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Kindness Takes Practice. Start Now

12/17/2015 06:06 EST | Updated 12/17/2016 05:12 EST
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It's Christmas again, a pretty stressful time for many folks, and I'm thinking again about kindness. A peer of mine suggested a while back that nobody owes anyone any kindness. This, apparently, is her working life philosophy. Her viewpoint impacted me for a few sad days. She's right, I thought, the world is a hard and competitive place, we don't owe each other any kindness, I just need a tougher skin.

We get our cues on how to behave from many sources: one another, language and print trends, our families, our work environments, TV, the Internet and social media. I would argue that many of us (myself included) consume too much screen/TV time, and model ourselves off of media cues, both consciously and unconsciously.

Let's look at television in terms of behavioural coding. Arguably the Internet is an equally if not more powerful platform in terms of teaching us how to be, but let's look at TV just for a minute. TV content shifted dramatically in focus between 1987 and 2007. Those of us old enough to remember television before reality TV can likely attest to that shift.

In 1987, "community feeling" was ranked number one in on-screen values. I'm not a big TV buff so I'm can't rattle off a ton of shows, but television was on everywhere I went, and in my family home, and I recall people loving shows like Seinfeld, The Facts Of Life, The Fresh Prince and The Brady Bunch. These shows focus on human relationships rather than competition, getting famous and calling each other out. Sure there were competitive shows back in the day, like Wheel Of Fortune and Jeopardy, but the whole reality TV fascination and modern modality of shaming each other, inciting drama, and gossiping wasn't a central part of programming the way it is in the blockbuster hits of today like The Bachelorette and Survivor, and those Real Housewives shows. I know there is great TV programming out there, too, but I'm not sure how many people seek that alternative. Hopefully it's more and more every year!

Between 1987 and 2007, community as a core TV programming value dropped to number eleven, and the pursuit of fame became the number one core value. I don't know the stats for 2015, but to my eye, seeking fame, getting money, 'calling out' another person in a fit of righteousness, winning; these seem to have become core mainstream TV values, and with that core value system comes a mass of people emulating those values.

We in the first world are full time media consumers and we, at our worst, copy the shitty behaviour we digest daily. We consume content that teaches us getting even at all costs is better than being charitable. We are taught it's fine to text or email the meanest possible taunts. Divorcees are taught that ruining the ex's life is appropriate. We circulate corrosive behaviours caught on camera, we turn a blind eye to gang rapes, and we allow cyber bullying and lateral violence even in our own families. We troll posts and aggressively attempt to 'put others in their place'. When something bad happens to another person, we gloat, claiming they had it coming. As Daniel Pinchbeck states, we lack a moral center in our society.

If our neurons get hit all day by examples of vengeful, toxic behaviours, does it not follow that the synapses of our brains are being wired to continue these standards? And since the brain is a dense battery of synapses firing, wouldn't it make sense that we could therefore also re-pattern, to some extent, those synapses with a disciplined application of compassion as a personal practice? In the case of my peer who told me that nobody owes anybody else any kindness, what if instead all we owe each other is kindness?

To be clear, I am not talking about 'niceness'. I am not talking about protocolled and dictated politeness. I consider politeness at times to be a surface set of conventions that restrict rather than welcome people, and leave opportunity to shame one another, because politeness and the conventions of what is considered correct differ significantly between communities. I am talking about kindness, the process of being gentle rather than judgmental, curious rather than dismissive. We all behave poorly at times. But how we approach our mistakes and the mistakes of others can make a difference.

If we break apart the word kindness, at its root is the word kin -- meaning we are all connected. To think of ourselves as connected encourages the idea that we do in fact owe each other kindness, simply because every positive intention can have a similar output in an interconnected world. From a quantum physics perspective, this is actually accurate.

So although my peer briefly convinced me that kindness is not necessary between people, I refuse to embrace that value, and I know I'm not alone. I see people reject meanness and competitiveness all the time. I look for gentleness and I find it. It's there in all of us if we chose to share it. Let's share it throughout the holiday season and for the entire year of 2016 as a gift to each other.

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