Learning to be kind

I taught Chris and Maggie to drive, and although I was mildly surprised at how much of it came naturally to them (from years spent watching me and Debbie drive, I suppose), I was very surprised at what they didn’t know—how to brake smoothly, for example. Often it took quite a bit of thought on my part to discern the nature of the problem they were having, then figure out a good way to explain how to deal with it.

Sometimes I think being welcomed into the Kingdom these days is like being handed a driver’s license without any training, with an implicit expectation that you’ll be able to figure it out—after all, you’re now a citizen of the Kingdom of Driving, and the requisite skills will eventually manifest themselves. No Dad to diagnose and explain, not even a Driver’s Ed program to sign up for.

Here’s an article which offers a little diagnosis and training in one aspect of gracious living, even though it isn’t presented that way. It describes the research of John Gottman, who has been studying couples for 40 years. With respect to couplehood, he divides people into two categories: masters (still happily together after six years) and disasters (broken up or chronically unhappy in their relationship).

By observing these types of interactions, Gottman can predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples—straight or gay, rich or poor, childless or not—will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy several years later. Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility?

“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”

They go on to call this "habit of mind" by its proper name: kindness. And they point out an important truth about kindness.

There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.

And there are some smart observations about kindness that I think Christians generally miss:

When people think about practicing kindness, they often think about small acts of generosity, like buying each other little gifts or giving one another back rubs every now and then. While those are great examples of generosity, kindness can also be built into the very backbone of a relationship through the way partners interact with each other on a day-to-day basis. […]

One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions. From the research of the Gottmans, we know that disasters see negativity in their relationship even when it is not there. […] Another powerful kindness strategy revolves around shared joy. One of the telltale signs of the disaster couples Gottman studied was their inability to connect over each other’s good news.

I’d like to think the church would naturally lead the way in this sort of teaching: what kindness is, how important it is to living in community, how to go about developing and strengthening an attitude of kindness, helping one another to the sustained hard work. After all, such skills are the keys to successful Kingdom living.

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