Ian MacLaren: “Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.”
This quote is one of my favorite reminders. It closely parallels a realization that I had during the hardest time in my life. I can clearly remember walking into the grocery store and feeling as though I might break into a million pieces. And what I realized was that none of the strangers walking around me had any idea how close to shattering I was. I turned to my partner and said, “Imagine how different the world would be if we all had signs above our heads that said, ‘Broken–Handle with Care.'”
The Pain is Real–And it is Universal
And in that moment, I realized on a deep emotional level a truth that I had only known intellectually before. Each person walking around in the world today has (or will) lived through at least one shattering, life-changing, heart-breaking experience. We will all be marked by pain. Each of us will have at least one event that defines our lives in “before” and “after,” that forever reshapes our experience of “normal.” Each of us will experience feelings that we are not certain we’re strong enough to bear.
And for many of us, this monumentally painful event will not be something that is immediately obvious to those who are interacting with us. Most of our wounds are not physical ones. So we might be mourning the death of a partner, child, parent or best friend. Or we might have just been told that we have an illness that will change our lives forever, or end it prematurely. Or we might have spent years trying to conceive a child, or adopt a child. Or we might have lost the job that was the center of our identity. Or we might be struggling through a divorce or the end of an important relationship. The list of possible struggles, possible burdens–it’s endless.
The important thing here is not the specific nature of our pain–it’s the fact that, to most of the people we interact with, our pain is invisible. So let’s look at that a bit, shall we?
That light-bulb moment in the grocery store has had profound ripple effects in my life. It hasn’t turned me into some saintly person who is always kind and considerate. But it has slowed down some of my automatic reactions of frustration to those I interact with. When it feels like someone is being difficult, or thoughtless, I try to pause. I try to remind myself that I don’t know what their neon sign would say, if one had been installed.
I think that we can never go wrong by choosing kindness in our interactions with one another. Let me be clear here–I’m not advocating allowing anyone to treat you in a hurtful or unhealthy way. If you want my perspective on healthy boundaries, you can read about it right here. What I am talking about is a fundamental orientation towards other people. If we start with the assumption that those we deal with–in our families, at work, in the grocery store, at the gym–are all facing their own heavy burdens, we can extend some compassion toward them. We can choose to react with kindness, to treat them as though they may be fragile, to cushion them so that they don’t break. If you’re not sure how to do that, you can always check out my “guidelines for compassionate listening” for a few pointers.
The idea of starting with kindness also applies when we’re interacting with ourselves. I’ve talked before about the persistence of negative self-talk, and harsh self-judgement. I am frequently amazed at how casually we talk to ourselves in ways that we would never talk to friends or loved ones. I think that most of us would benefit from some consistent applications of self-kindness. I’m not talking about making excuses or not holding ourselves accountable. I’m talking about recognizing that we have been through painful losses and difficult challenges–and extending ourselves some compassion as we move forward.
So, the challenge this week is to look for opportunities to be kind. Kind to others, kind to yourself. I’m guessing that we can all find some chances to practice this skill. Please feel free to share successes or challenges in the comments. I promise to respond kindly.
Photo Credit: joshwept