Tag Archives: empathy


The Habit of Kindness

IMAGE: Tiny Bouquet, a miniature bouquet of wildflowers a dear friend gave me in Italy. (Prints available)

One of the initial challenges for starting a practice of meditation and mindfulness is, paradoxically, it seems too easy. At first pass, sitting still and not thinking about anything while focusing on breathing sounds like something anyone can do: simply exist quietly for a while. I quickly learned that it is actually the opposite of zoning out or contemplation. Being able to sit with both a full and clear mind is the culmination of everything else done in life to get to that place, and it is a lifelong challenge that changes you as a person.

In his revelatory “An Essay on Landscape Painting,” the 11th century Northern Song Dynasty painter and scholar Kuo Hsi described his father readying himself to paint:

On a day when he was to paint, he would seat himself by a bright window, put his desk in order, burn incense to his right and left, and place good brushes and excellent ink beside him; then he would wash his hands and raise his ink-well, as if to receive an important guest, thereby calming his spirit and composing his thoughts. Not until then did he begin to paint. Does this not illustrate what he meant by not daring to face one’s work thoughtlessly?

Approaching life with balance and mindfulness is the essential preparatory work to sit with a clear conscience, to find joy and peace in meaningful meditation rather than feeling trapped with anxiety, daily frustrations or confusions, regrets, or the mental and spiritual equivalents of a cluttered desk or dirty hands. Instead of receiving an important guest, we are meeting ourselves, in a wordless conversation about existence between the world and our spirits. To be in a moment, to fully inhabit it, we have to be a full self. That starts with being honest, being aware, and being kind.

New Forest – Lichen and moss provide the foundation for new plant growth on a fallen tree, continuing the cycle of renewal and regrowth in a forest. (Prints available)

Cultivating an instinct of kindness every day makes a habit of compassion. It is too easy to ignore or compromise the internal voice that suggests, “This is wrong,” or, “I should help,” instead telling ourselves we can’t be late, we need the money, other people treated me the same way, or the most discouraging, “I can’t do anything to change that.” I have always believed it takes extraordinary courage and intelligence to be truly kind as an adult, but it’s an instinct every person has once the conscience develops. It is crucial to keep society from suppressing it and to cling to hope and the belief that our conscience is telling the truth, to know that old Jiminy Cricket feeling of uneasiness should be heeded.

Perhaps the most powerful tool in kindness is empathy, or feeling with another’s heart. It is not enough to ponder how we might feel if something we see happening to someone else were to happen to us – we need to understand how that person feels in the actual situation we see. It starts with observation without judgment, objectively listening and gathering information before we start trying to solve other people’s problems or tell them why their feelings are wrong. It seems common to tackle large issues like racism or poverty with a sketchy and vague sense of the issues, but I don’t often see people stop to ask, “How does that feel?” I think we can be too quick to dismiss the validity of political, spiritual, or personal beliefs because they don’t make sense with how we approach the world. We brush them off instead of trying to wrap our heads around them, which is ultimately an unkind thing to do. Expanding our sense of willingness to inhabit another person’s experience is an act of profound kindness, and if we make it a habit, we gain different lenses with which to understand our own experiences.

Seaside Goldenrod – (Solidago sempervirens) is uniquely saltwater tolerant, a cheerful display of bright yellow flowers at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in southern New Jersey. (Prints available)

A second key to kindness is integrity. We should not offer kindness because it makes us look good to other people or gains an advantage of indebtedness. Like anything worth doing, being kind is its own reward. It is important to be consistently kind if it is to become a habit, and to be kind to everyone, not just those people we think are currently most “deserving.” I regularly examine my thoughts for often-unconscious stabs of unkindness: wishing for someone to fail, enjoying hearing about the misfortune of someone I don’t like, feeling relief that I am in a better situation than another person, or dismissing people I don’t understand with disdain or pettiness. It can be hard to break the habit of cruelty that we learn from a young age because it is rooted in competitiveness and the American notion of “winning” or success. Redefining success away from money, material possessions, titles, accolades, appearance, or esteem goes against everything we’re socialized into believing, but it opens the door to far greater rewards.

My goal in life is to be kind to every person I meet, to make life easier or more pleasant for others when I can, to open people’s eyes to thoughts or moments of beauty they may not have seen, and to leave everyone a little more loved than I found them. I know that the only way I can do that is with an uncompromised habit of kindness and compassion, but I’m only human. It is a lifelong project.

Weathered Hydrangea, slightly faded by summer rains, perhaps all the lovelier for it. (Prints available)

That brings me to the third critical tool of kindness: forgiveness. We cannot grow or help others if we cannot forgive. I include forgiving oneself, having a sense of compassion as deep for one’s own missteps as those of others when forgiveness is earned. When I want to comfort people, I usually say some variation of, “It’s okay,” or, “Hey, that happens to us all.” I don’t typically hold grudges when a friend says something unkind in a bad mood, so I am trying to forgive myself the same way, rather than cringing every time I relive a moment when I blurted out something rude instead of a compliment or when I wished someone ill because my feelings were hurt.

People sometimes do unkind things, but most aren’t fundamentally unkind. Often they are not paying attention, they are preoccupied with worry, they are afraid, or they are proud. I am learning that understanding what people are going through makes it much easier to forgive these shortcomings, and instead see them as opportunities to help. My own lapses and times of unhappiness are helping me grow, but only if I let myself. That starts by forgiving mistakes and acknowledging that everyone always needs to grow. None of us were born perfect, and none of us stays kind without effort.

Spray of Pink, flowers in front of a peach-colored wall in the Cinque Terre, Italy. (Prints available)

As I continue on this path of mindfulness and nurturing compassion, I am keeping notes on experiences and moments that bring me clarity or deeper understanding. It is kind to be generous with what we learn. The most important tool in kindness that I’ve found so far is awareness: of the self, of the world, and of others. We cannot grow or change, nor help others, if we don’t start by making ourselves aware of where there is hurt or suffering, or where we have a chance to do better. It can be truly painful to be aware, especially in recognizing how we impact others, but it’s imperative.

Once our eyes are open, we see these challenges everywhere. It can be overwhelming, but it’s okay. It happens to us all, and we have each other to help.

Some ways to get through this mess

I have been mulling over what to say, if anything, because in a lot of ways I don’t want to remember this week or the way the results of this election made me feel. I took a full day on Wednesday, heartbroken, to just grieve. And then I decided that I will not let anyone take away my hope, joy, or love of this country, so I am moving from heartbroken to the “hell hath no fury” phase.

In days that have felt as uncertain and dark as those in the wake of our greatest national tragedies, some people keep showing their resiliency and compassion because humans can be amazingly strong and inherently beautiful. So I’ve decided to collect some of the things that reminded me of the best of humanity that is shining through and some of the things I’ve done or thought about this week that have helped me feel better, in the hopes that they can help restore some faith or give encouragement to persevere. Remember:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

1. The Subway Therapy Post-It Project in the NYC Subway

© Levee, subwaytherapy on Instagram

In a beautiful project started by the artist Levee in Manhattan and spreading throughout subway stations around the city, thousands of New Yorkers are writing messages of support, love, and inspiration on Post-Its as Subway Therapy. It is a simple and beautiful expression of solidarity and hope, especially for commuters facing uncertainty and threats to their safety and security in the US. I encourage you to look through the photos on Levee’s account and those using #subwaytherapy to see some of the incredibly touching and heartfelt emotions running through my beloved city.

2. Safety Pins to Show Solidarity

Via New York Magazine

After the UK shockingly voted yes on Brexit, Brits started wearing safety pins as a gesture of solidarity to show immigrants, refugees, and vulnerable members of the population that they were safe and had many people who wanted to protect them. I had been thinking about how to convey this sentiment to my neighbors and community members, but I thought wearing a Hillary Clinton campaign pin or some other overtly political slogan (“Still With Her,” “Love Trumps Hate,” “Stronger Together” etc.) can be confrontational or hostile in a different way. The point isn’t about partisanship or us-versus-them, it’s about solidarity with those who are now put at greater risk. I really like the safety pin symbolism and will be wearing one on my jackets and bags in the foreseeable future, along with everything else I already do in public to try to let people know I am their ally and will do everything I can to protect others.

3. Researching NGOs and charitable organizations and deciding to get more actively involved

© Steve Winter, Tigers in Bandhavgarh National Park, India, via National Geographic

One of my deep concerns is the potentially catastrophic and irreversible damage that can be done to the environment if most campaign promises are kept or platform policies are enacted. The fear was especially pronounced because I just watched Before the Flood last weekend, and, yikes, it’s urgent. Through tears, my mother helped me research a number of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and nonprofits doing significant work to protect the environment and combat climate change, and I have been inspired to make some major life changes in the coming months (of which, more soon). Sometimes just seeing the incredible work being done all over the world by organizations unhindered by our government is enough to restore my faith in humanity because I know that no matter what happens here, that work will go on.

If you are in the mood to sign some petitions, let me suggest:

  • Tell Congress to reauthorize funding for the Multinational Species Conservation Fund (MSCF) to help protect tigers.
  • Tell the White House: do not allow Myron Ebell, a famous climate change denier, to lead the EPA transition.

There will be a lot more of this kind of thing regularly on my Facebook and Twitter.

4. Remember all the Nasty Women voters out there and our phenomenal strength

This election struck a raw nerve for every woman who has been sexually assaulted (which is, let’s be real, pretty much every woman you know) or treated as lesser for being a woman. It reopened a lot of old wounds over and over as our friends, family members, colleagues, neighbors, and all kinds of people in our lives brushed aside a candidate bragging about sexually assaulting a woman, excusing or even embracing misogyny, and taking an aggressive and incredibly ugly tone toward Clinton. I have tried to explain to men in my life how it feels to spend 35 years constantly diminished, objectified, and reduced because I am seen as a woman first and a person second, no matter my education, talents, accomplishments, or what’s in my heart and soul. It became crystal clear that some people truly haven’t understood – and maybe never can understand – this experience, so I was not surprised when they also didn’t understand the big deal about having the opportunity to vote for a woman for president.

To be clear, I voted for the best-qualified and most deserving candidate with the platform that most closely reflected my values and concerns. That she was a woman is extraordinary. My mother and I headed to the polls in our respective states at the same time to try to be as “together” as we could in voting, and we texted each other afterwards with irrepressible beaming smiles and tears of elation streaming down our faces. Neither of us were prepared for how incredible it would feel to cast that vote, and we were absolutely exuberant. We had both been scrolling through a secret Facebook group, crying at incredible stories and posts of women voting in pantsuits, symbols of the suffragette movement, wearing their grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ jewelry or their mothers’ Equal Rights Amendment t-shirts, describing what casting that vote meant to them and their families.

And though the election ended in an unforeseen disaster, no one can take away the fact that a woman was not only a viable candidate, but received the majority of the popular vote, and we got to vote for her and share what that meant with all the other badass, emboldened women out there. In the aftermath, we are more determined than ever to keep holding each other up and making the world better for everyone. Whenever I get shaky in my confidence about the future, I remember my friends and the legion of other women out there who have my back. With that strength, we can do anything.

5. Thank our girl, and actually listen to her words

It was surprisingly therapeutic to write a letter to Hillary Clinton thanking her for the honor of voting for her and the inspiration she has given me. At the time of her concession speech, I was in such shock I could barely process what she was saying, let alone wrap my head around how she was so calm and strong when I felt alternately like screaming and curling into a fetal position for four years. I reflected on her class and dignity throughout her campaign and realized it should have been expected that even in defeat, she would be a model of grace and poise.

“I have, as Tim said, spent my entire adult life fighting for what I believe in. I have had successes and I have had setbacks. Sometimes really painful ones. Many of you are at the beginning of your professional public and political careers. You will have successes and setbacks, too. This loss hurts but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”

Watch it again, or read her words. It is truly inspiring. She really has been our champion, and it felt wonderful to tell her so.

6. Celebrate the history-making victories women did have in this election

Kamala Harris, via Yes! Magazine

It is tempting to see the new GOP majorities in both the Senate and House as a portent of doomsday, but we can still celebrate the 6 women who won historic firsts, increasing the diversity of representation in government and badassery everywhere. And if that doesn’t do it for you… how about more legal recreational weed?

7. Tell your friends and family you love and support them

Some of my friends were facing existential fears this week, uncertain about their continued freedom and safety based on their race, sexual orientation or gender identity, religion, immigration status, etc. Looking at the revolting instances of swastika graffiti and white supremacist hate speech, women in hijabs being assaulted in Walmarts, people of color being called unbelievable slurs and having their lives threatened in gas stations, and girls as young as 8 or 10 having their genitals grabbed with the justification that it’s allowed now… these are not unfounded fears. Beyond bullying, there are dire threats to the rights and freedoms of the LGBTQIA+ community, women’s reproductive rights, people with disabilities who may now be denied essential health care if the Affordable Care Act is repealed as promised, Muslims who have been mischaracterized for months as complicit in this “radical Islamic terrorism” nonsense, and immigrants who genuinely don’t know how worried they should be about being detained or deported.

How can you even begin to comfort someone who is facing that kind of danger?? I have been admitting to these friends that I don’t know how to help yet, but reminding them that I will always love and support them and that they are not alone in these fights. I think this week gave a lot of people the feeling that the country had turned its back on them or didn’t care about them, so as much as I can, I’m trying to counteract that. Sometimes just hearing that someone truly cares can give enough strength to get through another hour with insensitive coworkers or loudmouthed relatives gloating. And of course, there are other things we can do too. But don’t forget to reach out and share your heart with those feeling even more vulnerable than before.

8. Remember that life is a lot bigger than the government

It took me a while to grasp the full truth in this quote and even longer to feel comforted by it, but eventually it sunk in. Politicians come and go, and the stuff they deal with is really important, but it’s not everything. Art has the power to change the way you see and experience the world and transform your mind. More than ever, art is essential for healing and understanding each other, and I have important work to do.

9. Put your hands to work making something for someone else

Knitting is one of my favorite stress-relieving hobbies, but I haven’t wanted to go near my knitting basket this week. I didn’t want anything I made to carry the memories of this week and remind me of it every time I looked at my projects. While researching ways to help veterans, I came across the suggestion to write letters to service members and veterans through Operation Gratitude, which I will be spending some time doing this weekend. I poked around their site some more and learned about the Handmade with Love project to send handmade scarves, hats, paracord bracelets, and other items included in care packages. I cast on for a scarf immediately and have been focusing hope, love, and peace into each stitch.

I looked a little more on a charity knitting group on a board I belong to and found another great project, Allied Aid, which sends hats, gloves, socks, and other needed items to refugees being held in Greece. For sure, I will be sending a package of hand-knit items to them too.

I found that thinking about how to comfort, help, and protect other people really did make me feel better about the world, so I will be adding more volunteering to my regular schedule too.

10. Enjoy the cognitive dissonance of the “awww” feeling George W. Bush’s latest project gives you

I cannot believe what I’m going to say, but I actually said, “Awww, that’s really nice!” when I read about George W. Bush’s current project, “Portraits of Courage.” The former president has been painting the portraits and getting to know 98 veterans who were wounded carrying out his post-9/11 orders. These portraits are included in an exhibition and book, the proceeds of which are given to support “veterans and their families [to] make successful transitions to civilian life with a focus on gaining meaningful employment and overcoming the invisible wounds of war.”

I like to believe this project is in some ways his personal penance. I truly appreciate that he is using the arts to support veterans and sharing their stories.

11. Read, learn, think, cultivate empathy even when it’s tempting not to

For a few weeks now I have been reading a book of essays on sustainable forestry and I guess what you could call the philosophy of ecological conservation by Wendell Berry. His words about the life cycles of forests and man’s relationship with them are feeling intensely metaphorical and instructive for a bigger lesson in how to mitigate the harm we may do and consider the long-term implications of our actions. (More on this another time too.)

There is great solace to be found in the literature, history, and philosophy of other times, when mankind seemed at a similar breaking point of hostility or hatred for one another. The lesson I keep seeing, repeated as loudly as all of our mistakes, is that empathy and compassion are absolutely crucial, and they are most necessary at the time when we are least inclined to practice them. While in the stages of grieving this week, I went to some dark, angry places, and I’m not proud of the ugliness that came out of my mind. Some of it was spiteful, anarchistic, destructive, personally hateful, dismissive, judgmental – all the things I was accusing others of being in my more frustrated moments. I’m still processing where I fall on everything, but I know I need to at least try to empathize and understand where others are coming from, even if they would not make the same effort in return. This one will be an uphill battle, so I have been reminding myself over and over that I fight for the side of the planet and humanity… all of it.

12. As necessary, disengage

I unfollowed the friends and family members who were posting taunts, gloating, and sharing an endless stream of mean-spirited memes and articles on Facebook and Twitter, and I will decide eventually if there is a place for them in my life anymore. I happen to have a malingering cold this week, so it’s been a relief to disengage when I need to and focus on healing, physically and spiritually, to step back and reassess through a less emotional lens when I can. However you voted, this election cycle has been exhausting and upsetting, dredging up all kinds of negativity and hurt. It will take time to get past the divisiveness that has become habitual, but I think the only way to do it is to come back together when we are whole again, whenever that may be.

It it tempting and sometimes irresistible to read the flood of “tragedy porn” style disastrous headlines and stories, to get into frustrating circular conversations with people who are thriving on your hurt and fear, and to give too much of yourself to worrying about hypotheticals. This is not to diminish what is going on in any way, but limiting your browsing time when it gets too upsetting, or only going through your regular real news sources can help keep things in check. All that noise will be there when (or if) you’re ready for it again.

Remember that you are under no obligation to listen to postmortems or I-told-you-so sessions. If you focus on proactively opposing and countering the most heinous of the proposed changes, you will feel a lot better than those dwelling on what’s already happened. Or, you can let it be someone else’s problem for a while. Sometimes in my life when I’ve made a terrible decision I felt the need to tell anyone who would listen why I thought it was right, and the best thing for me was to be left alone with the consequences of what I’d done. Your mileage may vary. Garrison Keillor has a particularly humorous take on this approach that, honestly, gave me a snide bit of cold comfort.

13. But speak up where it counts

I can’t count how many petitions I’ve signed and letters I’ve written to my representatives this week. I was doing it last week too, against the Dakota Access Pipeline threatening the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s water supply and sacred sites, and I will keep on doing it until my fingers fall off or I get put on a blocked-callers list. As we have seen, we have a far from perfect system, but the only way we can make our voices heard (short of being a billionaire and lobbying) is en masse, contacting our representatives and speaking our minds. Tell your Senators and representatives in the House how you want them to vote, and tell them your concerns and ask what they are doing about it. Remember that despite all appearances, the government is full of our employees, paid with our tax dollars, and they are responsible to answer to us. Make them.

14. Prioritize self-care

I recommend some quiet, meditation, and reflection without all the noise. A walk around outside does wonders, even if you spend the whole time coughing and wheezing like I did. Eventually I will get around to writing a post I’ve been drafting in my mind of nice things you can do for yourself anytime at home, but here is a shortlist:

  • Take an aromatherapy bath or shower. I especially recommend lavender essential oil in a green tea soak.
  • Make yourself a cup of tea or hot cocoa or your hot beverage of choice, and sit down to drink it with no other distractions.
  • Reorganize a closet or shelf in your home, or refold your sweaters. (This may be just me, but I find this kind of thing incredibly soothing.)
  • Cook a meal entirely from scratch, or using as few processed ingredients as you can. Really experience every ingredient and the way they are transformed together into something that nourishes you.
  • Write down all your thoughts and feelings in a notebook or journal. Putting words around experiences starts to make them understandable and manageable.
  • Listen to music with headphones on and your eyes closed. Refuse to think, and just be with the music.
  • Take a nap, or go to sleep early. Sometimes you just need to shut down and start over.

15. When all else fails, there are always these Joe Biden memes

Via Buzzfeed

Seriously, this list of Joe Biden memes is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Joe Biden will never not be funny.