A Case Against Kindness

I’m not a kind person.  I’m not all that thoughtful of others.  I don’t remember many birthdays, and never send Get Well cards.  I could make a long list of the thoughtful things I don’t do.  This isn’t to say I’m bad or mean, or that I don’t appreciate kindness in others.  I think kindness makes the world more gentle and civilized.  It’s just not an arrow in my personal quiver.

I’ve been accused of being kind.  Usually in reference to taking on other people’s worries, or jumping in to fix a problem.  Once, at a huge gathering, my friend Steven announced, “Sandy has shitty boundaries.”  Yikes!  And I thought I was being kind!  Over the years, I stopped fixing, stopped being so available, stopped thinking about other people before I thought about myself.  I just assumed I’d become a selfish bitch—but in a good way!

Instead of kindness, I try to practice compassion.  In his book, Teachings on Love, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh talks about it this way.

Compassion contains deep concern.  You know the other person is suffering, so you sit close to her.  You look and listen deeply to her to be able to touch her pain.  You are in deep communication, deep communication with her, and that alone brings some relief.

One compassionate word, action or thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring him joy.  One word can give comfort and confidence, destroy doubt, help someone avoid a mistake, reconcile a conflict, or open the door to liberation.  One action can save a person’s life or help him take advantage of a rare opportunity.  One thought can do the same, because thoughts always lead to word and actions.  With compassion in our heart, every thought, word, and deed can bring about a miracle.

We need to be aware of the suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness, and strength so we can help transform the situation.  The ocean of tears cannot drown us if [compassion] is there.  That is why the Buddha’s smile is possible.

Compassion has an edge.  It can be a kick in the butt as much as a soft word.  This appeals to me.

I started thinking about kindness at our last Stamp Club meeting.  We’re working on a Gratitude Journal, and our assignment for March is to keep track of the kindnesses we receive from others and the ones we give out.  I knew one list would be long and the other one short.  I was pondering this today at the grocery store, when the elderly woman in front of me didn’t have enough money to pay for her groceries.  She was a little confused, and her words flitted from the price of strawberries at another grocery store to why she liked the cookies she had to give back in order to afford what was left in her cart.  The man at the checkout was very patient.  No, it wasn’t even a question of patience.  He listened to her as if she were the only customer in the store.  Gently, he guided her attention back to the problem at hand—which items to put back in order to pay for what was left.  She seemed to get stuck when there was only a dollar’s difference left.  She peered into her billfold, not quite sure what to do next.  I gave her a dollar.

There was no thoughtfulness behind what I did.  The woman needed a dollar.  I had one.  Problem solved.  But, her reaction surprised me a little.  She said she was embarrassed, could never take a stranger’s money. She backed away from me as if I threatened her.   I told her she would be doing me a kindness if she took my dollar, and then gave a dollar to someone else down the road who needed one.  She agreed to that.  I watched how strange the encounter was for her, and how she slowly came to terms with it.

Then, when it was my turn at the checkout, the cashier smiled and handed me back the dollar.  “I’ll take care of it,” he said.

Right there, in the front of Aldi, the three of us created a bubble of expansive energy that took on a life of its own.

My friend, Cheryl, likes to drive through Starbuck’s and pay for the car behind her.  While she practices this wide-open act of generosity, we both get giggly.  Joy bubbles out of her.  It enters me, the barista at the window, and I’m guessing the car behind us.  To me, this is more than an act of kindness.  It’s an act of creation.  It’s an acknowledgment of our shared humanness.  It cracks open any shell of lack or restriction that might be hovering around and replaces it with plenty and ease.

Perhaps I need to adjust my definition of kindness.  I’m willing to accept that kindness can include small gifts of thoughtfulness as well as universe-expanding acts of creation.  There’s room in my reality for both.  Just as long as I get to kick butt once in a while.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. lisaspiral
    Aug 23, 2011 @ 08:06:00

    I agree that compassion is more useful than kindness. But it seems to me that compassion as it is taught in the Buddhist sense requires disengagement. I’m still not entirely convinced that I can function in the world and disengaged with it. And I do like to “kick butt” sometimes a little too much to count it entirely as compassionate encouragement.


    • Sandy Sue
      Aug 23, 2011 @ 12:49:11

      Disengagement, I’ve found, is a really useful practice. It lets me connect with the people and situations that warrant my attention instead of reacting to everything and taking it all personally. Knowing you like to kick butt is a wonderful bit of self-knowledge. When I feel that urge, it’s always a finger pointed back at me asking a question—why does it matter? The answer always has more to do with me than with the butt I want to kick.

      Thanks so much for coming to visit. I’ll stop by your place again.


  2. docrob50
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 21:11:00

    looks like the both of you have found a way to share kindness.
    Maybe add some metta to that karuna and spread the mudita with a kick ass attititude?


  3. Trackback: The Green Study Spa: Take a Moment and Put Your Feet Up | The Green Study

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