, and to give that person the time and nurturing they needed to “improve.” My unwillingness to just give up (because aren’t we all taught to never give up) resulted in relationships that honestly just sucked away energy. In retrospect, it all seems like a silly waste of time. I simply spent a lot of time making excuses and justifying behaviors that didn’t make me happy.
Please don’t misunderstand my point. I don’t expect anyone to be perfect. As one of THE most imperfect people on the planet, I expect that people will sometimes disappoint me. I also know that my expectations of people can be lofty. Honestly, even Superman himself would fall short on some days. I am working on that. But what I intend to convey is that sometimes we want to believe something so badly, we ignore the reality in front of us. And in that simple act of ignorance, while we are holding out for the potential of someone else, we are forgetting our own potential to be happy.
All of that said, some of my most rewarding relationships today are not always easy. In fact, they are the ones that push me to examine my own values and expectations; they prompt me to expand my thinking and to evolve both mentally and spiritually. But the people with whom I am in these relationships have been honest and forthcoming. They consistently show me who they are. And their actions are ones that always make me believe that my time, my energy, and my love are well spent.
I was watching a TV hospital drama the other night. One of the patients came into the emergency room after being hit by a car. He said that he was texting and walked right into the street without even noticing the car that subsequently struck him. Luckily, the man sustained only minor injuries to his lower leg. But over the course of treatment, the head of psychiatry noticed the man’s underlying depression. He asked the man if he stepped intentionally in front of the car. After some prodding, the man admitted that he had. He said, “I have the perfect life, the perfect marriage, the perfect job. I have nothing to be sad about. And yet, I am sad all the time. Nothing makes me happy.”
I continue to think about this episode because it made me wonder how many of us are silently struggling with fears and insecurities and doubts that we do not discuss. How does our notion of “perfect” put pressure on us? Moreover, how does what others call perfect guilt us into thinking that we should be happy and make us feel inadequate when we are not? Are we even able to define happiness for ourselves anymore? And most importantly, do we think we deserve to be happy?
I believe that there are very few people in the world who live a joyous life. Maybe I’m wrong. But my opinion is that people settle, and in that settlement they find comfort. Comfort and joy, however, are two very different things. One can live a comfortable life – and become comfortably numb in the process – without ever knowing joy. I would argue, however, that the greatest life is one that is both comfortable and joyous. And joy comes from living life as your authentic self.
Many years ago, I read a book by Dr. Phil called “Self Matters.” In that book, Dr. Phil defines the authentic self as “who you were created to be.” He also refers to the fictional self, which is “who the world has told you to be.” He explains that when people are asked who they are, they often answer with a role they play or a place they come from (mom, husband, lawyer, Penn Stater, etc.). Different from these answers, however, is a deeper response to the question, “Who are you?”. He states that this deeper response is found in the authentic self; it is found at your core and is not defined by your job, function or role. “It is all of the things that are uniquely yours and need expression, rather than what you believe you are supposed to be and do.”
I think the world is really good at helping us to create our fictional selves. It is easy to listen to outside influences, pay attention to everyone else’s expectations, and fall victim to someone else’s definition of what happy looks like. It is much harder to think beyond convention and listen to our inner self. After all, what if that little voice inside of me is wrong? What if I step off the beaten path and end up lost and alone in the woods? Then what?
Last August, I posted “Walking the Path.” It was then that I wrote: “The path forward can sometimes become unclear, possibly grown over with brush, or disrupted by broken cobblestones. When this break in the path happens, it is easy for us to retreat; to turn and go back from where we came. And I guess that’s sometimes ok. The places we have already been are known to us; even when they are not exactly pleasant, we know we can survive these places because we’ve already lived in them. We know what the expectations in those places are; we know how people will treat us and what will be the norm.”
As I reread that now, I am thinking about the path in a different way. Perhaps the breaks in our path are opportunities for us to consider the life we are living; to evaluate whether or not we are honoring our authentic selves. And perhaps if the path feels broken or challenging, it is not because we are being called to retreat, but that our authentic self is pushing us forward and calling us to break from the fictional self we’ve allowed the path to create for us in the first place. We might sacrifice comfort for a short time as we grow and evolve, but the resulting joy? I bet that’s worth it.