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.