When I took an online survey that ranked my top twenty character traits that reflect my values, spirituality was number twenty, bottom of the list. I was not surprised, and yet I was. I know the quiz ranked the qualities we most value as well as those we most often lead with and use to interpret the world. I lead with humor, honesty, love of learning, judgment, and kindness, not with spirituality. And yet, I have two decades of practice at something many people connect to spirituality.
Maybe I am a really bad meditator. Or maybe I am just a closet spiritualist.
Spiritualist is the wrong word. I am definitely not a spiritualist.
But I was a little disappointed to find spirituality down at the bottom of that list. Almost as disappointed to find that there as I was surprised to find kindness in the top five. Judgment, sure. I reckon I’m pretty dang judgmental. Humor? Absolutely. As Jane Austen said in P & P, "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?" Honesty. Check. Love of learning--may I present this blog, a record of my foray into positive psychology and lord knows what else? Kind, though? Hmmm.
And yet. And yet. Perhaps there is a connection to the meditation practice and kindness. They say meditating helps you, but often you don’t know that it’s helping you. You just notice life is a little easier to handle. They also say that if you meditate, you develop compassion, aka kindness. Why is that so? Because once you take time to be mindful of what is going on inside you in the present moment, you realize that others are going through the same set of vicissitudes, also known as emotions, that you are. They’re not going through them at the same time you are, but they are going through the same ones. Thus, as you learn to be a little patient with yourself, you also learn a little patience with others, and a little compassion for everyone’s struggles, including your own. So maybe, just maybe, my stealth spirituality is reflected in my top five after all, via kindness.
And, if I am going to be kind to others, perhaps I can be kind to myself by reminding myself that judgment is not necessarily a pejorative characteristic. It’s an ability to see sides and facets and form an opinion based on discernment, rather than on pure reactivity.
I had my students take a quiz called the VIA Character Inventory. You can take it, too, for free.* Quite a few of them had kindness in their top five. I found this surprising. Sure, they’re a nice bunch. Most of them are too quiet. Rendered speechless by the request to offer an opinion to the group, as a matter of fact and of deep annoyance to me. I feel quite judgmental about that reticence, and not in a kind way, if I’m honest, which according to the VIA character survey I usually am.
The relative preponderance of kindness in my classroom made me think that these kids might be reflecting a need they feel in our culture. Our popular culture, our news, our political leaders of late seem so far from kind that maybe our students, our kids, are presenting a collective need for it. I know that I have developed a real thirst for books about etiquette, and television shows that feature people behaving kindly and politely. The seventeen year old and I have been re-watching “Call the Midwife,” and one thing that show portrays is people in the poorest of circumstances behaving with politeness and dignity, even in the most undignified situations. I may start wearing a girdle soon I am so taken with the whole dignity of self-restraint thing. Give me a young, single gal dressed in a skirt, cardigan, and sensible shoes collapsing at a bus stop from an attempt at self-aborting a fetus over road rage and blatant insults on the nightly news any day.
Okay, not really. I don’t at all want to turn back the clock to illegal abortion and lack of contraception. I don’t want to turn back the clock at all. I want to move forward and beyond our current situation. But I recognize, and apparently so do many of my students, the need for kindness as we try to get there. I feel kind of hopeful about things, if kindness is a deep value for many of us. Kindness is not the sole property of the religious and spiritual. It’s available to all of us.
My students, or at least the two or three who do volunteer to speak, brought up the idea that kindness and politeness were two different things. That politeness is fake, or it can be. But I think they are related. Politeness might be fake—it certainly is fake, sometimes—but the adherence to it, particularly when you might not feel it, is truly kind. And when someone truly doesn’t deserve kindness, and no names will be named here, it’s a kindness to yourself to maintain dignity. Politeness, etiquette, allows that.
My children's elementary school principal taught us all this little self-reflection about kindness. I think it originated in the teachings of Buddha, but I am not sure. It's not a verse, it's more of a rubric for self-reflection, self-restraint, judgment in a positive sense, and kindness:
Before you speak, ask yourself, Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it helpful?
I know that when I do this, I have to stifle some of my natural urges, which would answer those questions thus: Is it kind? Absolutely not, but it's clever. Is it necessary? Again, it is the opposite of necessary, it is superfluous, but possibly funny, at least to me. Is it helpful? Only if you want to add to the inanity around us all. Sometimes, Readers, that is what I want to do. Sometimes that is actually kind, helpful, and necessary. Sometimes we just need to take off the mental girdle. Sometimes a bit of unnecessary folderol is actually necessary. That's what keeps me going. That and, apparently, kindness.
*Here’s the link to the quiz. It takes about 15 minutes. You have to give an email address and after you take the quiz, scroll to the bottom of your screen and you’ll see the list of characteristics. https://www.viacharacter.org/