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books - self development

The Art of Being Kind

by Stephan Einhorn

From the jacket… “Being kind in a genuine and positive way truly is an art; and it is an art that can be learned. Stefan Einhorn believes it is the single most important factor in achieving success and satisfaction in life – being a good person can make you happier, richer, more successful and fulfilled. … Offering immediate practical solutions, The Art Of Being Kind holds powerful key to the rewards of being kind.

This book was an interesting read, from a ‘flag bearer’ perspective. Of the 212 pages, I had no flags until 152, but from there they proliferated. Here they are…

pg 152 So what goals are worth striving for if we want to achieve greater happiness and contentment? One study had looked at people’s goals in life in relation to how happy they thought they were. It showed that the people who had struggled to get a high income and a successful and prestigious job were twice as likely to describe themselves a relatively or very unhappy, compared to those who named close friends and a happy marriage as their most important goals in life. Similarly, research in forty-one countries demonstrated a close correlation between the perception of happiness and how highly people valued love. The more important people regarded love to be, the happier they were. For those who valued wealth most, however, the situation was the reverse. The more important money was to them, the more unhappy they were.

pg 158 It is a question of finding a good balance. We cannot simply rush through life without enjoying and appreciating what we have. We are the ones who decide whether the glass is half full or half empty. In the end it depends on us deciding whether we want to be dissatisfied or satisfied with what we’ve got. In December 1914, Thomas Edison’s laboratory burned down, and with it a lot of the prototypes that Edison and his colleagues had been working on. The loss of the building alone was not even covered by insurance. After looking at the devastation, Edison said: ‘All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.’

pg 174 In the 1930s the Austrian physician Rene Spitz visited a children’s home where there were many children but few staff, which meant the children hardly ever got any attention. They were kept clean and fed, but had very little human contact. Almost all the children appeared apathetic and underdeveloped, and some had already whithered away and died, without anyone understanding what disease they were suffering from. Strangely, there was one child who seemed well and who was growing and developing.

Spitz investigated why this was the case. It turned out that a cleaning lady used to clean the dormitory while the children were asleep. When she had finished cleaning, she always sat down on the bed closest to the door, picking up and cuddling the child who lay in it. Just for a short while – every night. In that bed lay the only child who had developed normally.

(sidebar – this reminds of a Mother Theresa quote: “There is more hunger in the world for love and appreciation than for bread.”)

pg 180 It is almost never worth the cost of having a conflict, so for our own sake and everyone else’s, we should try to handle the next approaching conflict with insight. I am not suggesting we flee any nascent conflicts, but that we should handle them with great wisdom.

We should be pragmatic in the face of a threatening conflict. We must ask ourselves: Where do I want to get to, and how can I get there? The obvious answer is almost always that we want to avoid gaining another enemy. We always lose by having enemies.

pg 182 Within Buddhism it is said that we should be grateful to our enemies, because they teach us tolerance and self-awareness. And this is true. Each time we approach a conflict, we are also approaching an opportunity: to understand ourselves better, and to train ourselves in the difficult art of treating our fellow human beings in the best possible way. Seeing the conflict as a challenge that we can use to train ourselves is undeniably better than being gripped by the discomfort and the primitive feelings many of us experience before a fight.

pg 185 There is a Buddhist story about two monks who had to wade across a river. A young woman was standing at the ford, worried about how she would reach the other side. One of the monks offered to carry her across on his shoulders. The other monk thought that it was outrageous that he should come into contact with a woman’s body like that, but said nothing. Once they had reached the other side, and the woman had thanked the monk for his help, they continued their journey in silence. Eventually, as evening approached, the other monk could no longer hold back. and reproached his colleague for carrying the woman across the river. The monk who had carried the women looked at him in surprise and said: “Are you still carrying her? I put her down several hours ago.’

pg 188 There are only two possibilities for us to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings and needs. One is to ask them how they feel and how they want to be treated. The other is to try and imagine how that person thinks and feels. This capacity for understanding – empathy – is available to all of us, to a greater or lesser degree.

pg 191 We bear responsibility for a lot in our lives – merely saying that we have to take responsibility does not tell us very much. What I mean here is the bit of extra responsibility beyond the usual. It is about exceeding expectations; it is about ‘over-delivery’.

Several years ago my family was on holiday in a hotel in Italy. It was a well-run hotel, but one incident in particular filled us with delight. The children had taken with them an entire suitcase fill of cuddly toys, which we had to drag with us throughout the trip. Upon returning to our rooms after a day at the beach we discovered that the cleaners had been in. And they had done something beyond the usual call of duty. They had positioned the stuffed animals in a circle on the bed, so that it looked like they were having a meeting. The children were delighted, as were we adults.

pg 193 So should we work an extra five hours each week in order to be successful? No, we should not take everything upon ourselves, and we have the right to say no sometimes. But what we undertake to do, we should do really well. Whether it concerns work, family or friends, we should take responsibility for what we have undertaken, and then do a bit more.

pg 197 It is important to recognise a few simple things which we have a tendency to forget.

  • We are always part of the problem we experience.
  • We have great power to contribute to their solution.
  • We can learn a lot on the way, and grow as individuals as a result.

If we want things to be different in our lives, then we ourselves have to take responsibility for that. No one else can do it for us. And if we see hindrances ahead of us, we must decide if they are real or merely excuses for that fact that we lack courage.

How do we start this process? The first step is to make the decision to change. And not only to make that decision in our minds, but also in our hearts. The next step is to stop and take the time to ask ourselves a few questions. We have to be self-reflective. Examples of these questions might be these.

  • Am I doing right by myself?
  • Am I treating others right?
  • Am I doing the right thing?
  • Why am I doing them?
  • What do I think is important and meaningful?

It is important to take time now and again (not all the time) to think about where we are, who we are and where we are going. In the temple at Delphi there was an inscription in gold letters above the door: Gnothi seauton – ‘Know thyself’. Self-awareness is a precondition for inner development, whether it be a matter of worldly or non-worldly goals.

pg 199 I believe Frankl is right. Far too many people strive for career goals, only to find when they achieve them that they feel empty. And then they set off after new goals, only to experience the same feeling once they got there. If we instead concentrate on what feels meaningful in our hearts, this feeling will not arise, but rather a feeling of direction and meaning. We cannot hold onto anything if our hands are clenched.

pg 201 Life is endlessly rich and meaningful. The problem is that we are often in so much of a hurry that we do not have time to appreciate the significance of everything we encounter and all that we do. We do not always see how much of what we do is meaningful and important. For this reason we need to stop and look about us in order to recognise it. We need to strive for that particular sense of meaning.

Sometimes seriously ill patients speak of how meaningful they think life is, when they do not have long left. They can see the meaning in a beautiful day, in birdsong, or in an everyday encounter with another person. And this is indeed the case – a lot of what we take for granted contains great meaning and beauty. It is just that we do not always have time to see, listen and reflect.

pg 202 In the collective society in which we live today, we seldom get time to ourselves – time to reflect, encounter ourselves properly and ask ourselves questions about who we are, where we are going and why. It is no easy task to take on, but, as Thomas Transtromer wrote: ‘In the middle of the forest is a glade which can only be found by someone who is lost.’

Concluding Remarks

We will get a better world as a result. Even if individual people can sometimes feel powerless, this is not the case. Do not forget how the effects of a good deed can spread out like ripples on a pond. We can do more than we think for others, and in this way make our contribution to a better world. And a good world is much better to live in than a bad one.

In South Africa there is a particular phrase, ubuntu, which is difficult to translate into a Western language but concerns the very core of being a human being. The Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu, in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, wrote this about ubuntu: ‘A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole.’ I wonder if I have ever seen a better description of the word ‘kind’.

The English author and philosopher Aldous Huxley said towards the end of his life: ‘It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by the way of advice than “Try to be a little kinder”.’ In the end it probably really is this simple – and this difficult: kindness is the greatest thing we can offer those around us, and ourselves.

(suggested readings at the back of the book)

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