Thoughts on Thoughtfulness

Does thoughtfulness pay?

This question was recently posed on social media by a friend of mine. I responded with the answer that occurred to me at the time – generally, that being thoughtful or kind towards others pays biggest dividends in the areas of self-respect and empowerment. When we are kind we are our best selves. When we are kind regardless of outcome or response from the recipient of our thoughtfulness, we remain centered and strong in that best self.

Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about thoughtfulness and kindness – about what it means to be a truly kind person; about what we are supposed to do with our feelings of disappointment or hurt when our kindness or thoughtfulness is met with…less…from others; about whether there are times when the impulse toward kindness or generosity or thoughtfulness ought to be ignored or set aside.

I don’t have any definitive answers. But I’d like to share a story related to each of the three questions posed above. Perhaps my stories, as I’ve tried to parse out an answer to the original question, “Does thoughtfulness pay?”, will be useful to you, should you find yourself pondering similar thoughts.

What does it mean to be a truly kind person?

The other day, I was at work as a barista in the coffee kiosk. I chanced to look up at the store entrance just as a regular “customer” walked into the building. I say “customer” in quotation marks, because this particular woman comes by every day and requests a free sample of brewed coffee.

I confess to having uncharitable thoughts about this freeloader as she approached the kiosk that afternoon. However, I do try to interact with each person in a respectful manner so, when she asked for her free sample, I willingly filled the sample cup to the brim, saying, “Enjoy!” as I handed it off. But instead of murmuring thanks and moving on, as she usually does, the woman stopped and made direct eye contact with me. She said, “Thank you for your kindness and generosity. I hope it comes back to you many times over.”

Her facial expression was inscrutable – she neither smiled nor appeared stern; rather, she seemed to be responding to a clairvoyant knowledge that, only moments before, I had been thinking uncharitably about her. I was left wondering whether she intended to heap good fortune or its opposite upon me. Were her words a blessing or a curse?!

I think I (mostly) manage to behave in a manner which is outwardly kind. But I am coming to believe that truly kind people are kind in thought as well as deed. The kindness I most appreciate from others is the type offered in lieu of judgement or criticism, silent or otherwise.

What we are supposed to do with our feelings of disappointment or hurt when our kindness or thoughtfulness is met with…less…from others?

A friend told me about planning for weeks to surprise her sister with a perfect weekend. She worked on every detail of the time they would spend together, from meals to pedicures, to attending a show. When the weekend came, the sister’s response was unenthusiastic. In fact, she kept suggesting they call friends to join them, indicating that the whole thing would be more fun if there were more people involved. While my friend tried to adjust her plans and accommodate her sister’s wish for a more exciting time, the final blow fell when the sister casually remarked that she was very excited for the following weekend, when she had really exciting plans. My friend was hurt and felt greatly unappreciated. Her question to me: “Why did I bother?” A slightly different question than, “Does thoughtfulness pay”, but one coming from the same place of disappointment.

I’m beginning to understand that this is the wrong question for me – because there is no good or right answer. Is it worth it? Obviously not, because there you stand feeling hurt and unappreciated. Or, the answer could be Yes, because you have been altruistic, done something for another without regard for rewards – even though it still doesn’t feel very good.

For me, the path to take at this juncture is one of truthfulness with myself. Time to fess up and be clear with myself about my own motivations and desires. Instead of indulging in the myth of martyrdom, take a hard look to see whether I have made an emotional contract with another person and forgotten to tell them about it; or if I am somehow expecting that the thoughtfulness I’ve expended will ensure that the other person will love me.

Some spiritual traditions encourage us to let go of expectations. In fact, I often think the biggest reason we are hurt in these instances is that we have our hearts secretly set on a specific outcome. Kindness and thoughtfulness become manipulation when achieving a specific outcome outweighs the simple joy of putting another person’s pleasure, needs, or wants ahead of our own.

Are there times when the impulse toward kindness or generosity or thoughtfulness ought to be ignored or set aside?

There’s an older dude who hangs out around my apartment: he sits on our front steps smoking and drinking gas station coffee, then leaves his trash (butts and empty styrofoam) lying there in order to walk across our parking area to drop trou and pee into the alley. Most days, as I walk past him to get to my car or to run errands, he says, “Hey, would you happen to have a quarter you can give me? I just want to buy a cup of coffee.” I learned through experience that a yes to that question elicits a follow-up, “What about a dollar? Then I could eat something too.”  I’m never sure what the right thing to do in this situation is. The guy lives in a care facility up the street, so he isn’t homeless or completely destitute. But he also clearly doesn’t have many resources.

When kindness offered becomes, instead, a chore; when a person’s instinctual reflex toward generosity is manipulated or used to take advantage of that person, it may be time to stop being so giving.

The difficulty is in knowing when that line has been crossed. Often, our friends will tell us that we’ve been suckered or abused long before we are willing to concede to such an assertion. They do this because they love us and hate to see us feeling hurt. Our feelings of hurt, themselves, will whisper to us that we are being taken for granted – a defense mechanism attempting to protect the vulnerability that comes with being open enough to be giving to another. Yet, there ARE people who are skilled manipulators and users.

In the end, we can choose to answer the question, “Does thoughtfulness pay?” in any number of ways. And the reality is, the only answer resides within our innermost hearts. Today, I stand with the idea that kindness and thoughtfulness are worth the vulnerability they open me up to. My job is to learn to take kindness to the next level – kind in thought, as well as word and deed. And then to remember that thoughtfulness is about me paying out in energy and care and compassion – not about me earning dividends in love and respect and friendship. I expect to fail miserably at this sometimes. I expect to have my share of feeling betrayed when others are indifferent toward (or nefarious in exploiting) the care I’ve expended. That’s what makes being a truly kind person hard, and also what makes it worthwhile and powerful.

Dear Kristen (An open letter to those who feel like “second children”)

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”
― Nora Ephron



Dear Kristen:

You walked into my life wearing the most preposterous shoes. The heels were taller than any I’ve attempted to wear as an adult, the gap between your foot and the back of the shoe just noticeable enough to be reminiscent of a child wearing her mother’s pumps during a game of dress-up. Your eyes were wider than a newborn’s. I could see you thought yourself sophisticated and worldly – yet I thought you were terminally young.

And because of this first impression, I initially made the mistake that I think people often do with you: I assumed your youthful demeanor and optimistic naiveté signaled innocence, softness, inexperience. I could not have been more wrong.

Sometimes in life we are lucky enough to have golden moments – times when the stars seem to align and all is right with the world. In my life, the family of colleagues and friends we created – complete with love and respect and occasional bickering – was one such golden moment. In that family, I know you sometimes felt like the second child: a little less love, a little less attention, and little less appreciation of your gifts.

There are a lot of us out here who know what that feels like. So, while what I want to say is definitely meant for you, it is also meant for all of us who have felt as if we don’t come in first; who feel like our best efforts, our best offerings, our best selves, are somehow not lauded or welcomed as quite enough.

I want you to know that your character and integrity are loved. These are not shiny things that immediately draw the world’s attention. But they are strong and lovely, and they draw forth the kind of lasting respect that comes quietly and without fanfare.

I want you to know that the things that are unique to you (the way you tell stories, the tiny bites you take when you eat, the way your eyes grow large but your mouth stays closed when something upsets or infuriates you) may bring some teasing or comment from others. But they are also the things that endear you to others because they are yours alone. Don’t ever give them up because others are thoughtless enough to make you feel self-conscious about them.

I want you to know that words like loyal, dependable, thoughtful are mostly considered boring by those who easily lose concentration, whose promises are not always to be trusted. Wear these labels proudly, because you’ve earned them for being exactly those things at times when others shrugged, quit, or stopped caring.

I want you to know that it’s o.k. to ask for what you want from life and from the people in your life. Ask that the respect and the kindness and the generosity that you so freely give to others to be given to you in turn. You deserve that. And while life has taught you to accept that you won’t always get what you want, this does not mean that people who seem to are more deserving than you. If life were fair, you’d be beyond wealthy in attention and love!

What I hope for you is everything your heart truly desires.

May your dimpled smile be seen more frequently than not.

May your voice be loved and appreciated for its wisdom.

Regardless of what anyone else thinks, or how anyone else behaves toward you, may you never think of yourself as second-best. There are bound to be others who, like me, need time to appreciate the fullness of your gifts. But don’t let that stop you from knowing how gifted you are. Or cause you to hide your light in deference to anyone else. People can be slow, but the important ones will figure it out, will treasure your presence in their lives.

For my part, I miss having your beautiful light and energy in my life every day. But I believe in all the things you can do and are doing, all the love you can (and are) expressing, and the many ways you being here makes the world a better place.















Meinrad Craighead and The Magic of Synchronicity

“I do believe in an everyday sort of magic — the inexplicable connectedness we sometimes experience with places, people, works of art and the like; the eerie appropriateness of moments of synchronicity; the whispered voice, the hidden presence, when we think we’re alone.”   — Charles De Lint

“Memory”, Meinrad Craighead

I read a statement by a cyclist somewhere, recently, that claimed one of the best reasons for riding was that while doing so the mind has free range to wander where it will. And sometimes, in that wandering, it takes one someplace wholly unexpected. One beautiful afternoon last week, as I rode along the bike lane on Portland Avenue, just as I crossed the heavily trafficked Lake Street, I became aware of my own wandering thoughts. Aware that I had been in an almost meditative state, allowing thoughts and images to float into and back out of my mind without comment, without judgement.

Oftentimes, once you become aware of that semi-meditative or flow state, it’s over. Your very attention to it brings you out of that moment, carries you back into self-consciousness. Occasionally, though, something different happens and you, instead, find yourself in a state of heightened awareness. I felt myself entering that state of hyper-awareness – I felt my tires connecting with the road, the warmth of sun on shoulders, the scent of freshly mown grass in my nostrils. The traffic noises receded, and I could hear only the blood in my veins and my own breath.

That’s when Meinrad Craighead popped into my thoughts.

At a time in my life when I was open to new ways of thinking, I happened to pick up a book called “Seekers of Wisdom: Women Mystics of the 20th Century” by Anne Bancroft. The book profiled a number of spiritual seekers; their lives and words had a profound effect on my own thinking and worldview. The chapter about Meinrad Craighead struck me as particularly powerful. In it, Craighead shared a story about experiencing (as a child) something very like what I felt that afternoon on my bike. ” I held the dog’s head, stroking her into sleep. But she held my gaze. As I looked into her eyes I realized that I would never travel further than into this animal’s eyes. At this particular moment I was allowed to see infinity through my dog’s eyes, and I was old enough to know that.”

As I read Craighead’s story, punctuated with long quotations from her own writings, I found myself drawn to her discussion of the feminine face of God, to her view of our lives. “Life,” she said, “is radically more than the experiences of a lifetime, it is an invitation to a journey back to our origin in God, and our own personal memories form the unique stuff of that quest.” An artist, Craighead became known for her dreamlike imagery and mystical themes of the Divine Feminine. At one point in the chapter, it was mentioned that she had attended an all-women’s Catholic college. I had attended a previously all-women’s Catholic college and remember having the passing thought that it would be cool if we shared an alma mater. It was a fleeting thought, and it soon passed out of my consciousness, though Craighead’s words remained with me.

A few weeks later, I received an invitation to a special series of events on my college’s campus celebrating the anniversary of its founding. Headline billing was given to world-renown artist and alumna, Meinrad Craighead. I was stunned – I’d never even heard of this woman until that spring. And once I had, I certainly did not expect the possibility of meeting her to arise. I was beyond excited, and I made plans to attend her guest lecture and the opening of her retrospective art exhibit on the campus in my hometown. I had never seen any of her paintings – this all took place early in the development of the internet, and a great deal of information was simply not yet available to the world. Meinrad Craighead’s lecture – part explication of her theological and mystical beliefs and part treatise on how these informed her work as an artist, was truly mind-blowing. Slides of her work appeared on huge screens as she discussed each piece. Each one was beautiful, deeply symbolic, and epic in scale.

My head swimming with the ideas she presented, I left the lecture hall and went immediately to the gallery where her work was on display. There I discovered, much to my surprise, that most of Craighead’s paintings were quite small. Their amazing use of color and the degree of detail took on new significance as I realized the discipline exercised in working on such a diminutive scale when the subject matter was infinity itself.

That there was more than mere chance involved in the timing of these events I have never doubted. The encounter with Craighead, through her words, her work and her presence, has continued to inform my own beliefs and perspectives. This was synchronicity in its truest sense – meaningful coincidence, rather than random happenstance.

As I rode my bike, I looked in front of my tire and saw the white painted lines which delineated the bike lane stretching straight ahead of me to the horizon. And in that moment, I realized that I was riding not only toward the Minnehaha Creek path but also into my own future. Every experience I’ve had has propelled me toward this moment – just as this moment adds strength to the forward momentum of my life. I haven’t yet become the person I am meant to be precisely because that person is the culmination of a life’s activities and experiences. As surely as Craighead saw infinity in the eyes of her dog, I saw it stretching before me in the bike lane.

“At the source of our deepest self is a mysterious unknown ever eluding our grasp. We can never possess it except as that mystery which keeps at a distance. The heart’s quest is toward this unknown. There is no respite in the task of getting beyond the point we have already reached because the Spirit stands further on. She stands at the end of every road we may wish to travel by…We never ‘catch up with’ who we fundamentally are.” — Meinrad Craighead


NOTE: Please check out Craighead’s website so you can see her work. Adding to the touch points between us, I learned that Craighead is a resident of the bosque in Albuquerque, New Mexico – one of my favorite places and certainly influential to her work and both our lives!




Here’s To Living The Life We Mean To

The image above appeared in my Facebook feed repeatedly this week. During the same time frame, I was watching a movie called “The Way”:

I hope you caught the line, repeated throughout the movie, “You don’t choose a life, you live one.”

Two widely different views on choosing in life. The first addressing the daily choices we all make, the “micro” viewpoint; the second, the sweeping (or “macro”) view. Upon first exposure to each, I found nothing to disagree with or argue. Both statements have validity. It is often the case, however, that confronting the same idea multiple times leads to deeper consideration.

At face value, the first statement is specifically a short treatise on personal responsibility. I’m down with that – not blaming my life on others or on extenuating circumstances. I make my own choices, big and small, throughout each and every day. The more I read it, though, the more I find myself arguing with its scolding tone and oversimplified declaratives. Because the truth is, you can only make choices within the scope of what is available or possible for you – which differs among individuals/groups of individuals AND which is partially dependent upon what you believe is possible. What is possible for a child born and living in a refugee camp in the Sudan is, logically, not the same as what is possible for a child born in the midwestern United States. Even when those children are adults and, presumably the primary choice-makers in their own lives, the realities of geography, circumstance, finance make their possibilities and the choices available quite different. Layer over that the efficacy of belief and the filters through which we view the world, the realities of sexism and racism and classism…and it becomes somewhat harder to take this admonition at face value.

The second statement, “You don’t choose a life, you live one” also appealed to me at first. Jumping into your life, toes of both feet pointed to immerse you quickly and smoothly into the stream of experience, sounds about right. Don’t over think it, just do and feel it. What’s not to love about that idea? Just this: sometimes when we are all about living rather than choosing, we just keep moving from experience to experience without ever going/getting anywhere.

Just a few of the thoughts I’ve had while reflecting on these two quotes. I can always wax philosophical about such ideas. It is one of my defense mechanisms – you know, those things that conveniently keep us from thinking too honestly or feeling too deeply when something threatens to make us? Once I realize that my defenses are engaged, it’s usually a good idea to look more deeply, to figure out why.

“You and only you are responsible for every decision and choice you make.” This is the line that strikes me most deeply. It is true, if scary. However, my life isn’t constructed by my decisions only. Ask anyone in the midst of a protracted job search, and they’ll likely say what they hate the most is the lack of personal control over what happens. Your fate, your future, feels like it is in the hands of strangers. In the arena of personal relationships, as well, there are others involved in the way that relationship takes shape or doesn’t. Considering the proliferation of this post on the pages of my politically conservative friends, I find myself thinking the subtext is intended to point the finger at those lazy freeloaders deemed to be benefitting from the hard word and earnings of ‘honest” folks/taxpayers. I’m not whining or hiding from my fiscal responsibilities – but I am working full-time, on my feet for 8-hour shifts, no two-days-in-a-row off, no paid sick leave – and for the first time in my life receiving public assistance. Given all of this, its no wonder this post has me feeling a bit defensive.

“You don’t choose a life, you live one.” Well, this idea would seem to offer me relief from the “I make all my own choices” piece because it skips right over the whole question of responsibility. Live. Breathe. Experience. Om. Except this pesky voice in my head keeps suggesting that it isn’t the whole story. Am I living my life? You bet – to the best of my ability to see my choices on a daily basis. But there is also the need to feel like my life has a story, follows an arc of meaning. An over-focus on living each day as it comes can prevent one from investing energy in that long-term life plot. My defensiveness on this count is genuine. Each day seems to be so full of activities and choices and experiences, I fall into bed utterly exhausted each night. But in those brief moments before I lose consciousness to sleep I find myself asking, “What did I do today? Why didn’t I get more done? How can I do this differently?”

Twenty years ago, my colleagues at The University of Iowa and I created a substance abuse prevention campaign for the campus titled “Choices: You’ve Got ‘Em”. We then went on to share our take on how to make “good” choices in the context of substance use on a college campus. For me (and I suspect many others), this is the difficult sticking point:  not that we have choices, or that we’re responsible for our own; rather, how do we know we’re making good choices. The best choices. Choices that communicate our values, that support our best selves, and that help us to create that meaningful life story each of us hopes to author?

I would love to tie up these ruminations with some really good answers for discerning how to make choices in our lives. I’m fresh out of strong answers to life’s abiding questions today, however. Instead, I’d like to share a story from Gregg Levoy’s book, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life. In the excerpt, Levoy recounts asking a question of M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Travelled:

…asked how, in struggling with an important personal decision, I would know i was doing the right thing. Dr. Peck said the question is the single most common one he is asked and that “there is no such formula. The unconscious is always one step ahead of the conscious mind – the one that knows things – so it’s impossible to know for sure. But if you’re willing to sit with ambiguity, to accept uncertainties and contradictory meanings, then your unconscious will always be a step ahead of your conscious mind in the right directions. You’ll therefore do the right thing, although you won’t know it at the time.”

Uncertainty normally drives us daft, but although knowledge is power, not knowing also has its own power. There is the power in trusting ourselves, relying on our intuitions, being able to act even in the face of uncertainty, rather than drone on for sometimes years with yes-no-yes-no-yes-no-yes-no, the very onomatopoeia of indecision. It can be more heroic to be willing to act in the absence of certainty than to refuse to act without absolute certainty.

So, choices. We’ve got ’em. Here’s to accepting the challenge of making and taking responsibility for our daily choices. But more especially, here’s to living the life we mean to – anchored by choosing to act, rather than being paralyzed by indecision or limitations. It’s my life; it’s your life – choose it AND live it!