“It’s because you’re trying to be a good person,” a friend told me when I said I must have been an idiot to call back someone looking for a dog who sounded like the one we just rescued. Since Shay, our new dog, was clearly not taken care of, would I be putting my dog at risk of re-capture by returning the phone call from someone looking desperately for a chocolate lab? But I was trying to be a good person, or more accurately, kind, just in case this was our dog’s previous owners, and something awful kept him from caring for their dog. In general, I do try to act according to what the kind thing might be (although I have been known to divide desserts a bit in my favor).
I’ve been thinking about kindness because, in the last two weeks, in two situations of finding myself at the receiving end of someone’s anger, I couldn’t tell what a kind response might be. One time I walked away; another, I listened. One situation resolved in a hug; another didn’t, but for both, I struggled over what kindness could mean.
By kindness, I don’t mean niceness. Being nice, while pleasant enough, seems more about social, well, niceties: trying to please someone or avoid conflict, and then acting with kindness. Nice is far more general and abstract, while kindness is so much about the particulars. For example, it wouldn’t be kind to say nothing while your best friend gets into a car after drinking too much champagne. You might be acting nice, but not kind.
Kindness can mean setting limits with kids or dogs, cleaning the whole kitchen as a gift for someone, not cleaning the whole kitchen so someone can figure out his/her own relationship to the task, going to sleep early to rest a worn body or staying up late with a heartbroken pal. Kindness is all about the moment, and what action, words, thoughts intentions best manifest an open and loving heart.
In other words, I sometimes have no idea how to be kind. Is pushing my body in yoga kind or cruel? Depends on the moment. Is listening to a friend expound on his or her co-dependent behavior compassionate or enabling? Depends on the situation. Is standing up and yelling with righteous anger over an environmental disaster kind? It could be.
Then again, my answers to these examples come from my own judgments on what is helpful and hurtful in the world, and what do I know? Not much according to people I’ve screwed up with or who think I screwed up big time. This is all to say that striving for kindness means failing at it on occasion, but that shouldn’t stop me or you or any of us. Honing our words and deeds on kindness could well be the road to living with integrity and meaning.
As for the people who called about the missing dog, I called them twice: once to say that I did find a dog but there were issues, he’s legally ours, and they should call if this dog is theirs so we can talk. The second time was after I separated out my own dog separation anxiety and actually did some research, enough to discover the phone number correlated with a missing dog ad about another dog than ours.
The second phone call was one of kindness, which is easier to locate when talking with people with a broken heart. “I’m so sorry you lost your dog, and I’ll be thinking of you and wishing for him to come back to you.” The man at the other end thanked me, talked about how much he loved his dog, and I listened.