Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Being kind

“If you are putting another person down, you are putting yourself down. You are hurting yourself.”

A friend posted this quotation on Facebook a few days ago. It’s a simple enough aphorism, but I still found myself thinking about it after I turned off my computer.

It has taken me all forty-plus of the years I’ve lived so far to fully come to understand just how useless it is to denigrate other people. Looking back on my adolescence, I unhappily admit to myself the extent to which putting down other people was then a way of life. It was a form of currency: the coin of the realm. It was the unspoken belief that when you point out what’s wrong with other people, you prove that merely by identifying their undesirable trait, you must be better.

And two decades later, I would discover that corporate life wasn’t all that much better than middle school. The intention may have been different – professional advancement rather than getting in with the popular crowd -- but the means were often the same: you made yourself look better by pointing out what was wrong with other people.

But in more recent years, it has become increasingly clear to me that this just doesn’t work, that there’s almost never any reason to point out someone else’s faults, unless maybe they are practicing outright cruelty or prejudice. In every other situation, I’ve learned it’s better to focus on making yourself look good, not about making other people look bad. “Let kindness be your default mode,” a friend advised not long ago. When in doubt, just be nice.

A few days ago I had an experience that convinced me of the value of this approach. I attended the meeting of a newly formed committee. Seated to my left was a woman I honestly didn’t like all that much. She was unfailingly self-aggrandizing, always making a big point of telling me how once again she was involved in some effort that she couldn’t possibly find the time for but also felt compelled to help out with; she always managed to slip into any conversation a mention of the hugely helpful endeavor she had just undertaken and how ceaselessly generous she was with her time and efforts.

At this meeting, we went around the table introducing ourselves. The self-aggrandizing woman said something about how once again she had agreed to join a project despite the fact that everyone knows she is absolutely overcommitted with other even more important projects because she just can’t bear to say no when people implore her to share her myriad talents, and as I listened, it was very tempting to proffer a now-forgotten retort that came to mind: something that certainly wouldn’t qualify as mean or cruel but perhaps just a little bit acerbic, words that would suppress her self-congratulatory smugness for a moment or two.

But I didn’t say it. “Default to kindness,” I reminded myself, and I stayed silent until it was my own turn to offer a brief introduction.

Then the woman to my right spoke. She was new to town; I had met her only a couple of months earlier and didn’t know much about her at all. She said her name, and then, to my great surprise, went on to say “And one thing I’ve noticed in just the two months I’ve lived here is that Nancy apparently helps out with absolutely everything, because every time I go to a planning meeting, I see her there.”

It was a remarkably thoughtful and flattering compliment, and it took me completely by surprise. And I couldn’t help thinking that no one had said anything like that about the smug and self-aggrandizing woman.

It was a fine object lesson, reminding me that caustic remarks, or what my mother calls “Don’t-think-you’re-so-great impulses,” help no one. I hadn’t needed to say a thing. I just needed to follow my own moral compass. And someone else who was also being kind, by giving me a compliment, had taught me a most valuable lesson. Be kind. It says a lot more than any curt putdown, no matter how clever the quip may be.

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