Sometimes I wonder if I am in the minority of humanity in being “nice,” as it doesn’t come as easily as I would like. I have been taught well by parents, mentors, and leaders—so any propensity toward not being nice is squarely on my shoulders. When I’m a jerk, I always know it and suffer the consequences. I don’t practice being a jerk; it comes naturally. And yet, I always strive to yield to my better angels, and do believe I have the capacity to do better.
I recently read a very refreshing book by Arthur C. Brooks titled, Love Your Enemies. His thoughts on overcoming a culture of contempt gave me great hope and resonated on a very deep level. It stirred some of the sludge in the bottom of my own barrel of contempt.
Three things from his book brightened my world. I was amazed at the studies he highlighted that show how these things are a part of the solutions in overcoming bouts with depression and anxiety.
1. Practice Warm Heartedness. Arthur asked the Dalai Lama directly “Your Holiness, what do I do when I feel contempt?” His answer was simple and astounding: “Practice warm-heartedness.”
Why is it that in our age of instant intelligence and access to the world at our fingertips, that we struggle to accept such simple solutions? Why do we think we have to have a Harvard or Pew research study to accept the solutions presented? Why do polls govern the actions or decisions of decision makers?
For many of us, practicing kindness and warm-heartedness may not come naturally. And yet, that is exactly how we desire to be treated. The key word in all of this is “practice.” Meaning (at least in my case), that if kindness and being warm-hearted are akin to shooting three pointers, I have about a 10% success rate. Still, the more I practice, the higher that percentage will be. Knowing this, it makes all the sense in the world to “practice” warm-heartedness.
2. Smile. I used to be embarrassed about my smile as my teeth were a mess. I finally changed the ‘look’ of my smile in my forties and went through two years of braces. After all this, my smile looked much better, but the fact that my teeth were straight didn’t necessarily make me want to smile more. No, having straight teeth is NOT what it means to smile. Rather, to me at least, it means to wear a pleasant look and demeanor, a welcoming face—which usually includes some fashion of a smile.
Studies have shown (and if there wasn’t a study, this obviously would not be true—right?) that the smiling face is an effective tool in leadership in disarming pre-judgement, bias, and negative emotions. This is something that may not come naturally but can be practiced and implemented. The act of smiling helps us to become kinder and warm-hearted.
I have a granddaughter who has practiced smiling. She is three years old, and when she knows her picture is being taken, her fake smile looks like something from a cartoon like the Simpsons—-it is both hilarious and frightening. And yet, it makes us all smile and love her for trying. If we can’t smile naturally, we might start with a pleasant look and a grin—this is something we can practice.
3. Live with gratitude. Above my door in my office is a sign I see each day. It states, “a thankful heart.” This is a reminder to me to be content with what I have, to cherish the relationships I hold dear, to realize I am nothing without God in my life, and that my gratitude in all of this is simply my way of showing thanks. Again, a study in his book revealed that gratitude was a key to a more satisfied and happy life. It can be very hard and even unnatural to show gratitude in the face of hostile actors—but if we can muster it up—“loving our enemies,” then it heals both ourselves and those around us. It begins with gratitude; again, something we can practice
Now for a real-life practice session I had. Recently I ran an ad for a house I was renting, seeking a tenant. The ad stated we allowed dogs but it didn’t specify beyond that. An honest applicant stated he had a particular type of dog (typically known as an “aggressive breed”). My email reply simply stated “I’m sorry, we don’t accept certain breeds, and yours is one of those. Best of luck.” His reply was very personal. Let me summarize “Jerk, your ad said you accepted dogs, but didn’t outline exceptions. He also pointed out that my pictures, ad content, and listing were terrible. His concluding line was, verbatim, “I wouldn’t buy water from you if I needed to put a fire out.”
Now amid this and learning some lessons from Arthur Brooks, I decided to practice better behaviors and succumb to my better angels. My reply to his was simply to apologize and understand his dilemma and have compassion for his circumstance. I offered to return his fee for the application. I apologized for my abruptness and for running a less than perfectly clear ad.
He didn’t need to reply, but he did. It was soft and warm-hearted. He understood my position with aggressive breeds of dogs, didn’t want a refund on the application fee, and stated it wasn’t my fault he owned an aggressive breed of dog. He expressed his hope that a landlord would simply be willing to meet his dog, and that he would purchase insurance in case something was to go wrong. He closed by thanking me and wished me a good day.
I have another rental coming available soon, and I’m thinking I ought to meet him and his dog and give him full consideration. All of this because I decided to practice warm-heartedness, put a smile behind my voice, and to realize my gratitude that he even applied for my rental.
I can see how these things all reduce anxiety and can make us feel better as human beings. I can see how practicing these things feeds into being nice and holding less contempt, and even how it could lesson the stranglehold that depression and anxiety may have upon us.
I express my gratitude for being able to “live into” things we are not, and for the ability to practice virtues that don’t come naturally. I was told once by a man while discussing the blessings of good things, that trying to live according to God’s ways made him less of a jerk than he normally would be. Yes.