2011: A year of kindness?

Is this the year for learning something fresh and transformative about kindness? Something that will enhance your life – and the lives of everyone around you?

Maybe you have begun the year with a long list of worthy things you ought to be doing: improving your mind as well as calming it; listening more appreciatively to your loved ones; making time for community, creativity, connection, lots more love and fun – and (for those without little children) some deep, uninterrupted rest.

Perhaps you long to learn something challenging that’s totally unrelated to your work?  Or want to give more  to a worthwhile cause? Maybe you are ready to offer help rather than criticism to a colleague who is struggling?  Or perhaps you need just the smallest encouragement to cook dinner at home for friends who care much more about getting together than whatever you put on the table? Perhaps you would like to visit an art gallery and dream for an hour in front of a single painting? Or spend a day at home alone snacking on cheese and cherries while reading a truly transporting novel?

Many of our wants and dreams are perfectly possible. And yet we so easily let them slip out of reach. This year I have written about NY resolutions, but once again I am also going for the biggest possible picture, putting this year, too, fast forward as the Year of Everyday Kindness.

A kinder life will always be a happier one.  It relies on self-responsibility (which relies in turn on our willingness to grow up). It will also be a far more interesting and engaged than a life lived selfishly or resentfully.

And rather than thinking about change in slave terms (I know I ought to, I should, I must…), your chances of success soar once you think about kindness as a context for all your other attitudes and actions, as the driving force of your existence and not as something you hoard or offer only when it’s time to be impressive.

A kinder attitude makes it so easy to see what you need to add to your emotional repertoire, and what you can certainly risk letting go. Taking up/putting down: these are the decisions that can be made fast and decisively within the context of kindness.  (More of this; less of that.)

In a life that’s vital, alive and engaged, it is not a question of whether you can afford to be kind but whether you can afford not to be. I have written about kindness for years now. Choosing Happiness is all about kindness really and so is The Almost-Perfect Marriage.  I’ve done so knowing how easily kindness, even respect or “giving the benefit of the doubt”, is misunderstood and trivialised. Cynicism, aggression, withholding, criticism, belittling: these are all often closer to hand.

They delude many people into thinking that kindness is for the weak or needy even when the opposite is true. It takes strength of mind as well as openness of heart to be consistently kind – and it develops strength.  It also takes courage to be kind even when there isn’t going to an immediate reward.

Judging others from the most negative viewpoint, rejoicing in gossip or others’ woes, refusing forgiveness or even the most basic expressions of empathy: all of this shrinks rather than enhances life.

A withholding, suspicious or unforgiving attitude leaches the life out of life. When something is wrong in your perception – speak up and hear the other’s point of view.  When someone acts unkindly towards you, examine your need to retaliate. Who will it help? When you are tempted to put someone else down to make yourself feel better, ask yourself when this achieved the relief or comfort you are seeking?

It is utterly sustaining to know that even in tough times we can still trust our own capacity for kindness. We can still remain honest about how absolutely dependent we ourselves are on the kindness of others.

Give others the benefit of the doubt!  Remember the best you know about them, even when you can’t also forget the worst. Respond to their strengths and not just their weaknesses.  And respond and rejoice in your own strengths also.

I have been reading Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness, a detailed account of her years haunted and radically diminished by extreme eating disorders. No kindness there. De Rossi shows as clearly as any writer ever has how life itself shrinks when it’s lived in the shadows of self-hatred.  Love saved  Portia; love – and especially kindness – saves us all.

Whether you are conscious of it or not, you have an awesome ability to increase other people’s joy, satisfaction and safety through acts of simple kindness. That power is worth everything.

Kindness doesn’t mean surrendering your right to comfortable boundaries, or meeting every demand that comes your way.  It can mean being clearer about saying no, as well as when you want to say yes. Kindness pushes you to take other people into account constantly, yet by increasing your self-respect and contentment it also saves you from making a martyr of yourself or sacrificing yourself to unrealisable “ideals” that exist only in your imagination.

Kindness saves lives. Kindness makes life worth living. It drives the connections on which we all utterly depend. It is love in action. It is justice and compassion in action. Big picture, small changes. This year is our chance. Another chance. A kinder year is possible. We will all benefit.

(Do you love the photo at the top of this article? Like so many of the images and portraits on this site it was taken by my good friend and very fine professional photographer, Peter Damo.)