31 Days of Kindness

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47192929_2197798976919662_2821843979337728000_oShortly before December, my niece posted a Kindness Calendar on Facebook. Being a big fan of Advent calendars and the whole countdown to Christmas, I decided to give it a try. With traditional Advent calendars, you get something (a chocolate or small toy) each day of December. The Kindness Calendar asks a person to give something every day until Christmas. I printed out the calendar and taped it to my fridge. So began a transformational month that has given so much more meaning to the Christmas season for me.

Each day I have done my best to fulfill the task set for me by the calendar. It might be something simple like purchasing an extra bag of groceries for the local food pantry. It might be nonmaterial: a kind word, a positive note, a mental or emotional adjustment. Some of the activities had disappointing results. When given the task to smile at as many people as possible one day, I was forced to notice that not only do most people not smile back, most people don’t even make eye contact with one another during the course of the day.

Yet as the month has gone by, I have found my heart to be so much more open and expansive. Giving things away, whether physical or emotional, has made me treasure this season of goodwill so much more deeply and personally. After performing my “good deed” for the day, I felt so much happier and less stressed about the many things on my To Do list. The more I recognized others’ needs, the more abundantly blessed I felt.

Christmas is almost here. I’ve got most of the gifts wrapped and the cards sent. Soon all four of my kids will be in the house causing happy mayhem. And this year, I have a peaceful, contented heart with which to receive them.

It’s not surprising to me that the Kindness Calendar was created by an organization called Action for Happiness. Trite as it may sound, using the calendar has reminded me that it really is better to give than to receive. Giving of ourselves comes back to us in double measure.

May all of us experience Christmas joy by performing little acts of kindness on our way to the manger this year.

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The Niceness Trap

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From a young age, children (especially girls) are taught to be nice. “Play nice.” “That’s not nice.” “Be a nice little girl.” I grew up with these admonishments, which were at odds with my frankness, my loudness, and my questioning nature. Consequently, I learned that my own thoughts and feelings, if not pleasant and polite, were to be hidden and even ashamed of.

Kindness is an invaluable trait. It involves thinking of others and sacrificing our own needs for another. Striving to be kinder is always a good thing. But niceness? Niceness is a social construct created to keep people, especially children, in order. The polite smile, the quiet folding of hands in laps, the crossed ankles.

I remember a high school friend who told me her first impression of me was that I was a goody two shoes. I would sit at my desk, knees pressed together and feet flat on the floor. I did not talk out of turn or laugh raucously with the other freshmen in my English class. What my friend Kathy did not know was that my behavior was the result of seven years in Catholic school, where only “nice” behavior was tolerated. Sure, I was a school teacher’s dream, but I didn’t allow my true self to emerge in public.

People who know me casually would probably describe me as “nice.” I greet people politely, don’t swear,  and converse with the  pleasantries society finds acceptable. Those who know me well realize I have an edge. I can be mean-spirited, feisty, sarcastic, and negative. Still, after all these years of being encouraged to be nice, I often find it hard to express my opinions for fear that others won’t like me.

I”m not advocating that we all go around spewing venom, scratching ourselves in public, or being obnoxious. But I do wish we as a society did not place such a premium on niceness. I have tried to raise my children to be considerate of others while also being true to themselves. This can be tricky and embarrassing. I myself caused much embarrassment to adult family members when I was a little girl because I would blurt out my honest thoughts in public: “Aunt Honey, that lady’s not too fat, is she?”

Sometimes there’s a fine line between honesty and cruelty. As my parish priest once urged, when you are about to say something, ask yourself these three questions:

Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

With those guidelines in mind, I hope to become a more authentic person. You may not think I’m “nice,” but I will always try to be kind.