Saturday, December 20, 2014


To say that the last week hasn't gone as planned would be an understatement.

I woke up last Saturday with some kind of chest-based, cold-type ailment (a by-product of Christmas shopping the week before, no doubt), so I decided to hunker down and read and by jiminy, by Monday I was 100% better.

Or so I thought.

Monday and Tuesday went swimmingly.  Got tons done, poised for the remainder of the week, smooth sailing, got the holiday-stuff under control, best laid plans and all that... well, you see where this is going.

Wednesday and Thursday became suddenly, startlingly stressful, and by the time I got it all back under control, I emerged from the fog to realize that the 48-hour headache was a sign that... the illness was back. 

So yesterday, it was back to the drawing board: hunker down and read.  And drink lots of juice and eat well and go to bed early. 

And again, it seems to have worked.  I don't usually get terribly sick (although, when I do, I apparently really mean it because I ended up in the ER twice this year, and at an emergency care clinic once), so I can usually shake things off.  Knock wood.  (I know, I'm an idiot for even writing such a thing: it's like I want the damn lightning bolt to blast me out of the chair here or something.)

While I was in the throes of recovering from all kinds of stress and unhappiness induced by, well, other people (Sartre really was onto something with that whole "hell is other people" idea), I stumbled across an article in Psychology Today by Douglas T. Kenrick.

Thinking about the wisdom he would like to pass on to his children, Kendrick asked readers of his column to weigh in and offer their own pearls.  In the meantime, he consulted with "several prominent positive psychologists, a few authors of well-known books on human behavior, a couple of especially insightful clinicians, a handful of pioneering researchers who have pondered human behavior in light of evolutionary biology, and several non-academic friends whose personalities and sense of humor have had an inspiring and positive effect on those around them."

The most frequently-offered bit of wisdom boiled down to something quite simple: "Be kind."

This hit home for me, because my own stress this week had been caused by someone who was, quite frankly, not kind.  And who showed no signs of becoming kind any time in the near future.  And it resulted in a situation in which I had to deal with all kinds of unnecessary stress and distress.

So when Kenrick pointed out that "being kind" sounds a lot easier than it actually is, my response was, "Yeah, I feel you on that one."

How can you be kind to unkind people?  To people that you are 100% certain don't give a (to put it bluntly) rat's ass whether or not they are needlessly upsetting you and complicating your life.  Who can't even conduct a polite and professional conversation with a relative stranger without trying to bully and gloat?

Oy.  It's a world.

And as Kenrick points out, there are basically 5 obstacles to kindness: 1) others aren't nice to you; 2) others will attempt to exploit your kindness; 3) we tend to overvalue ourselves and undervalue others; 4) there's a price to be paid for being kind and 5) some people just don't have a clue.

I experienced all of the above in a 20-minute phone conversation on Wednesday afternoon.  It took me two days to recover, and I really think the experience was physically so draining that it gave that little cold-bug a renewed foothold in my body.

I say again, Oy.

The aftermath of such experiences is, we kick ourselves for being kind.  "NEVER again, asshole!" is my mantra in the wake of such moments.  "Everyone can just go kiss my ass!" is another frequent refrain during such episodes.

But you have to get out of that mindset, quickly, I think, because it really is soul-sucking.  What's wrong with being kind, after all?  Nothing.  Not. One. Thing.  More people should try it.

That said, I think Kenrick offers useful advice for those of us who are averse to being treated like doormats for other people's shitty shoes (sorry, I'm clearly still working through some residual anger here).  It's a strategy proposed by game theorists: when people are nice, be nice back.

But when people are not nice, you respond in kind (relatively speaking).  Snark can be met with snark.  But then, you immediately go back to being nice.

The goal is that, over time, the person realizes that if they try to exploit or be unkind to you, they won't get away with it.  But if they treat you kindly, well, then, they can expect the same from you in return.

Kenrick has less concrete advice (in my opinion) for the handling the other obstacles to kindness, but in essence they boil down to remembering, in the words of my mom, "It takes all kinds to make a world."

Yes, people will overvalue themselves and undervalue you.  Try to see the humor in it.  Really, it's all you can do.  I think of the line from "Dirty Harry": "You're a legend in your own mind."  In the moments when you find yourself dealing with a self-declared legendary personality, try to step back and savor the sheer fictionality of it all. 

In terms of the advice he offers for people who have trouble being nice (although, I must say, if you're aware that you aren't nice, you're really about 90% cured already--the ones I encounter haven't a clue), he points out some real basics.

Stop whining.

Keep your promises.

Help others without expecting anything in return.

Be likeable.

Show an interest in other people's lives.

All of these things are ways to move through the world kindly.  And, if you practice them enough, they become habits (of a sort).  So that when you do have the occasional, inevitable Wednesday-from-Hell, you'll find that you have something to fall back on.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."