Living Kindness, part one

Okay, so this isn’t Saturday night, so sorry for the delay. Apparently I need to change locations in order to focus on my writing fully.

It isn’t exactly breaking news that we could all stand to be a little kinder. Maybe I’ve been working in the service industry for too long, but people who are truly kind seem to be tragically few and far between. In good conscience, I can’t even call myself truly kind, although I am trying. In so many ways, we are taught (or self-taught) to view kindness as a weakness to be overcome, instead of as a strength to be nourished. I give a lot of thought to this topic, as it’s one of the things I strive to improve in my life, and I’m curious how others perceive my ideas. Throughout this series (as with anything I post), I invite you to share your thoughts with me. I feel like it is important to discuss ways to improve ourselves and our lives.

What Kindness Isn’t

Kindness isn’t niceness. A lot of people are nice. So are a lot of houses and apartments and cars. “Nice” is such an empty word. It’s been used far too liberally, to the point where it no longer seems like an actual word with a distinct meaning. “She’s nice. He’s nice. They’re nice. Nice car. You look nice. Nice moves. Nice nice nice nice nice.” It basically boils down to politeness and agreeableness, and that is civility, not kindness. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be civil, but there are other elements that qualify true kindness.

Kindness also is not constant compliance. A lot of people bend over backwards in order to be “kind,” to the point where they are so depleted they can barely do anything. This is the sort of “kindness” that is commonly encouraged, especially among women and certain religious groups. It isn’t kindness, though: it’s submission. If you’re too tired from taking care of everyone else, you can’t take care of yourself; if you can’t take care of yourself, you have to rely on your support system to take care of you. In the common application, it promotes a system of codependence and reliance on subtle (or not-so-subtle) abusers, those who benefit from your lack of self-reliance. Even without malicious intent driving someone into this cycle, it is, at the very least, unkind to yourself.

So What Is Kindness?

That’s a good question, and one that I’m trying to work through myself. I should specify that I do in fact own a dictionary and could tell you what Webster has to say, but that isn’t my focus. I’m interested in living a philosophy of kindness, as a way to enrich my own life and, consequently, be available to help others in my life. So far, I’ve come up with five elements that are (or should be) incorporated into “kindness.” Namely, compassion, respect, forgiveness, generosity, and good will.

I will go into greater depth with these aspects in the days to come, but first, maybe the question should be asked…

Why Kindness?

Okay, so that might be a ridiculous question to some, but we live in a world where active kindness is actually quite rare. It seems to exist in a vacuum, behind-the-scenes, if it exists anywhere. We are surrounded by violence, by hatred, by intolerance. Our political climate is so divisive that many people won’t even speak to family members or former friends for the way they vote. People are so accustomed to fighting with each other that in many cases dialogue has become impossible. Some people feel it’s their right or duty to shame others for a way of being that is different. And some people feel so isolated and so pressured and so afraid, that they truly believe there is no place for them in this world.

We cannot, as individuals, take on all of the ills of the world, but neither should we give up on ourselves or each other and buy into the complacency, the apathy, the madness. I was almost there for a long time. I had suffered a succession of physical and psychological traumas between my childhood and late adolescence, things that still give me nightmares to this day. But I still count myself as lucky, because I met several people who taught me that I wasn’t damaged goods, that I still have a lot to offer, and that healing is possible. I’m not the same as I was before. I will never be the same. I do think, however, that I’m a better person for meeting these truly kind individuals at such a vulnerable time in my life. I do believe that they all saved my life. All I want is to live that sort of kindness, not for any grandiose purpose, but to truly know that I don’t take those people for granted. 

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So I was really hoping to have a “proper” blog post out by tonight, but as the time is passing rather quickly, it looks like tomorrow night is more likely. My goal is to have at least one entry per week from now on, and there is quite a lot in the mix! Why is it that I either have no ideas or too many?! It’s equally inhibiting!

If you’ve looked at all at my blog before, you’ll know that my main focus is on fiction writing. Blogging is kind of like an exercise for me: it gets the creative juices flowing, it gets me accustomed to writing and editing, and it helps me to improve my written communication skills. (After all, who wants to read a story about a character who never emotes?) That being said, blogging is also rather fun, and I’m touched by those of you who have deigned to follow me! So thank you! I’m honored for this chance to harass you via e-mail. I’ll do my best to keep your inbox flooded with my asinine ramblings.

Right now, something has finally come together for my “serious” writing project. A recent walk in the wetlands has inspired the perfect setting for a fairy tale I started writing over three years ago. (Yes, I’m writing a fairy tale; no, it’s not a children’s fairy tale. Think Brothers Grimm meets Alice in Wonderland, with the Greek Persephone as the heroine. It’s a lofty goal, but I’m doing a lot of research right now to make it as interesting and authentic as possible, so don’t laugh at me just yet. Or do. I don’t really care.) I feel like I have to write as much as I can on that tonight, while the ideas are still fresh.

Starting tomorrow night, however, I will begin posting a series of entries on kindness. If that strikes your fancy, check back tomorrow! Until then, night night write write.

Freeing Speech and the Not-So-Trivial Pursuit of Happiness

A busy work schedule, new routines, maintaining friendships, and a powerful need for sleep…all of these things have prevented me from doing any writing, both online and off. However, as I’m currently sitting in the car dealership so auto mechanics can manhandle my Cavalier, I find myself with a rare opportunity to bang out a blog post!

So, in my last entry, I was transitioning rather quickly from one job to another. The past couple of months have been filled with reflection, realization, and change, mostly on an internal, personal scale. The incident at my former job was a catalyst of sorts. My intense emotional reaction caught me off-guard in a big way, and belied how profoundly I had allowed these people into my head. It took some time to process how I had become complicit in this subtle worship of convention, including the “necessity” of shaming the deviant. I, of course, was the deviant.

The entire situation led me to reflect on other instances in my life where I have given others unwarranted access, to influence my feelings of self-worth, my goals, and ultimately my autonomy. As a writer, I try to examine episodes of subtle (or not-so-subtle) manipulation in terms of motivation. What is this person trying to gain? Are they acting with malicious intent? Is this just the way they were socialized? The answers vary by incident and by person. It is my tendency to distance myself from the manipulation, however, which acquiesces to the behavior. I dislike being confrontational, and in the moments of greatest tension, my inclination is to flee. While I would like to say that my passive examination of the behavior is derived purely from an intellectual desire to understand, it is also a useful mechanism to soften and depersonalize its impact. So the behavior is never addressed, and over time I internalize the messages I’m receiving.

Does that seem tedious enough for you? Yeah, me too.

Somewhere along the way, I found my voice. I can’t tell you exactly which variables came together for me or why, but something clicked. Some internal Berlin Wall came down, and I started talking. There was a week or two where I literally made the rounds, without any premeditation, and confronted certain people about their impacts on my life, on my thoughts, and the emotional fallout I was experiencing as a result. I was suddenly able to speak openly about my insecurities, about my emotional scars, and, on the flip side, about how much certain people mean to me. A pretty big change from my typically stoic, sarcastic demeanor.

Besides some obvious shock, surprise, and awkwardness, the overall result of this free-flowing communication has been an amazing sense of relief and happiness. I’ve managed to set up solid boundaries with certain people who drain my energy, I’ve gotten closer with the people who mean the most to me, and I’ve relinquished the sense of ownership I’ve felt over the misdeeds of others. I’m giving myself permission to say “no” and express my opinions openly.

The biggest deal for me, though, is that I am starting to let go of the shame that I’ve held onto for not fitting into the hetero-normative conventional mold. At twenty-seven, I really thought I had moved past that high-school-esque desire to belong to the mainstream. It isn’t as if I have any desire to live out a sort of quintessential American dream, with a successful businessman husband, 2.5 children, and a white picket fence. That just isn’t something I’ve ever really desired. What really bothers me, I think, is the sense of exclusion. Many people, even people in my own family, see me as less valuable because I don’t have a conventional lifestyle. I have less to offer as a tattooed, queer, Buddhist woman, with a pansexual, agnostic, transgendered boyfriend; because I don’t want to get married until it becomes a truly equal and free institution; because I don’t want to work a 40-hour-per-week 9-to-5 job for the next forty-five years (as if those jobs existed anymore) unless it’s for a company or a cause of which I could truly be proud…

The biggest deal for me….is that I’m finding my differences to be empowering, and beautiful. And I don’t fit in…I have chosen an alternative path, and it can be very hard at times, especially in the face of the social enforcers, who would like me to believe that I’m just a freak. Learning to keep those external voices out of my head is giving me more than a little peace of mind.

Mind Over Meta

Human communication is filled with nuances. Many are difficult to control, if not entirely involuntary: pupil dilation, facial expressions, those annoying variations in pitch that I have been trying to unlearn for over a decade. Others are obvious and easily mastered: word choice, willingness to listen, overall tone. Depending on how the various elements are put together, one can make the intended audience of a statement feel respected and at ease, or attacked and extremely uncomfortable. This past Friday, I experienced the latter. Let me tell you: it wasn’t pleasant.

I had a sinking feeling before I even arrived at work on Friday. A meeting with both of my managers was scheduled on my calendar, and no one would really talk to me until then. When the time finally came, I was so uncomfortable I had to make a joke. “I’ve never had my meeting in B-‘s office before; am I in trouble?” There were no laughs, only glares. Oh yes, I am, I thought.

K- took a seat at B-‘s desk, and I took the other, and then B- spoke about some “concerns” she had about my job performance. While no one likes to be criticized, I honestly welcome it. I can’t improve on something of which I’m unaware. She then proceeded to tell me that the position within the department for which I had applied was going to be filled by an outside applicant. Honestly, it had been so long since I did apply that I pretty much assumed that was the case, and probably would have declined it had it been offered.

She cited various reasons for this decision, some of which were well-founded. I seemed not to have a complete understanding of the systems and processes: of course I don’t. The position I held was still new to me, and my training for it was borderline nonexistent. I lacked confidence in my job: see reason one. To boot, it seemed like every day I had messed up something new, and had heard nothing of what I was doing well. I would have to be downright cocky to feel confident if that was the only feedback I was receiving.

The other reasons varied from inconsistent to insulting. Apparently, more than a few of the e-mails I sent to K- were “less than respectful.” This shocked me. I have never been actively rude to anyone in years (except for one instance in which someone was physically abusive of a good friend of mine), and I would never display that sort of behavior in the workplace, regardless of the circumstances.

Now, I’m not formal, either, and I don’t kiss up to people. I don’t know what B- and K-‘s definition of “less than respectful” is, and even when asked they did not provide examples.

Nevertheless, I immediately delivered a sincere apology, which was summarily shrugged off. K- wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. The verbal onslaught continued, and I started to cry. I cried so hard, they had to cancel the meeting, but not before I was scolded for losing my composure.

In all of my working life, I have cried on the clock a handful of times: when I was having problems with my partner, that time I broke my foot, that other time I was having symptoms of stroke and had to go to the hospital. And I’ve been reprimanded at least once before, and criticized on various occasions–they’ve never brought me to tears. Not until Friday. My meeting was at one. I cried until I left at five (and well after). I took all of my things with me in case I decided not to return, which I have.

What really struck me about this whole interaction was not what was said verbally. Any part of this would have been manageable at face value. Misunderstandings–especially in written communication–happen all of the time. Work performance cannot improve without critique. Explaining the reasons behind not being considered for a job can help avoid feelings of being brushed off. The meta communication, however, conveyed that none of these things were the goal of this meeting.

B- seemed eager in her criticisms. Her eyes were bright and focused. Her tone was accusatory and uncompromising. As I expressed surprise, regret, or anxiety, she seemed increasingly excited. Her excitement turned to irritation as my crying became less controllable. She seemed to jump on the opportunity to tell me how my crying was impeding our communication, as if what was going on was a dialogue.

K- was passive. She wouldn’t look at me, not even when I apologized to her for offending her. She would only speak to B- and not to me. She slouched in her chair. She was fidgeting and seemed agitated.

The messages I was receiving were that I wasn’t showing enough deference (sorry, Your Highness), that I needed to be kept in my place (which cheek should I kiss?), and that I was generally unwanted in the department (well f- you, too!). After the meeting was over, both B- and K- seemed at least partially satisfied. Smug, even. They had finally brought me down as low as they could.

My communication style is very direct. If I have an issue, I bring it up, in a respectful but matter-of-fact way. Only in extreme circumstances do I lay accusations, and in the vast majority of cases, I also listen. I seek resolutions to conflicts. I communicate how situations make me feel without assuming intentions. I take accountability for my actions and their consequences. Now, I’m no expert in sociology, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night, and I’m pretty sure that is what adult communication is all about.

Needless to say, with my pride and dignity so badly injured, I left work with very little inclination to return. Five minutes after leaving work–as if the universe was trying to tell me something–I got a job offer. Who am I to say no to the universe? I got home and wrote out my resignation letter–bursting at the seams with meta communication–and e-mailed it to both B- and K-. Whether or not that was their intended result, that was the desire they communicated to me.

So say what you mean, and mind your meta, because people are listening.

Thanks + the Bright Idea

I have not been keeping up with my writing. Shame on me! First of all, I want to say thank you for the comments, the likes, and the link-backs. I’m glad my one decent post was worth reading. Hopefully there will be more substantive posts to come.

Secondly, I finally feel like I have the motivation to work on my big writing project. Over the next year or so, I’m going to be doing interviews with as many willing people as I can find about their personal stories (on a specific topic), and when I have enough material, I’m going to edit and compile them into a book. Hopefully that book will be published, because that would be great. I don’t want to reveal too much information before I know exactly where this is going, but I will post updates as I go. Wish me luck! I’ll be starting this weekend.

‘Til then, peace out.

Tired and triggered (trigger warning)

Yesterday was a long and stressful day, and I’m experiencing quite a few mixed emotions. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to write about them last night–hopefully tonight I will have more time.

Something else that I find tiresome is the long debate and discussion going on regarding who’s responsible in cases of sexual assault. I am exhausted with all of the victim blaming and the sympathy with the attackers. It always seems to be the case that whenever a woman is assaulted, members of the community and members of the media come forward to drag her through the mud. The story is all about what she was wearing and how much she was drinking and how promiscuous she was, and how these factors contributed to the downfall of the rapist, and his “bright future.” You know what really ruins the future careers and reputations of a rapist? The fact that he committed rape. The fact that he was clearly told that there was a certain kind of person who “deserves” to be assaulted. The fact that the adults or other community members are so eager to come in and “clean things up.” Do I think that a teenage girl should be partying and drinking until she’s passed out? No. But my reaction to that, unlike so many popular reactions, is one of compassion and empathy, not of scorn. So I’m going to take a slightly controversial stand here, and say that anyone who has a greater feeling of compassion for the attacker than for the victim is contributing to the problem. You’re complicit in the rape culture we have, and yes we have a rape culture. We have a culture that says those with social power are allowed to sexually assault and exploit those with less. The fact that we even have conversations like this sickens me. The fact that people in the media are pointing out that in other countries and cultures, rape is just a part of a woman’s life–in those cultures, rape and abuse are acceptable punishments for any woman for any reason. That sounds like a threat to me. When you are telling me to think of the times I have been raped, to think of all of the friends I have and people I have known who have survived sexual assault, and tell me “it could be so much worse,” I cannot help but wonder if that’s what you want. We already have such a permissive attitude towards assault in this country, that legal punishment for it–if, indeed, any is doled out–amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist, and you want to remind us, oh so often, that things could easily be set up in such a way that people can rape with impunity. You disgust me.

The only way we are going to fix this problem in our culture is to stop believing that to rape anybody is ever acceptable. Stop shedding tears for the rapists. Stop treating the victim’s behaviors (if there even are any bad behaviors) as justifications for stigma and violence, and start seeing them for what they most likely are: a sign that something is wrong. And maybe, just maybe, stop blaming the victim and start trying to help. I know it’s a crazy concept, that violent criminals should be severely punished, and victims should be protected. I’m clearly living in the wrong country, the wrong society for that belief. That the justice system is supposed to deliver justice and protection against violent offenders. Every person who speaks up in favor of the attacker, and every person who remains silent about how messed up this system is, is complicit.