Our Wake of Kindness

Thank-you muffins

I started this blog before my dad, from whom I learned the importance of doing good unto others, was given just days to live. Soon, he will leave behind his wake of kindness. Hold tight–it’ll be a tsunami.

Dedicated to you, Dad, for all you’ve taught me.

Dear Friend,

Earlier this year, my hairstylist and I experimented with a new hair color. I was iffy about the results when I left the salon, and after a few days, decided the gray/blond was too silver/purple–like, really purple–so I went back in for a fix.

The failed experiment wasn’t a big deal since so few people would even see it. I was usually stuck at home with chronic health issues anyway, and even pre-COVID, I didn’t go out much. Besides, I had okayed the color experiment. I was 50% at fault, not that I was looking for anyone to blame.

Months later (after waiting-out the COVID salon closure), I returned to the stylist, who gave me a container of home-baked muffins as a thank you for not being upset. Upset about what? I thought, until she reminded me of the experiment. It moved me to tears (granted, not a difficult feat) and validated how I choose to live my life.

I avoid conflict. It’s a manifestation of my people-pleasing, my sensitive nature, my upbringing–too much to unpack here. But sometimes, what looks like conflict-aversion is really a choice to err on the side of kindness.

Choose to err on the side of kindness.

Like me, no one is perfect. Mistakes and misunderstandings happen. If I trust someone’s good intentions and if the consequences of whatever went wrong are minimal, I choose not to fight that battle.

It doesn’t mean I let people take advantage of me, or walk all over me–not anymore. And I’m better at holding people accountable for their mistakes, such as asking my stylist to fix my color. Only recently, through my journey to shed my people-pleasing, did I understand that kindness and assertiveness are not mutually exclusive.

The thank-you muffins reminded me of one of the first blogs I ever wrote, about my 2016 flu shot, when the CVS pharmacist asked me to relax my arm.

“I would hate to hurt you,” she said, “You’re always so nice.”

It’s that noticeable? I thought. I pictured the hundreds of times I’d walked through the aisles and stood at the pharmacy counter. The thousands of interactions with staff and other customers. The times I’d complimented the manager on his employees’ exemplary service. I didn’t think the pharmacist even knew who I was, but not only did she know me, she knew me. She was right–I am nice. Feeling the color rise in my cheeks, I thanked her.

“Nice” is the public face I try to present to the world. Part instinct, part intention, it is who I imagine myself to be, who I want to be. And, although I didn’t know the distinction in 2016, I am also kind.

The flu shot scene was great fodder for my blog, but I was stymied by this question: How do I write about being nice without sounding self-righteous?

When writers get personal on the page, they are advised not to indulge in Look how great I am prose because it’s a turn-off for readers. We’re in this together is more relatable. But I was too new to figure out the nuances. I ended up questioning if being kind really matters, though I knew the answer was unequivocally “yes.” And now, thank-you muffins in hand, I had proof.

Kindness matters.

Your kindness matters to the hairstylist and the pharmacist and the grocery store cashier and the stranger for whom you left the last roll of toilet paper on the store shelf. It matters to the person whose life may be falling apart, when your smile gave them a moment’s relief. It matters when hate fills our airways and our psyches and threatens to poison the world. People don’t always speak up when they’ve received a kindness, but that doesn’t mean they don’t notice. And if they didn’t consciously notice, neural connections in their brain still register the transaction and store it permanently. Your kindness becomes part of them.

When we die, I believe we leave a wake on this earth caused by our actions. Our wake can push people under, or give them a footing to rise above the moment, and get a clearer view of the challenges facing them. I choose the latter. People-pleasing may be one of my character flaws, but kindness is not.

Kindness is not a character flaw.

In honor of my dad, whose kindness, generosity, and selflessness have lifted up so many people in his 88 years, I ask you to consider your wake. Especially in the coming months, when almost half of our fellow Americans will be hurting and scared even more than they are right now, the world needs all the kindness we can muster. Fight for what you believe, hold politicians accountable, demand the truth, and, most importantly–VOTE. And leave a wake you’ll be proud of.

All the best. Stay safe and well.

Karen

Do you know someone who needs to hear this message? Please share it!

Accountability matters–here’s an example why.

Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Troy, NY.

Dear Friend,

I had an interesting exchange on Facebook recently about personal accountability, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

I’m in a private group for Recovering People-pleasers. (There’s a Facebook group for everything isn’t there? If you’d like to know more, reply to this email.)

A group member—I’ll call her Jane—posted that a close circle of friends had excluded her from a party at which everyone received an inscribed gift. The friends then plastered social media with pictures of the party and the gifts. It seemed clear to Jane (and to me) that the group intentionally ousted her, and they wanted her to know (in a passive-aggressive way, if you ask me.)

Jane asked for advice about how to respond.

I rarely give advice unless it’s requested, but since Jane asked, I started working on a reply. I was going to suggest that she mourn the loss of her “friends,” and then move on, as it was clear they didn’t value her friendship.

Before I had a chance to hit “post,” another member—I’ll call her Sue—replied with a much more direct and assertive suggestion. Sue suggested Jane contact one of the friends and ask up front why she had been excluded.

It was an aha moment for me, and immediately, my planned reply seemed lame. It was way too victim-y. I realized I had stooped to my people-pleasing fallback–to avoid confrontation, walk away, accept whatever people dish out. As much as I’ve grown in standing up for myself, avoiding conflict is still my default response to the world.

As a people-pleaser, avoiding conflict is my default response.

In contrast, Sue’s reply felt empowering. It held people accountable for their actions, a position I’ve not often taken in my life.

Personal accountability is the impetus behind my memoir. When I looked back on the saga of my son’s brain tumor, diagnosed over twenty years ago, I realized how much my people-pleasing hindered me from fighting for him. It was and is a horribly humiliating awakening.

I realized the only way to make sense of what happened was to hold myself accountable for my actions, or lack thereof. Doing this in a very public way–here, in my other writing, and especially my memoir is how I will finally overcome my people-pleasing. And I know that others who read my truth and see themselves in my story will experience their own accountability, and grow as well.

Personal accountability–owning our truth–demonstrates respect for self.

Holding myself accountable for my shortcomings required me to hold others accountable, too. My intent wasn’t and isn’t that anyone would change their ways or apologize, as that’s not within my control. And I don’t expect that someone else will see the story the same way as me. My purpose is to acknowledge how someone’s actions, words, and/or attitude impacted me and my story.

It’s a sign of respect for my self, showing that I had confidence in calling out the Emperor’s lack of clothes.

Confronting others about their behavior is hard for people-pleasers because it carries the risk of rejection. It’s less scary to pretend negative things don’t happen.

A friend excludes you from a party? Pretend you didn’t know and don’t care.
A romantic partner ignores you? Ignore it.
A colleague fails to complete their part of a project? Do their work for them.
A boss passes you over for a promotion? Lick your wounds in private.
A doctor fails to return a call/order a test/identify a serious diagnosis? Don’t make waves.

What we fail to see, however, is that being accountable–owning our truth–is a path to personal growth. Only when you’ve named the problem can you fight the problem. And opening up an awkward conversation may lead to new insights for both parties. It’s another opportunity for growth.

Being accountable is an opportunity for growth.

In the Facebook group, Sue suggested that Jane invite a member of the inner circle to coffee, talk about what happened, and explain how it made her feel. It would be gentle, caring accountability.

Once my conflict-averse floodgates were open, however, I imagined Jane calling one of the “friends,” and demanding to know WTF was going on. Sometimes, being all nicey-nice just doesn’t work. Often, though, aggression backfires.

I ended up posting my initial comment in the thread with a caveat that I changed my mind and liked Sue’s idea better.

Jane didn’t report back to the group, so I don’t know how she handled the problem. But I’m curious what you think.

What would you recommend to a friend who was ousted or “ghosted?”

If you’ve worn those shoes, what did you do?

Speaking of my memoir, I’ll be sending an update in my quarterly Newsy Letter soon, which includes book recommendations, and an embarrassing (G-rated) photo with a fun or funny personal tidbit about me. Wouldn’t you like to be in-the-know? Just scroll down or over to find the “Subscribe via email” box. If you can’t find it, click here. (If you’re already subscribed, don’t worry, I’ll weed out duplicates.)

I look forward to hearing from you, and hope you are safe and well.

All the best,

Karen

Vulnerability, humility, and ego.

Kitchen in disarray.
My messy kitchen after a coffee flood.

Dear Friend,

Last week I shared a post on Facebook and Twitter that began, “Guess what Miss Brilliant just did?” You may have seen it—the picture of my kitchen after I brewed a whole pot of coffee without the carafe in place, causing a small flood that soaked through to the basement.

Two of my favorite comments from friends were “You are wonderful,” and “I love you.” And there were many comments to the effect of “I’m glad I’m not the only one who does stuff like that.”

It struck me how much people relate to each other’s vulnerability. How much, even, they crave it. Brene Brown—you may have heard of her?—said this about vulnerability:

Vulnerability is at the core, the center, of meaningful human experiences.

Vulnerability is inevitable–no one and no life is perfect. But it’s the act of sharing our vulnerability that keeps us humble. If all I ever wrote and talked about was what I did well, my successes, what’s going right in my life, how could I possibly retain a sense of humility? How could I not start to think I was better than others? How could anyone possibly relate to me, and why would they want to?

Brene Brown achieved astronomical success through her research and insight on vulnerability, shame, imperfection, and other frailties of the human condition. But I wonder—how does one retain a sense of humility when fame and fortune of that magnitude come calling?

By making a conscious decision. Because owning our vulnerability and retaining humility are choices.

Humility is a choice.

Early in the coronavirus, my dad sent me this link about the Washington State lieutenant governor who left office to pursue the Priesthood.

The New York Times reported that Cyrus Habib, a political rising star, said “he could feel himself being sucked into a ‘celebrity culture’ in American politics that had nothing to do with public service. He could feel himself being swallowed by pride,” so he walked away before that happened.

A politician choosing humility over ego? How was that not splashed all over the headlines?

I was so impressed with Habib’s story, I planned to write about it, but then the coronavirus took over our lives, and it took our lives, and then racism took George Floyd’s life, and those events seemed so much more important than writing about vulnerability, humility, and ego. (Although I believe ego is at the root of both our pandemic fiasco and systemic racism, but I’ll save that for another post.)

Then an ego-boosting thing happened to me and I realized the universe had given me an excuse to tie the threads together.

Tying the threads together.

Last year, I had a Tiny Love Story–My Son, the Homeowner–published in the Modern Love section of the New York Times. (If you click on the link, scroll down to the 4th story.) It was a thrill, but I kept my ego in check, as it was only 100 words, not a full-blown personal essay. Yes, it was the New York Times, but my words were a blip.

Out of the blue last week, I got this email from an editor at the Times:

I write with exciting news from Modern Love: We have partnered with Artisan Press to publish a book of Tiny Love Stories. Of the hundreds of Tiny Love Stories we have published, we plan to include roughly half of them in the book, including yours. It will be in bookstores late in 2020 and is available for pre-order online.

“Including yours.” Including mine.

Whoa, ego. Fame and fortune haven’t found you yet. It’s still just 100 words. It’s not like it’s a best-selling memoir.

The gist of my memoir—that I’m a people-pleaser, that the compulsion to keep the peace at all costs prevented me from advocating for my son in his hour and months and years of need—keeps a lid on my ego.

It’s not a premise to brag about. It’s not something to be proud of. When someone asks, “What’s your book about?” a part of me cringes.

But I tell my story because I believe my vulnerability will be someone else’s grace. I believe others will see themselves in me, in my timidity, my fear of conflict, my self-doubt, and the recognition will open them to personal growth.

My vulnerability may be your grace.

Will my story achieve astronomical success? Will my memoir become a best-seller? Unlikely. I may never know if I can maintain humility when fame and fortune come calling. But that’s not the point.

Vulnerability…[is] having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.

~ Brene Brown.

The point for me is to continue on the journey, even without knowing where I’ll end up. On the way, I’ll continue to tell you of coffee floods, and buying the wrong milk, and my people-pleasing backfiring, and other silly and not-so-silly trials of life.

It will connect me to you and you to me and remind us both to keep our egos in check. Brilliant, don’t you think?

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