I agonized through dinner at Appleebees, limiting my eye contact with Paul, though he didn’t seem to notice. Paul liked to talk and was content to fill both sides of a conversation while I filled my role as semi-interested date. I offered appropriate nods and the occasional “really?” as we killed time before the movie.
It was February 1997, and despite Paul’s penchant for chatting, it was me who had something to say.
I liked Paul, and we’d been dating for a few months. I didn’t date anyone in high school and Paul was my first real boyfriend. He was a thoughtful guy, serious about his faith, serious about his studies and he opened doors and pulled out chairs for me. But for a variety of reasons, it wasn’t working out. So for the three weeks leading up to this date, I’d been agonizing over how to break up with him.
After putting it off for all of dinner and the entire showing of “Dante’s Peak,” I finally told him in the car on the way home. (There’s a point to this story, but a secondary point could be made for just getting something over with to save that ulcer growing in your stomach).
After 45 minutes in the car I walked into my apartment where my roommates had waited up for me because there was no such thing as texting.
“Well?” Asked Melissa.
I closed the door and slid down to the floor.
“Uh…we’re taking a break for 30 days,” I mumbled.
“Kimmie!” She shouted. “What are you doing?!!”
I sat on the floor of the apartment for awhile longer before finally dragging myself to bed. I was 27 kinds of miserable over the next month. At the time, all I could think was that I wanted to be nice. I was in agony over the idea that I had, in any way, hurt someone’s feelings. But my effort to be nice and protect Paul’s feelings only made it worse. For both of us.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the kindest thing I could have done in that situation was to be clear. Brene Brown says in her most recent book that “clear is kind.” In retrospect, I was as unkind to Paul as I could have been in that situation. And I had plenty more times that followed where my desire to be “nice” and “polite” led to similar results.
As I start my year off in earnest today, my goal is to make kindness more than just rhetoric at the bottom of my emails and on t-shirts that I sell.
Because kindness is an active behavior, not just a concept of being pleasant.
But how do we take kindness from mere rhetoric to a change in cultural attitudes? Well, I don’t know, but I think of kindness a bit like keeping a gratitude journal - the more I can keep gratitude top of mind in my thoughts, the more gratitude will translate into my actions.
So it goes with kindness I think. When kindness is shared, it grows.
Last week when I was home in Pennsylvania, I went to the new Starbucks in town. I ordered my coffee and was told that it was taken care of, because someone had left a gift card to pay for the next person’s coffee. I was so touched by this unexpected kindness that I added money to the card for the next person.
Imagine if that had carried on throughout the day?
Imagine a day full of everyone buying everyone else’s coffee?
The individual choices we make make can have a wider impact in the world. It is my challenge to myself to commit one act of kindness every day. Even though I sign every email to “be kind,” I think we need more than the occasional reminder to help people find hope and optimism in the very negative and divisive times we live in.
These acts of kindness don’t have to be extreme.
Let someone go in front of you next time you’re in line. Hold the door for a person coming behind you, even if that person is more than a few steps away. Fill a gift card for the local coffee shop. Choose one Facebook friend per day and write a short message - no more than one paragraph - of appreciation. If you’re looking for more ideas, google random acts of kindness.
To be clear (see what I did there?) it’s not like I’m some master of being kind. I have plenty of short comings and get more than a little caught up in my own little world. But I’m going to keep trying to get a little better at these acts of kindness every day.
Together, if we remember to not just “be” kind, but to act kindly, I believe we can change the culture.