1. Develop the empathy muscle.
This is first because it’s the easiest. You think the woman going nuts on the barista at Colectivo is out of line? Put yourself in her shoes and try to imagine what it’s like being an asshole. I’ve been an asshole and a nice person and I can tell you it’s way more work to be the former. Where I once would have rolled my eyes and possibly even stepped up to say, “pipe down, woman” I have now learned to flex my empathy muscle instead. “Oh, honey,” I like to begin, concern dripping from each syllable like maple syrup. “What happened to you when you were young?”
Most people stop their nonsense on the spot, suddenly aware that there just might be someone bat shit crazier than them on premises. Others will break down and tell you about Catholic grade school or the time they were frightened by a clown. Regardless, your little moment of kindness has defused the situation, and the barista will be grateful. (He will still get your name wrong on your cup.)
2. Take a moment to breathe.
Also an easy one. Next time someone is being inappropriate beyond the pale, pull your collar away from your throat and gasp for air. Fling yourself to the ground, flailing just slightly, until the other person asks, “Are you okay?!”
They will have pretty much forgotten the track they were on a moment earlier, and you have extended them the great kindness of shutting them up. The ploy expires the moment they start up again, but you have succeeded in altering their bad behavior for a full moment or two—or however long you can tolerate lying on the floor at Costco, flopping about like a suicidal goldfish.
When they repeat the question “are you all right?” you get to say, “Depends. Are you gonna stop talking?” As with almost all my suggestions for being kind, you will want to quickly walk away at this point.
3. Assume the other person is a good person, just confused.
This is a deceptively simple antidote to people who say and do stupid stuff. No matter what it is—talking smack about a mutual friend, espousing a political view in sharp opposition to your own moral code, or snatching the last firm kohlrabi from right under your nose—assuming the other person is basically decent but confused is a life saver for all involved.
It’s classic when someone slams a mutual friend to say, “Yet she always speaks so highly of you.” But consider the head-scratching response you’ll get when the next time Uncle Jurgen rants and raves about your bleeding heart and the starving widows and orphans who’ve taken all the good jobs away from regular Americans, you drape your arm over his shoulder and say, “Dear heart, the blue frog is always shinier at midnight.” Then walk quickly away. Crisis averted. Thanksgiving saved. Uncle Jurgen is, for once, quiet, which is a kindness upon everyone.
4. Pretend the other person is someone you like.
A recent study showed that we are less likely to rip the head off someone if the someone is someone we like. Full disclosure, it is my study and it was conducted as an experiment in my brain. I thought about the time the woman in front of me at the movies was texting. I know I’ve hit an 8.4 on the antagonization Richter scale when I can hear my own blood pressure roaring in my ears. I came this close to hurling a stubby 4oz bottle of $12 movie water at the woman’s head. Then I pretended she was Betty White.
Suddenly my blood pressure returned to pre-audible and I wondered if Betty was checking on her dogs, answering a grandchild who was worried when she didn’t answer her door (because she was at the movies) or maybe she was communicating with her agent, negotiating a contract for a film role in which case my blood pressure shot back up and I wanted to smack the white off Betty’s little old face. Really? You couldn’t do that in the lobby, I thought.
Then I pretended she was Mother Theresa and I barely noticed the texting for the next five or ten seconds. After that I sought out the pimply-faced manager and tattled my ass off. He, of course, did nothing and to this day I do not know how Titanic ends, but the bigger point is that I did not clobber the lady with my water bottle, and I consider that kind.
5. Deliver an Oscar-worthy performance as someone who is kind.
When we were little and given to making faces that my Grandma Rose found creepy, annoying, sassy or simian, she’d warn us that one day our faces would freeze like that. She said it so often and with such conviction that against all the scientific hypotheses ten-year-olds could conjure, we started to believe her. It did not stop us from making the ugly faces, but at least I was wondering what kind of future job I’d be good for if my permanent expression was that of a petulant Bonobo. #ImaWriter. The point is, repetition is retention, and if we can just act like kind people, the theory goes, we will become kind people.
Next time I encounter a person who moderately annoys me, I will become Meryl Streep playing me, but nicer and with a Czech accent because that’s a sexy one to have. If I Streep out often enough when I’m only just slightly perturbed, the next time someone pushes all my buttons I should be able—by the Grandma Rose repetition is retention school of medieval superstitions—to say in my most pleasant made-up Czech voice, “Daaaaah-link, your jokes are adorable.”
After blinking a few times as though he or she feels a stye coming on, the other person will likely proclaim, “I wasn’t being funny” to which I will say with a disarming smile, “You were, trust me.” And then I shall quickly walk away. This is a much kinder response to someone who is being an idiot than my patented knee jerk proclamation, “You’re a fucking idiot.”
6. Just…be kind.
As long as I knew her, which was my whole life, my mom did this thing when an ambulance passed by or we heard a siren in the distance. She’d make us say a prayer for whomever was injured or sick. As I got a little older it annoyed me to no end. We’d be in the middle of a conversation or a really good song on the radio and everything would stop so we could say some dumb prayer for someone we didn’t even know. I had a million reasons why it was a waste of time. After that, whenever an ambulance zoomed by, my mom would move her lips in silent prayer.
I was weeding the garden yesterday when I heard an ambulance in the distance and I stopped what I was doing for a moment, wondering whether the emergency vehicle was on its way to pick up an elderly woman who had fallen, or maybe a man who’d had a heart attack. I realized my mom’s prayers weren’t silly at all. She was being kind.
Researchers at UCLA believe they are close to identifying a gene that determines a person’s psychological “resources”—optimism, self-esteem and mastery (the feeling that you can master your environment and achieve what you want). These 3 resources have been shown to help people weather stressful events and beat back depression. Because these traits tend to run in families, scientists had suspected a genetic component.
I am the most optimistic person I know. As a matter of fact, I’ve been accused of having my head up my ass; I am always so certain things will work out just fine. And yet my parents were not the most optimistic on earth. Both firmly believed that success comes only with hard work and if you’re lucky…a bit of good luck. In terms of “see it be it” and the laws of attraction, not so much.
Both my grandmothers were fatalists. From the day she turned 62, Grandma Ferderbar, when asked, “How are you, grandma,” would inform you that this would be her last year on earth. Her (pick one or mix and match) heart, stomach, brain, liver—were killing her. She lived to be 98—in relatively good health until the very end when passed away peacefully in her sleep.
Grandma Rose, my mom’s mom, saw danger in every shadow. A brave soul who crossed the ocean as cargo on a freighter, from Eastern Europe to Ellis Island, at the age of 17 and all by herself, was fed a litany of misinformation and alternative facts en route so preposterous they could have been fabricated by Sean Spicer, but were relayed to grandma via kvetches in babushkas—kinda the same thing really, without a podium.
“Avoid stepping on sidewalk grates. There are slave traders underneath just waiting for a girl like you.” Being sold into “white slavery” was a predominant theme in my grandma’s repertoire of potential calamities, and she feared for our safety until she passed away at the age of 99. Other than a few bad marriages and a timeshare fiasco, none of us have thus far been enslaved.
So where does my cockeyed optimism come from? (Only in Latin is it incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition. Churchill knew it when he said sarcastically, “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”) Perhaps my sense of optimism comes from Winston Churchill, which is also where I go for political humor and scorching bon mots.
I digress. (Have you ever noticed how much Boxer dogs all look exactly like Churchill?) If it’s not genetic, is optimism a cultivated trait? And if so, what were the factors that contributed to my big fat rose colored glasses? I can’t identify exactly what it was, but I can tell you what is wasn’t about my formative years that may sweetened the kitty of my outlook; Catholic grade school.
We were not encouraged to be happy. Our mental wellbeing was of no concern—the polar opposite of the “everyone wins a trophy” pathology prevalent today. Zero shits were given for self-esteem, how well we socialized with others or how we felt, unless we were feeling sick, in which case John the janitor would be summoned to bring a coffee can full of Voban Vomit Absorbent, a sickeningly sweet pink sawdust thrown on vomit meant to prevent a catastrophic chain event from occurring in the classroom or at Mass, but which itself triggered the gag reflex.
Abject fear, loose bowels, anxiety and the desire to make it from grade to grade and out were about the best we could “hope for.” It was really more about survival (physically and existentially) than optimism. It was in the sixth grade that I began listening to Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and the Stones. Until then you might have argued that a steady diet of bubble gum pop influenced my outlook to the extent I believed a brand new pair of roller skates and a brand new key would bring me life everlasting and joy unparalleled, but in fact I was a clumsy child prone to falling down even when I didn’t have wheels strapped to my feet. I wasn’t a pessimist so much as realistic about my limitations.
Hopefulness and idealism are not exactly words one associates with Lou and Bob, and it only got worse in high school when I began reading Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot and Steinbeck. Funnily enough, it was at just this time I began to feel a warmth in the pit of my being—an inner heat that suggested a whole world of possibility was at my fingertips. I realized words could set me free.
Through the simple, elegant arrangement of words, I discovered that ugliness and sorrow could be managed; made sense of. I became painfully aware that great poets and authors had to work very hard to find the right vocabulary to fathom suffering, loneliness and grief—then to arrange it in such a way as to wrest some of the power away from the things that kill the soul of a man.
Even those who lost the ultimate battle with depression had moments of great clarity and joy—you can feel it when you read certain passages, and I am absolutely sure that in those moments, when they beheld their own formidable words laid end to end in sheer perfection, they felt optimism, a sense of wonder—perhaps even elation.
So maybe that is from where optimism comes. (It just doesn’t work as well as “where optimism comes from,” right?) When we learn how to manage our darkness perhaps we are letting in more light, and what is optimism, but light?
I’ve shared it before, but the following poem—a simple arrangement of words so powerful—has brought just enough light to me in moments of grief, anxiety and darkness, to chase away the shadows. And it has always left me with an overwhelming sense of optimism.
The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
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Charlotte is two years old! It seems like just yesterday that Feng Shui and Charlotte Nightingale was born, shiny and new, and the long uphill journey to promoting the novel had just begun. If I knew then what I know now…
You can spend 16 hours per day writing, or write for an hour or two before work and again before bed seven days a week, or write for 72 hours straight on the weekend, or combine all of these and the result will be the same: writing is the easy part. If your last name is not Rowling, King, Patterson or Grisham, a publisher will not support you the way you imagine a publisher will support you based on what we see in the movies and on TV, although the concept that non-syndicated columnist Carrie Bradshaw could afford to spend $15K a month on shoes is very funny.
There will be no multi-city book tour, launch parties, radio and TV appearances, newspaper and magazine articles, photo shoots, stylists, written word groupies or bus sides unless you organize and pay for them yourself. I’m not complaining (really). It’s just the way it is, which is that way no one tells you before you decide to become a novelist, because if they did you’d go to medical school or become a Navy Seal instead—you know, something comparatively easy.
I think people have this idea that writers sit around sipping from a bottle of scotch, cigarette dangling from our lips, which are painted the perfect shade of red to go with our slightly disheveled bed head, wearing silk pajamas all day while a handsome young manservant prepares poached eggs and toast any time we ask. It simply isn’t like that, although it should be.
When the book was finally published, after rounds and rounds of editing otherwise known as killing your darlings (absolutely as painful as it sounds), I thought I’d have a minute to breathe, get something waxed, maybe see a movie or visit with friends. But no. The work was just beginning.
I could tell you all that it entails, but I could write a frickin’ book in less time than that would take. Two years later (I totally thought Charlotte II would be written, edited, published and released by now) I am still promoting Charlotte I, but I am optimistic even though I haven’t written a word of Charlotte II. It is, however, all up here (#PointingToMyHead), so fear not if you’re dying to know what becomes of our girl and her zany cast of characters. It’s a’comin’…
Two years later, the interviews and speaking engagements continue, but now that I’m not frantic as a chipmunk hopped up on Miracle-Gro, I am actually enjoying it. Next week I’ll be with a gathering of women who are interested in talking about optimism, the predominant theme of the novel. They’ll be serving food and drinks, and I guaranty there will be laughter. If history is any indication, it will be at turns bawdy, emotional, giddy and empowering.
My very most favorite thing is visiting with readers who find hope and joy on my pages. Every single one of us has had our #CharlotteMoments, and those are the very things that make us strong and resilient. After reading the book thousands of times, editing, re-editing and editing again, I am renewed, motivated and utterly thrilled when I learn someone has found meaning and nuance that I didn’t consciously put on the page.
So thank you for hangin’ out with me, whether it has been a day or two years. If you’re here now it’s because we are friends, at least that is how I see it. I sleep well knowing you.
I’m offering a free Kindle download of Feng Shui and Charlotte Nightingale to anyone who subscribes to my (usually) weekly blog. How, you ask, is something of this magnitude possible?
Go to the top of this page and subscribe by entering your email and then clicking yes. (A few words of encouragement in the comments section always appreciated!) I’ll email you a link to your very own free Kindle edition of Feng Shui and Charlotte Nightingale (redeemable until midnight June 12) and you’ll be the first one on your block to get an alert when I post a new blog. (I would never share your email address with anyone.)
Have a great weekend and happy reading!
In the second grade when we finished a test we were made to stand beside our desks while the teacher walked up and down the aisles checking our work. One day, upon completing a spelling test, I glanced down at my paper and saw that I misspelled the word ninety. I quickly corrected my answer.
When Sister Melmarie got to my desk, her eyes narrowed. “Did you cheat on your test, Pamela?” she asked, accusation dripping from her wimple.
I stood there with 30 pairs of seven-year-old Catholic eyes upon me, thinking to myself I knew the answer. I just missed a letter, which I have now added. What in the hell is this broad’s problem?
“No,” I replied. I hadn’t copied from someone else’s test, I reasoned. I hadn’t cheated. I just squeezed an e in.
Sister grabbed me by the yoke of my plaid, pleated uniform and yanked me into the hall. “I want you to close your eyes and ask baby Jesus for forgiveness if you have lied,” she admonished, putting her face so closely to mine that I could smell communion wafer and what I assumed to be sacramental wine on her breath.
I wouldn’t have closed my eyes if a wasp had landed on my cornea. I stared defiantly at Sister Melmarie, but I did blink once, and in that instant I apologized to the baby Jesus in case he thought I had lied, but I hadn’t because I did not cheat. I knew the correct spelling of 90. I wanted to be clear with the lil guy as I had heard he could send me to purgatory if he felt like it and I did not want to float around for god knows how long—until the second coming—whenever that was going to happen (no one has ever been clear or correct on the exact time and date), with a bunch of unbaptized babies and other sinners whose fault it was not really that they were there.
“You will go to hell if you don’t close your eyes and tell Jesus you’re sorry,” she insisted, a layer of sweat forming on her upper lip as she bored a hole into my skull with her gaze. Hell? This nun was taking no prisoners. Nonetheless, I maintained the cool, eyelidless stare of a lobster. Had I the lawyerly skills then, which I have since acquired by paying special attention to the order part of Law and Order, I might have redirected and asked about her exact definition of cheating, but I just stood there with my eyeballs drying out.
“Very well,” she snapped when she realized I was never going to cave. She swatted me across my legs to hurry me back into the classroom as she got in one final shot. “I want you to think about what you’ve done here.”
I’d just lied my ass off with a straight face.
As lies go, it was a minor, victimless crime—correcting the spelling of a word on a second grade test, yet it bugs me 20 years later. (Once you start, lying becomes easier and easier.)
Since then I’ve had to forgo lying altogether (‘cept for about my age) because I don’t have the mental strongbox that allows me to keep track of shit I’ve said, so telling untruths would cause indigestion, anxiety and an overall sense of utter confusion. I said what when? That sort of thing.
There are white lies; little fictions meant to make others feel slim in their True Religions, smart, loved or like they can cook. I image there are grey lies, although you don’t hear much about them. “Yes, I remembered to pick up the diapers,” a woman snaps, pulling a U-turn and hauling ass back to Target for the Pampers she had forgotten because Target had just gotten in a very limited supply of Missoni dresses and of course she temporarily forgot she had a baby at home hello she is only human.
Then there are black lies—those whoppers politicians tell while evidence to the contrary plays out right behind them for all the world to see. It’s like the guy who gets caught with another woman, looks up at his wife standing at the foot of the bed, jumps up, naked, and says, “I did not have sex with that woman.”
“Aw, they all do it,” we say offhandedly about our leaders. “It’s part of the game.” Next time your fourteen year old says she did not take the Suburban out and get it stuck in a swamp and has no idea how it got there or why the police found it with her purse on the backseat, see if you feel as charitable toward her as you do toward the guy who tells you he’s for family values as they’re hauling him off to jail for having sex in an airport restroom with a methamphetamine dealer/male prostitute named Betty. “Kids will be kids,” you could tell yourself. “It’s part of the game.”
I’m guessing we hold our children, spouses, friends, coworkers and the barista at Starbucks more accountable for what they say than the people who actually effectuate changes in the world. Maybe not all their lies will kill us…exactly, but the best case scenario is that politicians are simply a really bad example for our children, in which case the best case is also a really bad case.
Used to be you could tell a child, with your head held high and a tear in your eye, “If you study and work hard, develop good leadership skills and always do the right thing, some day you could be President of the United States.”
The bar is substantially lower these days.