Kindness stockpiles over time, with caring actions we do daily.
One way to encourage people to take risks is to reward them for it. (Tom Melohn)
Our brain comes with storehouse spaces where kindness waits for its next human instruction.
In the dark season on Baffin Island, I taught Inuit leaders for McGill University, and I researched the human brain on kindness while there. In that harsh setting, Inuit friends and colleagues taught me the value of kindness that buffers reflection on life’s ups and downs. Outside my kitchen window, a team of huskies barely moved. Their heads tucked against the drive of the wind. Their tails turned and curled like snow that swirled and circled around their feet. I stood watching their nocturnal wakefulness, a warm cup of coffee cradled in my hands. There was no denying, this was a winter of extremes. An unusual warmth expressed in kindness prevented the hardening of intellectual arteries all around us, it seemed.
Have you seen kindness opposites in polarization here, lack of listening there?
Mentally frozen outside circles of care, we often falter both as givers and receivers of compassion. At times we’re forced to walk alone into dark daily battles as if we could survive yet another dim disaster without help. Unlike frigid weather we walk into yet cannot control, kindness comes by choice. Both weather and wellbeing become forces that impact whether we feel cared for or cranky. Both hold rewards and satisfaction that can be awakened through natural drugs that too often sit unopened by those who suffer alone, or who seek pseudo supports such as opioids. How so?
Kindness calls for tangible and deliberate actions, before it stores in our mental warehouse where it converts into kinder habits.
Back home in Edmonton which resembles arctic blizzards at times, my grandchildren and I created a kindness activity to take a look at how compassion worked to create warmth we all crave for our own lives. We questioned how care’s absence hid us at times from others’ generosity, and locked us outside warm circles. We’re still trying to figure it out, and some days we get it better than others. On that first day though, we looked especially hard for kindness in a chess game where my six and seven year old grandchildren teamed up to take me on. To ask if pressure heated up when one young player disagreed about less than desirable moves the other young player took, is like asking if the pope is Catholic.
Not an easy task, kindness sometimes requires us to stop what we do, and start again with the idea of benefiting all. At one point we had to stop our game and take stock to find a kinder approach. We reminded ourselves that we were new at playing chess together, and fairly new at turning to our brains for an extra shot of generosity to temper our game. Later we’d try to figure out a tangible way to encourage ourselves to live the sort of kindness we wanted to frame our projects.
Following a few grumpy responses that the chess game was not the fun we expected, I suggested a game reversal. My challenge? How can we reverse any annoyed lingo, or curt jabs that sabotaged our chess fun into kindness we’d like others to see in us?
I’ll admit that I am an experienced chess player, and my grandchildren both look forward to the day they can beat me at this game they’ve come to love. Luckily though, I was met with curiosity and a sense of expectation from both my little buddies, which is typical of most adventures we jump into together.
I then asked another question, “If you feel miserable, rejected, excluded, and downright disappointed, where is your happiness hiding in that moment?”
That question started a three-month-long project we called, the art of kindness and rigor of mindfulness, 167 pages of tasks, games, artwork, and challenges we created together as we ran after compassion with legs.
We admitted that we all had a hard time finding kindness can feel, when crankiness robs our fun together. Following the children’s responses about bonfires we loved on a chilly night, we talked about a kind little character that I’d created to illustrate a cool part of their brains. An innate warehouse that can stockpile warmer and kinder benefits than most people find or use.
Before I brought this little character into our conversation though, we talked until we piqued one another’s interest in kindness, and its mental hiding places. A friend refuses to play with you, a teacher ignores your ideas in class. Before long our game of chess took a back seat to our kindness project, and I asked each child. “Where will you find kindness as warmth for your soul today?” Interestingly, neither child looked within, but both offered mumbled replies about how the other one could speak kinder words during our chess games. Sound familiar?
It should be noted here that my grandchildren and I are extremely close and for many years we’ve designed games and adventures that help us all to figure out things in fun ways. Even deep stuff such as, what does a brain on kindness look like when the chips are down?
On lighter days, we’ve talked to animals and then mailed them letters fully expecting their responses back. We’ve created and performed plays, such as a musical of the French Revolution in nine acts. We’ve built and painted boards on wheels and then figured out what they can do to add to playground fun on concrete. And we’ve laughed together as we interpreted screeches from a cranky crow while we sat and waited for the first star to appear over the creek in my back yard. I tell you this because our closeness and mutual trust allowed us to launch this search for kindness quite naturally. However, we’ve since gone after kinder answers within BAS, my fictitious little character that represents real brain parts, to help us cope with one kid named, who seemed impossible to like.
Ah, a perfect time to bring BAS into our conversation. Could this little character BAS, or namungo as I called him, hold cool-headed answers for our cranky experiences in or beyond chess?
Luckily, the children already loved to learn about their awesome brains through these six little namungos, who teach about hidden and unused brainpower. So it was just a matter of showing how BAS, would help them roll out a kind action from their mental warehouse, even when crankiness hits back.
The children already knew that BAS stands for their basal ganglia, or mental warehouse, so the stage was set for our exploration. They’d just never thought about what they knew to link the possibility that kindness was hiding in BAS during our chess game calamity. Nor had I remembered that fact initially, because I got caught up initially in sadness over their unkind words to one another. The key was to turn this challenge into a lesson they’d enjoy.
For example, because of BAS, and our past unkind words that got stored there, caring gestures appeared unavailable when we needed kindness most to get through our cranky chess game. We just needed to know why BAS hides kindness at times, and how to reboot for another shot of care.
We had yet to discover together how it was possible to discover kindness in fun ways and awaken its magical potions that were already stockpiled there. We had yet to discuss how the simple choice to be kind, and the kind actions that followed, activated kindness in any situation.
I’ll admit it’s not easy to be kind under the heat of so many frustrated attempts to learn a game like chess. The children found it especially difficult to form a skillful chess team together. In their fierce efforts to join together and beat me at chess, kindness was not the first strategy that popped into my mind either. I had to step back and look through a wider lens, just like I do when life trips me up by pulling me down.
That’s when I countered, “Remember BAS?”
“Remember that huge warehouse inside your brain. The one that stores all your habits. Yes, every good and bad chess move filed into this mental stockroom. Even chess plays you may forget at times hide there and then pop up when familiar triggers re-open that warehouse door.”
We then visualized our sky-high pile of past kind actions toward one another. The times we tobogganed down the hill and tried to stop the sleigh just before it hit the creek to protect one another from a crash landing. Yes, that kind act got stored in BAS. The times we chased sea gulls together on a lake in New York, and then shared the Jello salad we carried after one fell in the sand. The times we sang together about our love for one another, and wrote poems to capture good times together. BAS stored all the Easter eggs we hid for one another to find and the parties we planned to celebrate one another’s birthdays.
Each kind action was magically stored in our basal ganglia and will remain there for a lifetime.
As we rooted around in our BAS storage rooms, we recalled kinder habits there, and reminded one another that unkind habits were stored there too, especially during a cranky chess game.
That got us laughing about BAS, silliness we majored in, and vital equipment that rattled around, sometimes unused, in our brains.
“So does a habit like dressing before you leave home sit in BAS?” one child asked.
“What about brushing your teeth at night?” the other child added.
“Yes to both, and do you remember we tried to think of a few kind words to say to that crank-pot crow,” I tossed in. “We told ‘em we cared about ‘em,” and our words ended up in BAS for life.
“Does this change our choice to act kinder in ways we’d like others to see in us during chess?”
We agreed that since our kind actions get stored each time we repeat caring acts, we’d try to be kinder in chess. So new neuron pathways created for care would keep us caring during chess.
Unless we’re watchful though, BAS will keep us repeating mean stuff we’d already stored there.
A sobering thought, since it brought to mind my unwillingness to befriend a colleague who’d refused to speak at a conference we’d planned. Being an older person, can also mean older, more entrenched meanness, through longer storage in BAS. Take inventory in our thoughts and we’ll see both good or bad choices stacked in there.
Those gossip words to another friend about this colleague sat stored in BAS and made it likely for me to gossip again in similar situations. Yikes! Humbling thought. Yet, we were on a roll.
The only way to prevent dark powers of unkind habits from creating similar future failures was to strengthen and use more deliberate actions that brimmed over with care. Especially the kind supports we gave to friends and to cranks alike. The children widened our scope as they often do.
My grandson asked, “Does that mean that mean stuff fades when kind stuff flies into BAS?”
Great question, and I followed it up with another prong, “What’s one way to shake out your basal ganglia ruts to replace meaner actions?”
“By flying in a kind word to your brother?” my granddaughter shot back.
Beyond frustrations that came from unkind words during our chess game, we laughed about how hard it is to escape from our basal ganglia storing house.
Hard as it is at times, we decided to try and avoid vents, or to sidestep blaming others for any less than stellar chess moves.
Or at least when we hit back with an unkind taunt, we’d be quicker to forgive ourselves and the other player. Let go of brooding or habits and we’re no longer stuck in BAS’ darker corners.
We admitted that it might involve choosing to defend fewer old opinions. Make fewer assumptions about our chess opponent for new and kinder words. All from our own confidence stored within our caring communication?
Kindness blossomed into new adventures for all three of us because it gave back joy. It handed delight to me just to see my grandchildren gave it out to one another.
“But what if the other person stays cranky?” my grandson asked, not yet quite ready to let sibling rivalry go.
BAS stands for our brain’s basal ganglia which store kind acts we do
Good question. Let’s say we come to a game with chess moves weighted down by fear or panic based on bad experiences from a past chess game. Let’s imagine that our brain’s basal ganglia storehouse overflows with past failures, anxieties and unmet expectations. We’d likely feel like a bit of a packrat whose pesky past unkind actions slowed down any winning chess moves today.
Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way, we agreed.
We thought of ways to shake up unkind ruts by adding a cool new approach to cultivate kindness during chess games. That brought suggestions about what a chess game with kinder input might look like.
I suggested that we could store a lively kindness component by laughing at ourselves during the game so that our brain will store and default to laughter’s experiences.
Or if that doesn’t work we might teach a fun kindness trick to the dog. Then we’d watch him store kind acts in BAS. Their dogs, Jack or Charlotte might learn to shake hands. They might sit rather than jump up on people with muddy paws.
“The sort of kindness we humans also do for one another on a good day?” We laughed. You could see the rigor of mindfulness part of our project already taking shape.
Later we would expand our ideas. We went for a walk to discuss the questions, “How will we store kinder experiences in our brain’s basal ganglia? What happens if things heat up again in another chess match?
In remembering BAS, we reflected on our desire to feel welcome and to rest in the fact that kindness can come from each of us. All stored in BAS. Yes, even before we feel worthy.
We nabbed ideas from our chess game clash to build our kindness activity, in an interactive book we compiled together called, The Art of Kindness and Rigor of Mindfulness. We shared a banana split to celebrate the fact that we’d rehearsed together one of life’s vital messages. Bite after bite we rebooted our brains away from hurtful chess clashes. You could say we added yummy treats to BAS’s stockpile of kinder acts. Add to that a new self-awareness, or a more finely developed intrapersonal IQ, and I’ll agree.
By the time we returned from our walk, we’d discussed words of Amelia Earhart, one of our favorite characters, who said:
No kind action ever stops with itself.
Not surprisingly, the next chess game brought us a new feeling of gratitude for chess skills learned. For lessons about our lives. And for a kinder setting that helped us all enjoy a challenging game we came to love playing together. The unkind interactions shifted into an awareness of wellbeing and a willingness to risk a chess move even though it may not be a play made by the sharpest knife in the drawer. That need for kindness and care that clung to the core of each of us, was now ready-to-roll in BAS.
It was as if we re-positioned kindness higher than competition. We also shared how our kind words might have reversed painful experiences. Perhaps we`d have felt less isolated and maybe even less misunderstood in past had we focused more on our own kind responses than on any actions from others. It felt good to know that our brains came with a personal warehouse where we could start building and storing these acts of kindness. Compassion that can keep welcome and warmth alive in our chess game and beyond. With our new and kinder stockpiles, BAS would begin to swing us back to ease those earlier times we felt alone, or let down.
As we built our kindness project, I was also reminded of the ball hockey game where my grandson found kindness within when he lost his shoes in his first lesson. He stepped onto the rink with the kind of excitement Wayne Gretsky likely feels just before a tournament playoff.
The Golden Eagles, my grandson’s team already had risen to the position of winner in his eyes before the game started at the sports arena.
Unfortunately in the shuffle to get him ready and on the ice, nobody paid much attention when my grandson told us the Velcro failed to stick on hand-me-down shoes he’d just been given. In the rush to get to the floor hockey lesson, we nudged everybody along.
The problem arose after he suited up and tried to run with a dozen kids, to complete complex plays the coaches called.
My heart became that loose ball whacked fiercely by player after player, as I watched my grandson try to shuffle along the floor just to keep on his ill-fitting shoes. Forget ball hockey! My grandson’s focus slanted away from the ball handling tactics being taught, each time the broken straps failed him again. Yet somehow inner kindness must have clung to his strides.
When directed to jump a hurdle, my grandson not only knocked down the board, but his shoes flew in two different directions in the jump. His team also suffered as he stopped to recover his footwear, in what resembled a relay race. Not one unkind word came from him or his coach.
Behind the devastation I felt for my grandson’s first meet with his already loved, Golden Eagles, I saw kindness that transformed frustration into persistence. Courage came with care to help him tackle this challenge with resilience far beyond his years.
Unconditional love, or kindness in its highest form, followed yet again, when his parents bought their young player new athletic shoes on the way home from his lesson.
My grandson felt kindness and enjoyed our support and appreciation when we discussed broken skating equipment and the game itself. What could have let him down hard, became easier because kindness entered the arena. Have you experienced this?
A.W. Tozer, a self-taught theologian, spoke of kindness and grace as one and the same. Divine grace according to Tozer, opened the doors into a kindness rarely seen. It’s certainly not evident in most sermons we hear. Yet it often takes A.W. Tozer’s kind of mental makeover kindness, at the center of genuine faith, as described below.
“The cross is a lightning rod of grace that short-circuits God’s wrath to Christ so that only the light of His love remains for believers.”
For my grandchildren and me, the deepest, most abiding kindness also comes from divine perfection rather than a reliance on human goodness.
It took our chess game discoveries to remind me that to sidestep a life fueled by kindness is to settle for a life stalled by stress. BAS is simply the warehouse. We each make the deliberate choice to store one mean action here or another kind action there. BAS makes us rich or poor, based on kind or mean actions we choose to store there.
Is it possible that divine kindness and human brainpower actually pull together in high-performance minds? For example, could the kindness that sparks our chemical and electrical circuitry in a good game of chess, also spark inner delight when unexpected challenges arise?
That’s been my deepest hope for my grandchildren. That one act of kindness stored during a good day or a winning game will leap back in an instant. Yes, that’s why we need not lose hope when we lose a shoe or for any other reason. That one act of kindness toward ourselves and others can keep us in any game. Yes, even one kind gesture we stored earlier. One small act can make the difference between holding on or letting go, when life gets busy. Kindness stored there can rise up even when we forget to reach into BAS’ stockpiles. We can celebrate our choices when kindness that lives in BAS, grows far bigger barrels than rudeness or bitterness grows there.
The same kindness that can offer strength through a brief smile in a chess move gone wrong, can also heal the world when people feel frozen out in the darkness that keeps our world collectively in pain. It comes to me through my granddaughter every time they sleep over. She loves to help, and will jump to lend a hand and a happy heart regardless of what she is doing when asked. It’s as if my granddaughter stored the Rotarian motto, service above self, and it leaves us all valued when she steps in again and again to do something for others, with her signature happy face.
While they sometimes forget to show care to one another, both my grandchildren bring kindness to our visits in ways that redefine the brain’s proclivity for compassion on board. What a gift!
I first encountered amazing grace in its lived experience though, which I consider unconditional kindness, or unmerited favor rooted in genuine love, within an older friend. Pearl Kingfield’s explanation of grace at the center of faith defined her life. Unconditional care for Pearl walked out of sermons and into lives like mine. No wonder people of all stripes came to Pearl with every kind of problem. Her response? Pearl steeped tea, laid out muffins, and listened as if each person were a treasured family member.
My personal lifelong encounter with uncommon grace as it embodied kindness also came in a 26 year friendship with Dr. Robyn McMaster. Before an accidental fall took Robyn, and far before I was ready to let her go, she changed my life. Robyn’s brand of kindness as my closest friend, and senior VP at the Mita International Brain Center altered life forever where I worked and in my heart!
In many travels to lead brain conferences, Robyn and I also experienced kindness that comes with its own gilded language. Its unique communication gets you there when words or gestures cannot. Kindness showed up both on and off the stage and often left us laughing together in its wake, in spite of exhausting work schedules.
During a workweek in Montreal, and before I walked into a “Clinique Medicale” with an allergy problem, I should have predicted communications impasses I’d face. I should have figured there’d be trouble, after I used up my entire French vocabulary at the Bistro and finally settled for a “chaud” something or other. I should have remembered that kindness would suffice.
You’d think I would have suspected something strange when the “Stationnement” where you’d expect to find paper clips and pens turned out to be a multi-leveled car park. From my attempts to conjugate “je suis” in order to explain my cramped foot to blurting out “sortie” when I meant to say, “au revoir“, I was able to laugh as I have learned to do among my French Canadian friends whose kindness built bridges where my own language skills fell short.
In smaller communities like Arctic Bay, kindness often helped us to reimagine possibilities for Inuit learners and leaders to work together with the rest of us after Nunavut arrived. In caring circles we considered questions such as:
“Can Nunavut bring about a people’s dream after colonization robbed it of value?”
“Can a raven fly?”
Sure, there were still speed bumps to cross before victories achieved. And adjustments would be needed if Nunavut was to succeed.
Yet kindness opened brainpower on all sides of issues raised, to help us all understand how Nunavut and the land agreement could offer better benefits for all concerned. It prepared our brains to merge cultures, for instance. Much like two bookends, it supported the Arctic to reach beyond Baffin’s isolation, and helped the rest of us to reach back to support Nunavut progress. I left behind valuable books they’d enjoyed from my library. They made me caribou mitts to sustain sub-zero temperature while allowing more use of my hands than store-bought woolen mitts.
Kindness often begins with a question or a need. It then works backwards like it did with Inuit colleagues, to consider caring solutions. What does kindness look like in your situation? Or, what could care do today to benefit all?
Even in a winter of extremes, a friendship, a chess game, or faith’s lived experience, kindness rules. No need for the hardening of intellectual or emotional arteries all around us.
No need to mentally freeze outside circles of care. No need to falter either as giver or receiver of compassion. No need to walk alone into dark daily battles or dim disasters. The art of kindness and the rigor of mindfulness hold rewards deeper and wider than solutions too often sought in pseudo supports such as opioids. As for me, I look forward to celebrating kindness’ next swag, and especially the one that arrives with my grandchildren. All because that human mental warehouse, our basal ganglia, will have stockpile kind acts that accumulate there.
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