Be Kind

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?

Be Kind

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

19 thoughts on “Be Kind

  1. I’m so glad I read this post today. We sometimes need reminders to practice kindness don’t we? I always remember the great book and movie “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s one of my favorites and the line in there about you can’t really understand someone until you’ve walked around in their shoes.” I love that and I think about that more often since my cancer diagnosis. I find I am certainly less judgmental. I hope I am more kind too. Thanks for the post.

    1. Nancy,

      I’m so grateful that you found something helpful in the post. I know that my own biggest challenges have made me more aware of what others might be going through. I appreciate you taking the time to share your perspective.


  2. Oh, I absolutely love this. I try to live by this. When I was teaching, I was always shocked when the kids’ stories would come out and I would say “Oh, *that’s* why.” Now as a SAHM, I have to remind myself that the same is true for adults. Even the mommies who seem perfect. Especially the mommies who seem perfect.

    1. What a fantastic example. I think that you nailed something really important. Kids and parents alike–we all have something that is shaping our behavior. I think that our own insecurity can sometimes make it hard for us to see the pain that others may be carrying. Thank you so much for pointing that out.


  3. Hi Ann-
    I love this post! excellent reminder for us all to be kind to each other.
    I think we all have those type of moments, that time in our lives, but we realize that most people have had to go through a monumental shift in their lives, carrying a heavy burden. I think it is a developmental or maturation point. I think that sometimes we think that life “should” be sort of Hallmark-ish… And it really is not, it really is a good thing to be kind and compassionate to others.

    1. Kathy,

      Oh, the “shoulds!” If we could just remove that imperative from our thoughts about ourselves and one another, we’d be making a huge step forward in kindness. I appreciate your thoughtful perspective, as always.


  4. Beautiful post and much needed by me today as I am not feeling particularly kind at this moment. I feel annoyed and irritated and for good reason– but when I think about the imaginary sign above the folks who are causing me stress, I feel a little more compassion and maybe I can break the cycle and not pass the stress on… Thanks

    1. Allison,

      Welcome. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. And I think that you absolutely nailed the most important thing: when we remember that others are in pain too, we can find compassion for them (and maybe ourselves too).


      1. A very moving and truthful reminder of staying compassionate. A smile or a simple word of encouragement., or caring gesture can make all the difference. This reminds me of time when I was sitting on the bus and a women was crying, tears streaming down her face, she was facing the window trying not to make eye contact with anyone. Everyone was very aware of her, no one said anything, people were trying not to look at her, and yet you couldn’t help but feel her intense pain. Everyone in that bus knew something about this feeling. I opened up my purse and took out a tissue reached over and attempted to hand her one. She shook her head so I put the tissue away. She continued crying and then 5 minutes later she looked at me and asked me for tissue…..I handed it to her and she looked into my eyes, and then said thank you. I felt that this small gesture helped bring her back in contact with the world…..someone cared enough to say non verbally….it will be alright….this too shall pass. And this small gesture helped me remember
        the importance of acts of kindness. Thanks Ann

        1. Keren,

          Thank you so much for sharing that beautiful story. I think that it is so easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of others’ pain. What I took from your story was the reminder that we *can* have an impact simply by being present, being kind, and bearing witness.


  5. Hi Ann,
    This is always a timely reminder. Be kind to others and be kind to ourselves. I like Kathy’s remark that it isn’t about being all “Hallmark-ish.” Just pausing being there in a compassionate way. I find that for me I really have to leave space in my life so that I can do this. When I get snappish, it’s often because I’m doing too much–not being kind to me.

    1. Carolyn,

      “When I get snappish, it’s often because I’m doing too much–not being kind to me.” What an important thing for all of us to remember. Thank you for sharing that thought!


  6. Ann,
    Love the post. It’s those times when I’ve been in a bad place in my life when I truly notice others’ kindness. Just one kind word or helpful gesture from a stranger in a grocery story can make all the difference in the day, and one mean thing can make everything worse. When we are in those places of being close to breaking, it feels like we just kind of teeter on a balancing point and the external things affect us big time. I like to think I look for the opportunities to be kind to others and myself, having been in those dark places. Thanks!

    1. Dawn,

      Yes! You nailed it. When we are already in pain, we’re so much more vulnerable to being influenced by the people and events around us. Things that would otherwise be minor annoyances cut deeper when we’re fragile. I appreciate that perspective!


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