Kindness Is Not Weakness

Kindness is not weakness. It is the opposite of weakness. However, this characteristic is more complicated than what can be defined in a simple statement. When I was a young child, adults often described me as being kind. Then, I felt that such an identification suggested that I was weak. I wanted to be regarded as intelligent, as that quality was valued in my family. In addition, I thought men were supposed to be harsh, insensitive, and aggressive to the point of being self-serving. Being kind suggested to my child’s mind that I was somehow less of a man.

Then, my kindness didn’t come from some active process; it was who I was. Why would I want to hurt another person? Why would I intentionally take advantage of someone instead of working to get what I wanted? Why would making someone feel weaker make me feel stronger? None of this made sense to me.

Kindness strongly correlates with another personality trait, empathy. Empathy is the ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes. This is different from a characteristic called identification, where you feel the other person’s pain. Empathy lets you understand what someone else is going through. Identification is similar to codependency, which is not desirable.

My kindness was partially inborn and partially developed due to my feelings of being different. I knew how it felt to be mistreated because I was different and how it felt to be accepted despite that difference. Acceptance is a form of kindness.

The above suggests that the characteristic of kindness is both inborn and passive. However, there is also an active component to being kind. Therefore, at times it is necessary to work on this behavior.

In many ways, I have lived a charmed life. Naturally, I worked hard to achieve my goals, but many do the same with poorer outcomes. I have always been an observer of others, and there have been those who seemed to gain both power and pleasure by being mean or even cruel. Therefore, it could be assumed that “destroying the competition” is the royal road to success. However, I have made an effort to do just the opposite, and I have been successful. Some wealthy people are mean, that is true. Is there a difference between wealth and a successful life?

How does one define success? For me, it means having people in my life who I love and who love me. Second, it is the ability to achieve goals, including career goals. Third, it is the reality of having enough financial security to do most of the things I want. Finally, it is the ability to have a meaningful life that includes improving the lives of others. 

I worked in a field where I helped others… that was a success. I was able to explore hobbies and interests outside of my work… that was a success. I raised four wonderful kids… that was a success. Of course, none of these things got me on the cover of a magazine, but for me, they indicate that I have been successful. 

In my heart, I believe that I have remained a kind person throughout my life, but do I have any objective evidence that supports that assertion? On milestone days, our family’s practice is to go around the table and comment on the celebrant. So it was last Father’s Day. When it was my wife’s turn, she looked at me and commented that she appreciated how kind I am. I know that such a comment may be arbitrary, but it supports that my observation is not wholly delusional.

However, there may be some who may think that I have not been kind to them. Like everyone, I have moments of misjudgment, most of which are unintentional. There may be others who view my ability to set limits as being mean instead of simply establishing a boundary. Being kind doesn’t mean that you are perfect or that everyone will love you.

I ponder why kindness has gotten such a bad rap. The Bible touts the Golden Rule, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. . . .” Matthew (7:12). More contemporary studies prove that treating people with respect and kindness yields better societal outcomes than treating them punitively. Several that come to mind include the industrial psychology experiments of the 50s and 60s. When factory workers were treated with kindness and given more control over their jobs they were happier and their productivity increased. More recently, when comparing Norwegian prisons (where inmates are treated kindly) with US prisons (noted for their cruel and punitive treatment), the rate of recidivism was shown to be three times higher in the US system.  

Yes, some have become fabulously wealthy by inflicting pain on others, but massive wealth does not equate to happiness. We all need money and possessions, but after a certain point stuff becomes a burden. Multiple studies have indicated that happiness comes from our positive connections with others, not how wealthy you are or how cruel you are. Yet, we are fascinated by “Reality” TV shows where contestants are humiliated or “fired” by sadistic hosts.

What does it mean to be kind? For me, it means that I try to understand how my actions will impact others. Will my efforts benefit someone else? Will my actions have little to no effect on someone else? Will my actions harm or hurt someone else? When it comes to the latter point, I also consider the context of that hurt. For instance, if my beliefs bother someone because they conflict with their beliefs, it is on them and not me. If you hate me because I belong to a different political party… Well, that is your problem.

There are times that I have to set limits on others, and they may not like my boundaries. When my children were young, I had to define their roles. As a doctor, I would sometimes need to deny certain addicting medications to patients despite their demands. As a friend, I sometimes have to say no to a request. Being true to your beliefs is a necessary part of being a competent adult. It does not suggest a lack of kindness.

I suggested above that there have been times when I have unintentionally been unkind. When faced with such situations, I acknowledge my error, ask for forgiveness, and correct the issue. In addition, I try to observe the pattern of behavior that caused the problem, and I make an effort to modify that behavior. Naturally, this last action can be a moving target that requires constant realignment. Such is life.

What do I do when I have to deal with unkind individuals? Of course, that depends on the situation. 

When dealing with a random situation (for instance, a road rage incident), I try to let go of my reciprocated anger and forgive the offending individual. This may be facilitated by saying a quick prayer for them.  

In work situations, I have employed a variety of techniques. For example, if someone’s anger or meanness towards me is unwarranted, I will sometimes deescalate it. A non-response or a simple “OK” can be enough to cool down a situation and return the connection to a more respectful one.  

There are other times when a correction is necessary. When I am in such a situation, I will tell the person how their actions made me feel instead of what a terrible person they are. For example, “When you ridiculed my comments, I felt angry and sad. Was that your intention?” Their response to such an inquiry will either rectify the issue or give me valuable information about their character.  

There have been a few times in my professional life where neither option was appropriate. Usually, this involved someone whose explicit goal was to shame or hurt me. In those situations, I have found that the best course of action was to move on. Of course, bullies in a position of authority don’t like to give up their power, but that doesn’t mean that I have to put up with their bullshit.  

Contrary to common belief, there is always another option out there. I treated a nice lady for many years. She had worked for the same organization for most of her life. She was regarded as a competent and dedicated employee. Unfortunately, her workplace underwent a reorganization and her life became a living hell. More and more work was piled on her, and she was severely criticized for the slightest error. Although miserable, she felt powerless as she believed that she was stuck at her workplace due to her age (early 60s) and the lack of other suitable opportunities. In addition, she was her sole support and she did not have a retirement nest egg. She felt that she couldn’t retire early and survive. These factors led her to suffer from depression and severe anxiety. Eventually, her workplace fired her for a trivial reason, and she was forced to retire early. She discovered that many of her fears were unfounded. Yes, her monthly income was less, but so were her expenses. She didn’t require work clothes, and she drove her car less. She had the time to cook her meals and had less of a need to “reward” herself with things. She was able to socialize more with friends and could spend more time with her grandkids. A year after she was fired, she told me that she was happier now than she had been in many years. Her worst fear became her greatest blessing.

My approach to dealing with mean people in my personal life is similar to dealing with mean people in my professional life—the main difference being the more significant ties that such connections bring. Many months ago, I was having a problem with a very close friend. For whatever reason, he started to treat me with disrespect on an ever-increasing level. The situation reached a point where I was ready to let go of the friendship. Instead of reacting, I reached out to another friend for their advice. He sagely told me, “Everyone has the right to be an asshole on occasion.” On reflection, my offending friend had been a loyal and faithful friend for the vast majority of our relationship. I approached him with my concerns, and he apologized for his actions. The overall impact of our conversation drew us closer rather than further apart.

In situations where the cost of leaving a relationship is very high, such as a spouse, the effort to correct the problem needs to be commensurate with that level of connection. It is unacceptable to be treated meanly by anyone consistently. Still, the status of the relationship makes it reasonable to put forth extraordinary effort to improve the situation, including seeking outside help. However, even in these instances, there are times when the best option is to move on. The only way you can truly respect and be kind to others is to be respectful and kind to yourself.

If you want to be treated kindly, you must be kind. Yet, we live in a world that legitimizes bully bosses, egotistical superstars, and antagonistic “Karens.” It is easy to falsely identify these individuals with success, power, and happiness. However, both common sense and empirical studies have shown that the Golden Rule benefits all. Cruel and mean individuals may use those behaviors for their gain. Still, such actions often don’t lead to happy or fulfilled lives. Instead, they can create empty souls who require the constant input of “more” to feel alive. When you require “more” there is never enough. 

Assess yourself daily. Were you kind to another person that day? Were you unkind to someone? Was someone kind or unkind to you? What can you or should you do with the above situations?



Hiking With William

Life is a journey… You may be wondering why I’m starting this post with a cliche. Still, phrases become cliches because they accurately and succinctly represent a common truth. So, life is a journey.

When I look back at my life, I find areas where my attitude has change 180 degrees over time and other areas where my opinions are the same now as they were 50 years ago. One place where I have made an about-face has been around my feelings towards having a family.

Early in my life, I never wanted to be a parent. I am sure that this was because I was constantly told what a burden children were. Statements like, “Your mother and I never fought until we had children” were commonplace in my home. It was a given that children were expensive creatures that only caused trouble and made one’s life difficult. In my childhood home, kids were placed a rung below the bad dog who peed on the carpet. So why would I ever want one of those?

My feelings did a 180-degree about-face with the birth of my daughter Anne 38 years ago; it was love at first sight. Having my own child made me realize what a blessing children are. I’m not saying that raising a child isn’t complicated or expensive; both are true. However, that is just part of the child-rearing equation. In fact, I now understand that my most significant life role has been that of a father. It was what I was meant to do.

William is our only boy. I had already raised three girls, and I was reasonably comfortable in that role. However, raising a boy was another issue; I felt wholly ill-prepared. I’m a very flawed person, and because of my flaws, I believed that I would be an inadequate dad for my son.  

I didn’t have a role model to emulate or even a template to follow. My dad never taught me how to throw a ball or turn a wrench; I either taught myself manly things or pursued other interests. What if the way that I taught myself these skills wasn’t the “right” way? How could I possibly teach my son those things that I was never correctly taught?

I consider myself atypical and a bit odd. I’m obsessive and laser-focused, and I tend to overthink. However, despite my flaws, I keep friends for decades. I am fortunate to have male friends who genuinely care about me. I try to be a good friend to them in return. Did my male friend’s acceptance of me somehow suggest that I could also be a good father for a son? I didn’t know.

Physically I’m imperfect. My coordination is sub-par. I’m blind in one eye, and because of this, I have poor depth perception. Despite looking like a football player, it is difficult for me to do simple things like catch a ball as I cannot accurately judge distances. These attributes caused me to avoid team sports as I felt that I would be a detriment to any team that I belonged to. I worried about my inability to properly indoctrinate William in such areas.

As a child, I found happiness in solitary activities where the only judge of my performance was me. Electronics, science, computers, photography, cooking, meditation, camping, hiking, and other solo activities filled and enriched my life. These interests were easy to pass on to my girls, but would a boy be interested? My father thought my activities were weird and useless; would my son feel the same? 

Early on, I had to face my fatherhood fears with William. As a young child, he was playing with a neighbor and the boy’s dad. When Will returned home, he wistfully said to me, “I wish I had a sporty dad.” I felt like the worst father in the world, but then a calm came over me. I looked at Will and said, “I wish I could be all the things you want me to be, but I’m just a person. I will teach you what I know, and I will be there for you. I will love you and accept you for who you are. That is the best that I can do for you.” William looked up at me and smiled. That was what I needed.

Over the years, I have tried to be just that. I have cooked with Will, showed him to fix things, made his Halloween costumes, took walks with him, helped him with his homework, and generally, I have been there for him. 

As Will got older he started to pull away from me. I knew that this was completely normal, but I missed those times when I was bigger than life to him. Several years ago, my friend Tom took his son backpacking and asked if I wanted to come along with Will. Will was not interested, so I let the idea go. More recently, Will has taken me up on my offers, and the two of us have gone on camping and hiking adventures. These times have been a wonderful gift for both of us. William is eager to learn, and I can still teach him new skills like splitting wood or cooking a meal on an open fire. However, William is no longer a child; he is an adult. Our conversations have changed, and we now share our ideas, our aspirations, and our dreams. Our relationship will always be that of a father and son, but it is evolving into something bigger than this. Will can teach me things, as he shares with me those ideas that make him who he is. He is no longer an extension of me; he is his own person.

Conversely, I can now share parts of the less-than-perfect but real me without fearing that I will somehow crush a child’s fragile ego. Our connection is that of two people who not only respect each other but also accept each other. We don’t need to pretend that we are perfect; we are good enough just the way we are.

One of our favorite activities is hiking together. In the process, I have gotten to teach Will hiking basics, such as the proper way to use trekking poles. Will, in turn, has demonstrated his superior physical ability to me. For example, when climbing a hill, I try to hide my panting, and he kindly doesn’t acknowledge my pulmonary inadequacies. 

Surprisingly, William’s personality is very similar to mine. He sees the beauty in things that most others find commonplace. He becomes excited in the moment and appreciates the trivial. He has strong opinions and champions the underdog. He believes that a worthwhile existence involves giving back to society and that a life of self-indulgence is an empty life. I’m not sure if these are things that he learned from me or just part of who he is. He is a pleasure to be around.

His interests also parallel mine. He recently won an undergraduate grant and will start an independent scientific research project in the fall. In addition, he had taken to playing the guitar and seemed genuinely happy when I gave him my old collection of rock LPs. (vinyl long-playing records). 

Our next adventure will only take us a few hundred miles away from Naperville. We will pack up Violet the campervan and drive to a campsite. Our time will be spent talking, sharing, exploring, and (of course) hiking. Those few days won’t have the status of a trip to Paris or the calculated thrill of a journey to Disneyland. However, I will treasure them more than either. I’ll get to know Will a little better, and he will do the same with me. What more could either of us want?

William turns 20 in a few weeks, and I am so grateful that he has allowed me to spend just a bit of time with him. I have come to realize that there is no rigid formula for being a parent. There will always be more fabulous parents than me, wealthier than me, or more fun than me. That is OK as long as my children know that I love them and that I will do my absolute best for them. It turns out that being a dad to a son is really no different than being a dad to a daughter. Some of the ins and outs change, but the basics are the same. I don’t need to be the father that his friends wish they had; I need to be the dad to who Will is glad to come home to.

Hiking with trekking poles.
We both like the exploration that hiking allows us.
Even local hikes can yield spectacular discoveries.
Teaching Will to cook on an open fire.
Camping doesn’t mean that you have to only eat pork and beans!
Will has taken to playing the guitar.
Sometimes things are more interesting when you view them from a different angle.
Will and I found this simple doorway beautiful.
During one of our explorations, we came upon an abandoned college campus.
You can find interesting things everywhere. You just have to pause a bit and look!
Nothing says hiking like a beautiful sunset!
Beauty in an old worn doorway.