Look Through the Turn
The Key to Being Kind, Not Just Acting It
It’s a long-standing joke in my family that my marriage to Perry was arranged by my parents. That’s not exactly how it happened, but it isn’t entirely untrue either. No, my father did not pay a dowry to his family. It wasn’t that kind of arranged marriage. But my parents did spot him first and bring him home, so to speak. Dad was the coach of the church softball team and Perry played for the team. Those two were good friends before I came into the picture. My mom, however, made sure I came into the picture. Anytime I was at one of their games, Mom would whisper, “Go talk to Perry!” I was still in high school at the time and he was a few years older, so this went on for a year or two until I graduated. That summer, however, we finally caught each other’s attention. Perry’s side of the story is that he asked out the coach’s daughter to secure a spot on the team.
My parents saw traits in Perry that they would want for their daughter’s spouse. He was kind, hardworking, and respectful to his mom and women in general. All I saw was that he was really good-looking—blonde hair, green eyes, athletic build. And he had a motorcycle! That sealed the deal for me.
Now, thirty years later, I am beyond grateful that Mom and Dad were looking a little beyond the surface. In fact, they did such a stellar job picking my husband that Perry and I tried to arrange our children’s marriages too. As you may imagine, that didn’t fly.
There was a study done in the 1970s by psychologist John Gottman to uncover the secrets that make or break a marriage relationship. He and his colleague Robert Levenson gathered newlywed couples at their laboratory, called “The Love Lab,” and hooked them up to electrodes.[i] The couples then answered questions about their relationship, including how they met, any major conflicts, and positive memories. Readings were taken on whether an individual was calm and relaxed or showed the “fight or flight” response, even to simple questions.
The couples were then observed over the next six years. According to their results, the researchers separated the couples into two groups: the masters and the disasters. The masters tended to be respectful of and grateful toward their partners. The disasters, on the other hand, were only focused on their partner’s mistakes and were very critical.
The most critical finding in this entire study is that there is one particular trait that correlated to lasting, stable relationships: kindness. Kindness is like a language of its own that can break through any barrier. It’s the glue that binds together every relationship, not just marriages. This got me thinking how we can increase the kindness factor in our lives in order to have healthy, long-lasting relationship in our families, our workplaces, and communities. After considerable thought, the conclusion I reached is that the first step is to recognize what it means to be kind, not just act it.
Just like everything else in our culture, we’ve made kindness performance based. There’s a lot of talk about acts of kindness. If someone gets “caught” buying diapers for a single mom or helping an old lady cross the street or giving money to a homeless man, they become instant celebrities on social media. In fact, people video themselves helping someone less fortunate so that they can post it on Facebook. (I find it interesting how even acts of kindness can become self-serving.) It’s important to acknowledge that there’s difference between acting kind and being kind. Acts of kindness are fantastic and make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. The problem is that they can make us appear kind, but they don’t make us kind.
And here’s why: kindness is an output, not an input.[ii]
Kindness isn’t meant to be an act; it should be part of our character. Our actions flow out from our thoughts and feelings. Our actions don’t typically change how we think and feel, at least not permanently. If they did, we wouldn’t constantly struggle to be in shape, quit drinking, or get over a broken relationship. One workout, one day sober, or one blind date and we would be cured. Likewise, one act of kindness would make us kind to our spouses, children, or co-workers all the time. But our mind, will, and emotions direct our actions, not the other way around. Our hearts act as our personal GPS unit directing us where to go, how to act, and what to say. Using the GPS illustration, our words and actions give away our location.
Let me give you an illustration. I heard a story recently about a very successful business man who donated $2 million to construct a new cancer treatment wing for a local hospital. This was a very commendable act, so there was a big write-up in the paper about him, and he was honored at a fancy gala event. What the article didn’t mention is that this man hadn’t spoken to either of his two adult children in several years, and how he managed to get out of his end of any agreement he made with his ex-wife during the divorce settlement. His co-workers characterized him as mean and coldhearted. The sum of our actions, not a single act, gives away our location.
Three Keys to Being Kind
In order to bekind, we have to deal with the underlying issues that can make us unkind, and downright mean sometimes. I want to share with you three ways to change your thinking in order to increase the kindness factor in your life:
1. Forgive easily.
We live in a culture that teaches us that we have rights: we have the right to be happy, we have the right to be respected, we have the right to be treated like everyone else. That’s all well and good…as long as people actually treat us well. But if not, it causes us a lot of anxiety. All of this emotional entitlement is exhausting, because it requires us to hold on to all the unpaid invoices, if you will. This is one of the many ways that we are encouraged to be selfish in our culture, because it’s all about me.
I can’t believe you did that to me.
You can’t treat me that way.
What about me?
We lay awake at night thinking about what so-and-so did or didn’t do. Holding on to all those debts that will never come due—real or perceived—makes us not only tired, but unhappy, unfulfilled, and, frankly, unkind.
I can hear the objections now, But he needs to pay, or she needs to pay for this. Rest assured that there are always consequences to our actions—both good and bad. And just because consequences don’t happen on our timetable doesn’t mean that they’re not coming. A friend explained it to me this way a long time ago: just because we let someone off of our hook, doesn’t mean that God lets them off of His. I find that oddly reassuring.
So, the next time your spouse, a friend, or a random stranger offends you, give them a pass. Remember the game Monopoly? Instead of a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, consider it an “Act Like a Jerk” card. Just let it go. We are not talking about allowing someone to walk all over us like a door mat. That doesn’t benefit anyone. We’re talking about making a conscious decision to not allow someone else’s choices that you have no control over to ruin your day. I’ve heard it explained this way: holding on to resentment (and unforgiveness) “is like letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.”[iii]
And yes, you might give out enough free passes to certain individuals that they might be able to ride all day at Kennywood Park, but it’s ok. You will sleep better. That alone will make us kinder.
2. Realize there’s enough to go around.
I have recently come to recognize that often when I have experienced conflict in my personal relationships, it is because I had a different agenda for them, or they had a different agenda for me than the one that we had for ourselves. Sometimes it’s easy to see the connection. For example, my agenda for my husband on a Sunday afternoon could be for him to take out trash and mow the lawn, but his agenda for himself is to lie on the couch and watch football all day.
Oftentimes, though, our agendas are hidden—even to us. My subliminal agenda, for example, could be for you to be less successful, less attractive, less kind because somehow in my mind that makes me feel better about myself. Maybe my agenda is for you to hold the same beliefs that I do because somehow it diminishes my views when you think differently from me. The problem is that whether we realize it or not, we tend to view success as a commodity. We’re concerned that there is only so much of it to go around.[iv] When someone else gets a promotion over us, or buys a brand-new car that we can’t afford, or has something else that we can’t have, it’s as if they are taking a piece of the pie, our pie, which leaves less for us. Often, it’s hard for us to be kind if we fear that the other person is getting ahead…and taking all of our pie!
The truth is, there is more than enough to go around. Your happiness, success, and fulfilment in no way detracts from my happiness, success, or fulfilment. Even if you receive the promotion that I wanted, I need to be mature enough to recognize that it’s not my last chance to be promoted or to find a job a job that I love. It’s easy to get caught up in the game of trying to measure up, but it’s not productive.
3. Don’t engage.
Are you familiar with the phrase rules of engagement? This is a military term referring to the circumstances under which it is not advised to engage with the enemy in a combat situation. It’s my personal observation that there are social rules of engagement too, and they are different for men and women. For example, a man is very hesitant to say anything about another man that may be construed as disrespect. It’s “man code,” which I’m told is a real thing. Sometimes this is very helpful in maintaining relationships, but at the same time it could prevent him from speaking up in a meeting to challenge his boss’s idea, even if he disagrees. But this same man can be lured out to the parking lot to settle a dispute, if challenged to do so.
Women, however, would rather talk things out than engage physically (most women, anyway). We have an easier time discussing our feelings and voicing our opinion. There are down sides to the “woman code” rules of engagement, as well. If you ask women which demographic they would rather work with, 90 percent will respond that they prefer working with men. Why? Because all that discussion about feelings and opinions can seem caddy.
Translated, this means that women just naturally create more drama than men.
A paradigm shift came for me personally when I realized that I don’t have to engage in the drama, even when it’s directed at me. I always have a choice to respond with kindness, rather than to react out of anger or frustration.
There was a situation that occurred not too long ago. I was working on a big project and a week before the deadline, one individual backed out on her commitment. She sent a long email about why she made this decision and it was really my fault, because I didn’t uphold my end of the deal. That wasn’t even true! I actually had our agreement in writing and a time-stamped email where I spelled out my intentions, and she signed off on the plan.
At that point I had a choice. I had to evaluate the situation and see if this was one of those times where I needed to push through and hold her “feet to the fire,” but it wasn’t. It was a done deal and there’s nothing I could have done—except cause a lot of drama. I could have hit Reply All and explained my position and how I had evidence that she wasn’t being honest, and that she was the one not upholding her end of the deal.
Regardless, it’s my choice whether I engage or not. To be honest, I was more than a little frustrated and tempted to strike back. But I have come to realize that most people fall into one of two categories: 1) they already know what’s really going on (i.e., the character of both parties), or 2) they simply don’t care. In this instance, I chose to reply back (just to her) and say, “I understand. I’ll pursue other options. Thanks for the response.”
The remarkable thing was that plan B was a hundred times better than plan A. The other remarkable thing is how much lower my anxiety level is when I willfully give up my right to defend my point of view.
Kindness as a Discipline
About fifteen years ago, I had the opportunity to take the motorcycle safety course and get my class M license. My husband found a little older-model 200cc Honda for me. It was kind of a joke of a motorcycle, but it got me from place A to place B, except for when it didn’t. The most challenging part for me of learning to ride is what the instructors refer to as “looking through the turn.” This means that you keep your head up and your eyes looking where you want to go. It sounds intuitive, but it’s not. It’s much easier and feels more natural to look down and see where you are currently. The problem is that this makes it difficult to maneuver the bike through a turn because it’s easy to misjudge the depth of the corner.
In the same way, kindness requires us to keep our head up and look beyond a lot of junk that is happening at ground level. This is the trouble with being kind rather than simply acting: it’s not as much fun. For example, when you hand a random stranger a bottle of water on a hot day, they thank you for your kindness. When you announce that you have donated money to a charity, they send a thank-you note or recognize you publicly. When you help an older lady across the street, someone may actually be recording you on their smartphone. They could post it on Facebook and your act of random kindness could get two thousand likes. We may not think of it in this way, but sometimes public acts of kindness are often a cry for attention. If our focus is really on helping other then we’re not looking for recognition.
On the other hand, no one is going to say, Thank you for not blasting your boss’s mistake in a Reply All email to the whole company, or Thank you for not broadcasting your spouse’s indiscretion throughout the neighborhood, or Thank you for not allowing the comment that your mother made to you about your children cause a family feud that lasts until your now-two-year-old graduates from high school. No one will thank you for looking through the turn because no one knows what you know. There is no one else to share in the gossip. Well, that’s not fun. No, it’s not, but that’s the nature of being kind and not just acting it out when others are looking.
It’s important to stop for a second and recognize that we’re not talking about interfering with the natural consequences of someone else’s choices. An example would be hiding evidence or withholding details about a friend’s actions that may get them in trouble with the law. That’s actually not kind, because it enables self-destructive behavior. I’m talking about your response and my response when someone doesn’t treat us how we deserve to be treated.
Kindness is the X factor in most every human relationship, from marriage to friendship to work. Increasing our ability to be kind will help foster healthy relationships in every aspect of our lives. Being kind is much more than just committing random acts of kindness. We have the ability to choose how to respond, even in difficult situations where we are mistreated or disrespected. The sum of our words and actions—not just those performed for an audience—act as a GPS unit giving away our heart’s location.
Often kindness is more about what we let go than what we give. We can choose to look through the turn, to keep our heads up and look beyond the ugliness. But the amazing thing is, even when we let go of offenses committed against us, God knows. He’s the only one who can vindicate us and give us favor…even with those who are difficult to please.
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