March 20, 2016

The Power of Kindness

A story from my last year in academia: It's the first week of term, students wrangling to get into my over-enrolled classes. After a long day, I receive a phone call from my sister: "Dad's in the hospital. They think he had a stroke." I start sobbing. Jackie quickly replies, "Joy, he's okay. The doctors are doing more tests, but it's probably a mini-stroke. He's okay." The rest of the evening, I process and wait. Before bed, I talk to Dad for a long while. He tells me he's fine, answers my questions, and even sounds happy. I feel reassured though still shaken. (Later, we learn it was bell's-palsy of the 7th optic nerve, not a stroke. How quickly things change. A reminder of the preciousness of life.)

The next morning, I'm exhausted and raw. There's a light knock on my office door. I feel irritable, anticipating yet another student who must get into my class. The student enters and I feel armor encompassing me. She asks if there's space in my course. I firmly say "no." She lingers. I begrudgingly ask about her situation, which she explains in detail. I maintain that the class is full. Then something shifts: I really look at her. I see her as a person, and I see the protection around my heart. I know my class is the best choice for her, and though I feel over-burdened, this isn't her fault. So I invite her in. As she fills out a note card about herself, I take a bathroom break.

In the bathroom stall, I quietly cry. I'm tender and vulnerable, but this armor around my heart isn't helpful. It separates me from myself and others. And it separates me from kindness. So I return to my office and apologize to the student. I tell her about my night. I tell her I'm tired and not my best self. She smiles and says, "It's okay. I really appreciate you letting me in the class." 

This was an awakening moment: I saw the importance of kindness. First I saw how kindness gets lost when I armor my heart; how it gets lost in busyness and urgency. Then I saw my path back in: pause, notice, open, and be real. My act of kindness didn't just help this student, it helped me. It helped me return to myself and what I most value.

Now I regularly use kindness to shift my mood or maintain good spirits. These acts needn't be grand. They can be quite ordinary: holding the door for another, giving a genuine compliment, getting coffee for a colleague, smiling at a stranger, or sending well-wishes via postal mail. When I move from a place of kindness, I feel better. I feel more open and connected. And I'm available to accept kindness—to see the good in others.

I think kindness is powerful—more powerful than greed and anger. Whether we give or receive kindness, we benefit. Kindness flows in both directions; it connects us. When we feel overwhelmed, not sure how to navigate this uncertain life, we can take one small step: Be kind. Be kind to ourselves, friends, and strangers. Because kindness changes the world in small yet powerful ways.

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March 13, 2016

Return to Childhood

There are different types of laughter. Some aren't pleasant: forced laughter in a social situation or unkind laughter at another's expense. But then there's genuine, gleeful laughter that awakens and heals us. The kind of laughter that takes us by surprise; that allows us to open our hearts and let go.

We often protect the childlike parts of us: awe, silliness, wonder, and play. We don't want to seem naive or unintelligent; we don't want to appear Pollyanna-ish. Our habits—and our culture—tell us to get the job done, gain respect, look smart, be serious. All of this is appropriate in measured doses. But it's not how I want to spend this one precious life. Right now, I feel weighty issues. My mom died six months ago. My close friend has incurable Stage 4 cancer. This is serious business. And still, I need to let myself laugh; to let myself be surprised and grateful.

So my radical suggestion is this: return to childhood. Color with crayons. Be amazed. Giggle for no good reason. Ask questions. Do cartwheels or somersaults. Get curious about the natural world. Be honest. Laugh and cry, whenever you need to. Keep your heart wide open.

These childlike qualities are what give me hope for this crazy and beautiful world. Because they allow us to see in new ways. They allow us to be fully present. They allow us to move through life with honest and open hearts.
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March 9, 2016

How Is It Supposed To Be?

There are moments when I feel overwhelmed by life—when circumstances create upheaval in my world while different circumstances create upheaval for friends. If I express this overwhelm to Mark, he says, "Sounds like a lot of life is happening around you." Reality check: I needn't be overwhelmed or shocked, this is what life looks like. People die, get divorced, lose jobs, and work with illness. No one is immune to hardshiphardship connects us.

And if I resist the hardship, I cause more pain. I get angry at the world: why does so much crappy stuff happen? This resistance separates me from myself and others, and it disconnects me from play and happiness. Irritation masks my pain, when I really need to feel; when I need to move toward the difficult places. So I ask myself: How is it supposed to be? My complicated answers often make me smile, and this lightheartedness brings me home. 

Because life isn't supposed to be a certain way. We can't control difficult circumstances just like we can't control amazing moments of joy. When I let life flow, I more naturally feel silliness and wonder, and I more fully feel sadness and loss. In this way, I'm available to myself and others. Available with an open and spacious heart.
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