12 November 2018 : Kindness is Out There Waiting For Us to Find

I once facilitated a high school literature class that included reading Annie Dillard’s book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” Dillard begins chapter two by sharing that when she was a small child she’d sometimes hide a penny in her neighborhood for someone to find.

She’d write out directions with chalk that lead to the penny, with statements like “Surprise Ahead” or “Money This Way,” and imagine the excitement of the person smart enough to follow the directions to the prize.

Later in chapter 2, Dillard refers to nature as providing “lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises.”

She says: “The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.”


Dillard is suggesting there are all sorts of kindnesses out there just waiting for us to find. The warmth of the sun, the scent of a flower, the laughter of a child, these are all intended to remind us that the world is a wonderful place.

By simply being alive we are provided opportunities to be the recipient of what Dillard calls “a generous hand” (substitute another phrase or word if you prefer). Additionally and equally important, we also can serve this purpose by strewing “pennies” of our own out into the world.


Through acts of ordinary thoughtfulness and kindness, like holding open doors and smiling at the people we meet as we go about our day. By taking one extra step to notice and then do the nice things we can do.

Several years ago I facilitated an online kindness class called Kindness Blessings that involved the reading of a book called “My Grandfather’s Blessings” written by Rachel Naomi Remen.

Early in the book, Remen tells the reader that most people are given more blessings than they receive. I found this to be a very important concept and have spent a lot of time over the years thinking about it.

For one, I think it means we need to refine our ability to receive things. But I think it’s even more than that.
It has more to do with refining our ability to NOTICE things, both the things we receive and the opportunities we have to offer.

While facilitating that online class I was laid flat by a stomach virus. I hadn’t been that sick for several years and, to put it in perspective, the prior time was with appendicitis, no fun and games.

My wife and older daughter were away, and my younger daughter was home with me, apparently with the same bug. On top of that, we were away from home at the time, living in France for a year while on sabbatical.

Being sick and alone so far from home could cause one to feel very lonely. Instead, a neighbor showed up with bread and soup. Another friend not only asked if there was anything she could do, she phoned my daughter’s school to make sure they’d know she would be out for a few days.

Maybe these things sound small, maybe not.

Put another way, in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” Dillard asks, “But who gets excited by a mere penny?”

That’s our problem, isn’t it? We think that what we offer or what we receive isn’t big enough, as if finding a penny hidden by a 6 year-old child isn’t a big deal. 

Dillard goes on: “It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.”

The look on my neighbor’s face when she delivered the food and the tone of concern on the phone when speaking with our other friend was moving. They may have been among the kinds of things that at one point in my life I would have missed or, worse, taken for granted.

Instead, as I lay in back in bed that night reflecting on my day, disturbed by periodic stomach cramps, I was filled with gratitude:

“The world is in fact planted in pennies.”

So among our important roles in life include taking time to both plant and find “pennies.” While doing that, I encourage you to imagine that everyone else is doing the same thing.

Surprise ahead, indeed!

19 October 2018 : The Secret to Slowing Down Your Negative Reactions

I’ve been thinking lately about times when I’ve jumped to an incorrect conclusion.

Like everyone, I take information I have about an event and I respond to it. But when my responses are negative or hurtful, this can be bad. This is especially so when my reactions are based on faulty information.

So it’s helpful for me to learn to delay the time between an activating event, something that contributes to me feeling negative, and my reaction to it, thus reducing my tendency to jump to an unreasonable conclusion or act out.

That is, if I practice.

A few years ago, I learned of something called the ETR Model, ETR referring to Events, Thoughts, and Reactions, that can help with this.

The ETR Model suggests that our thoughts happen so fast in response to an event that we don’t recognize them as even happening. We go straight from the event to a reaction, and then blame the event, and other people, for our reactions. But it’s our thoughts about events that cause our reactions, not the events themselves.

I find such a perspective extraordinarily empowering.

For instance, if all day long I’ve been excited about coming home to a spaghetti dinner and find hamburgers on the menu, I’ll likely be disappointed. If my wife and I talked about having spaghetti in the morning and then for a reason unknown to me she made the change, I might even be angry with her.

I’ll say that the event, the change in menu, made me mad.

In reality, it is the thought I had about spaghetti, the anticipation of the meal, that led to my anger and disappointment. My daughter, who doesn’t really like spaghetti but loves hamburgers, would be having a completely different reaction when she gets home.

Some scenario. Different reaction. The only thing different is how my daughter and I think about the event.

So what we need to do when we find we are having a negative reaction to a situation, even those as potentially insignificant as what we’re having for dinner, is catch ourselves and identify the thoughts we are having. This gives us time to review and, potentially, reframe the event.

One way to reframe a situation is to consider it from another perspective. In my dinner scenario, I could remind myself how fortunate I am to come home to a meal being both available and prepared for me. I could tell myself how lucky I am to have a wife and daughter with whom I can share a meal.

It also helps to provide time for people to give us more information about an event before we react, thus contributing to our thought process. Again, using my dinner scenario, I might learn that my wife had had a challenging day and wasn’t able to go to the grocery store to pick up spaghetti.

What people often do, though, is let our anger out quickly and then externalize the blame, even feeling justified in the process. Unfortunately, once that happens we usually have a lot of clean-up work to do, and we might not feel like doing it. Now my wife is mad at me for not listening to her.

I bring this up because I think it’s one of the most important lessons we can learn in this era of quick reactions, polarization, and divisiveness. We need to practice slowing down our reactions to events that impact us, even those on a national or international level. As we practice doing this, it gets easier. The better we get at it, interestingly enough, the fewer events there are that trigger us.

When we slow down our anger and detach it from our responses, we decrease the amount of negativity being poured into the world.

This contributes to peace on earth.

For more on the ETR Model, check out this excellent resource. Intended to be used with children, I find it useful for adults, too.

I’ve written three other articles designed to help reduce negativity in these days of increased polarization:
There are People in the Country Besides Politicians
Befriend the Other
Recognizing Our Common Humanity with “Just Like Me” Awareness

15 October 2018 : Recognizing Our Common Humanity with “Just Like Me” Awareness

Over the last week I’ve been writing articles designed to support ordinary people recognizing there are always positive things taking place and ways to contribute to them. I think this is especially important right now due to the polarization and divisiveness we are all experiencing.

In short, it’s important, no, it’s critical to notice, remember, and contribute to the good stuff.

For this article, the third in the series, I’m borrowing from the Compassion Cultivation Training class I’m currently taking. Developed at Stanford University, the purpose of the 8 week class is to help its students increase their overall resilience and better recognize their connection to others. In the 5th week, we focused on the simple concept that all people want the same things – safety, happiness, health, comfort, joy, peace, contentment, and ease, among them.

To practice this, our instructor gently suggested we apply the idea that people all want the same things to someone we encounter each day. In her words:

“Once each day, practice just seeing a person who might usually be invisible to you. Experiment with extending a ‘just like me’ awareness toward them, realizing that this person wishes to be safe and healthy, just as you do. That she/he/they know the experience of discomfort, of disappointment, and also of pleasure and laughter.”

The “just like me” phrase really resonated with me and I’ve been using it as a sort of mantra as I go about my day. I started timing it with my footfalls when I go for a run, which I do three or four times each week.

As I encounter people on my jog, I take note of them and see our common humanity, repeating in my head in time with my steps:

“Just Like Me (breath), Just Like Me (breath), Just Like Me (breath).”

It’s easy to bring the “just like me” awareness to other settings, too — when walking and driving, for instance, two other things I do on a daily basis. I find a key is being able to see people’s faces. If our eyes happen to meet I make a point to smile and nod slightly, acknowledging their existence and our momentary connection. I try to be mindful of not behaving in a way that might make the other person uncomfortable.

Back in class we talked about our experiences, some students sharing that it was hard to offer “just like me” awareness to someone who holds profoundly different political views. Of relevance, this class session took place during the height of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings that strike me as the epitome of polarization.

Our instructor suggested:

“When you find yourself making assumptions or judgements, pull back your awareness to the level of Common Humanity. Even if those judgements are still there, see if you can allow a bigger context for your reactions. Notice what if anything may shift. And if you find yourself angry or frustrated with someone, imagine how their actions might be due to their own underlying suffering.”

I’m finding this to be really good advice. I encourage you to try it. Honestly, it’s not hard to look at someone and see that they want the same things you do. To make it easier, focus on just one thing to begin with that you can easily assume you both want, something like happiness or health.

Say to yourself, “Just like me, this person wants to be happy.”

This short video (less than 2 minutes) is also a really good way to notice that people are more alike than different.

I think we need an army of people practicing positivity to help bring us out of the depths of negativity that threaten to swallow us up. It’s not difficult to be part of this army. Changing one situation in which you are tempted to go, or have gone, negative into a positive one does it. And the more you practice it, the more you get good at it.

Soon, you’ll be adding more positive energy to the universe than negative. Imagine the world we’ll live in when we all do that.

Here is where you can find my first two articles on this subject:
There are People in the Country Besides Politicians
Befriend the Other

12 October 2018 : Little Free Libraries


Since getting a dog two years ago I’ve upped one of my favorite things to do, which is to go for a walk. A walk is considerably different from running, something I also like to do, because of the relaxed pace. When I run I’m focused on getting exercise, paying attention to my breathing and footsteps. Walking makes it easier to notice things outside of myself. I can more easily turn my head to see something and to stop to take it more fully in.

So it was when walking in Seattle with my dog, Bentsen, that I started noticing the number of “Little Free Libraries” that exist in our neighborhood there. If you’re not familiar with the concept, a Little Free Library is a small structure that someone builds and puts on their property for the purpose of freely sharing books. It turns out it’s a pretty big deal, even set up as a federally recognized nonprofit with many of these little structures of free books being registered and linked to a world map.

For me, this is another example of the ordinary kindnesses that are happening all around us all the time. Stop and think about it for a second, even imagine the effort involved. Someone is inspired to share some of their books with others. They take the time to build and mount a decorative box to hold their books. Then they put the box in an easy-to-access spot on their property with some kind of sign that encourages people to take a book. Many of these folks even take the time to register their little libraries online.


That’s a lot of effort to do something nice, effort that I think fuels the project itself.

Similarly, now imagine a walker who comes upon the little library. For me, the first time I saw one I was stopped in my tracks. Here was a little structure with books inside encouraging me to take one. Frankly, it made my day. And since seeing the first one, I’ve conditioned myself to look for more. They always bring me joy and get my imagination flowing. Why these books? Who put them there? When I see children’s books I imagine that kids are involved.

Since seeing my first, I’ve discovered a wide variety of little libraries, including some that encourage people to leave little notes for each other.

I love this kind of thing (emphasis on the word kind). A big part of what I enjoy about this is the relative anonymity involved. I doubt the little library builders often get to see the joy inspired by their constructions. And if my experience is any indication, it’s rare for those of us who find them to engage with the “librarians.”


In my life, I have the luxury of getting to travel. And in the last two years I’ve seen little libraries in a small city in France and in Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, I came upon one while someone was examining the books in it. I struck up a conversation with him and he told me about the variety of books he has found in it since it was constructed. He also told me about another little library a few blocks away that I, of course, went to visit.

A couple of months ago I moved to Berkeley, along with my wife, Melinda, and Bentsen. And this week I was out walking and came upon a little library a couple of blocks from our apartment. A man was looking at the books inside. Initially, I walked by, not wanting to disturb him, but than I walked back and asked if I could take his picture. He readily obliged and we had a very pleasant exchange for a few minutes. He gave me his business card and I shared the web address of my blog.

So I’ve had two experiences now, one in Amsterdam and one in Berkeley, in which I’ve not only derived joy from the existence of these little libraries but had a very pleasant unplanned human interaction because of them.

Spend time in your neighborhood looking for the good things taking place. Finding one, consider it in some depth. What had to happen to help this good thing come into existence? Feel free to make up a scenario if you need to (an imagined activity can have as much impact as a real one).

For bonus points, tell someone else about your experience.

11 October 2018 : Befriend the Other

“When you want to build a ship, instead of gathering wood and assigning tasks, awaken in people’s hearts a desire for the endless immensity of the sea.” -Antoine de St Exupéry

Earlier this week I published an article called “There are People in the Country Besides Politicians.” Inspired by a quote from newsperson Charles Kuralt that includes that line, the story intends to make the point that there are a lot of positive things going on around us despite the polarized news stories we have been inundated with lately.

The story goes on to say that it’s important we pay attention and contribute to these positive things, and gives suggestions on how to recognize them.

In today’s story, I hope to provide a “next step” that well-meaning people can take if they want to contribute to a decrease in the divisiveness around us.

Step 2 is summed up in three words: Befriend the Other

When you “Befriend the Other,” you step beyond your comfort zone to reach out in some way to someone who thinks differently and ask them to be your friend.

How do you find them?

The answer is found in this explanation from David Gershon, the person behind the idea:

“This simple and profound action invites you to befriend and learn from the people who are different from you. Look for them throughout your life: they live on your block, you work with them, they are in your community, they show up in your email inbox, and if you are more adventurous, they live all over the planet.”

(It may be of interest to know that Gershon developed the “Befriend the Other” concept as part of his Seven Steps to World Peace. “Befriend the Other” is step three, and you can read all seven steps in order beginning at this link.)

If you aren’t quite ready to seek out someone who is different from you, there is an intermediate step — take time to learn about and engage in the traditions of people different from you.

You do this by listening to the music, learning about the art, studying a dance, and tasting the foods from other cultures. Many of these things you can do by simply changing what you watch on TV for an evening, or by renting a culture-based documentary, or by checking out a book or movie at the library. It’s fascinating to learn how people different from you experience birth, coming of age, marriage, and death, among other things.

One thing some neighbors and I did last year was visit different places of worship. We all commented on the genuine friendliness we experienced at the Sikh Temple, and the camaraderie we felt while participating in a walking meditation at the Shambhala Center. I’m looking forward to experiencing the silence of a Quaker meeting.

Consider, too, other ways that make sense to you that honor the “Befriend the Other” concept.

Please be aware that befriending someone does not mean you have to agree with their beliefs or points of view. Part of the idea is to bring people together who are different in order to begin to understand these differences. When we do, we also become more cognizant of how much we have in common.

And for the effort, the world naturally and immediately becomes less polarized and less divisive.

For a little further inspiration, and to see you are not alone in wanting to make the world a better place, please watch this music video:

8 October 2018 : There are People in the Country Besides Politicians

The title of this post comes from this quote from Charles Kuralt:

“It does no harm just once in a while to acknowledge that the whole country isn’t in flames, that there are people in the country besides politicians, entertainers, and criminals.” -Charles Kuralt

I’m finding the quote to be centering for me, acknowledging that the privilege I have as a self-identified heterosexual middle-aged white American man makes it a lot easier for me to find balance than others. Still, with this privilege and in finding my center, I think I have a responsibility to contribute to the country working to find its center.

I fear that if we stay polarized or get even more polarized, we are going to individually become versions of our worst selves, and collectively we are going to become a mean, dispirited country.

So here’s what I think we need to do:

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” -Mahatma Gandhi

To me, that means I need to focus on seeing the positive and not getting overwhelmed by the negative. It means I need to contribute to positive things taking place, and point out to others the positive things I see. It might mean I need to turn off the news, especially when the stories are negative and I don’t really need to know about them. Instead, I can rub my wife’s shoulders or take our dog for a walk.

When I worked with children, I would tell them that when in a conflict their first job was to not make the situation worse. Their second job, if they were capable, was to make the situation better.
That’s hard to do, I know, and nearly impossible when we feel we are under attack.

Positive psychology suggests that we need three positive messages to balance out one negative. And since we all have been bombarded with negative messages lately, I’m suggesting we all need quite a few positive messages. So be the change - seek to find positive messages for yourself and promote them to others.

What can count as a positive message?

Anything that makes you feel good that doesn’t harm someone or something else. For me, I look for the ordinary kindnesses that take place around us all the time, counting each as a positive message in my ledger. To make this work, though, I need to take the time to consciously recognize them.

Here are just a few of the positive messages I’ve benefited from recently, either by doing them, seeing them happen, or having them done for me:

  • Giving up a seat on public transportation 
  • Holding a door open for someone
  • Letting someone go ahead in a grocery store line
  • Buying someone a beverage
  • Positively acknowledging someone
  • Children’s laughter on a playground
  • A blossoming flower
  • The sunrise
  • A mountain view
  • An adult bending down to truly listen to a child
  • A dog’s wagging tail
  • A warm smile…

Here’s another quote in support of what I’m trying to communicate here:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

So the wisdom is out there. Can we make use of it?

Back to Charles Kuralt for a second. He was a reporter for CBS news who himself grew a bit disillusioned with the negative. In the 1970’s he was granted permission to take a mobile home and a camera crew to travel the back roads of America in search of good news. His program “On the Road” followed, a positive news segment that lives on long after Kuralt’s death.

A few years ago I found a DVD set of the old “On the Road” series. Compared to today’s slick production and fast edits, the show is quite quaint. But that’s part of its charm.

One of my favorite stories was about a man named Jethro Mann in North Carolina who fixed up broken bikes so every kid in town could have one. When Mann died in 2013, a local TV station referenced Kuralt in their story, which included an adult banker who credited Mann for serving as a positive male role model when he was a small child.

Take a look:

4 October 2018 : Some Things I’ve Learned From Promoting the Importance of Kindness for 25 Years

“It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Years ago, I started offering kindness classes via email. I mean this was YEARS AGO, as in last century, 1994, to be precise. Like many people lucky enough to dial into it, I knew this Internet thing was a game-changer, allowing collaboration with people all over the planet.

A year earlier, in response to Johnny, an 11 year-old boy who most would say was a student of mine in the 5th grade class for which I was the “teacher” (I think I was more his student than he mine), I had suggested we have a “random acts of kindness” classroom activity.

Johnny had tried starting what he called “The Good News Newspaper,” a publication that would only report on the positive things that happened each day. For instance, instead of publicizing the one or two cars involved in an accident, Johnny’s newspaper would report on ALL the cars, and drivers inside them, that made it home safely each day.

As Johnny told me, “There are more good things happening than bad things. Why do the bad things get so much more publicity?”

It was a question I couldn’t answer. But it certainly got me thinking.

(Side note - A couple of years ago, Johnny’s and my kindness connection got written up as a chapter in the bestselling book “Angels on Earth.”)

The students took right to the idea of doing random good deeds, thus providing me a couple of life lessons - “Kindness is inherent to being human” and “The younger the person, the easier it is for them to tap into their inherent kindness.”

I don’t think of myself as particularly religious, but this latter lesson reminded me of something I was exposed to as a young child in Sunday School, that Jesus advised people to “be like little children.” The advice obviously had stuck with me, but I had new clarity on what it might mean.

Being kind is simple.

A year later, along with Melinda Shaw, my wife, and a group of dedicated parents, I had founded the Puget Sound Community School and managed to secure dial-up Internet accounts for all of our students, something that in 1994 was so novel that Newsweek magazine featured the school in a full page story and ITN, the Independent Television Network in England, sent a camera crew to Seattle to film a story about the fledgling school.

Buoyed by the willingness and engagement of the students around kind acts, I had the idea to expand these “kindness opportunities” to include adults. Having connected the students via email to Holocaust survivors in Europe, the idea of sending kindness lessons via email dawned on me.

I’ve been doing it ever since, although now I use a blog.

The most fundamental of these classes has always been one I call “The Practice of Kindness.” It consists of ten lessons, what I call themes, dispensed over ten weeks. Each week begins with a theme for the week posted to the blog on Sunday night.

Mid-week I send a supportive message of inspiration that usually includes a link to a website that supports that week’s theme. I conclude each theme on Sunday morning by posting a message of reflection about the concluding week’s theme.

The ten themes intend to build on each other, like concentric circles emerging from a core, the core being each individual participant. As such, the first theme is always “Do something kind for yourself,” the idea being that it is important to first take care of yourself before providing good deeds for others.

I encourage participants to summarize what they have done in response to each week’s theme, using the comments section of the blog. So doing, their stories provide additional inspiration for each other and connection to people all over the world engaged in the same activity. Frankly, it’s pretty darn incredible, so much so that the class has drawn the attention of the media, including bestselling authors Daniel Pink and Deepak Chopra who have blogged and/or tweeted about it.

The second theme is typically “Do something kind for someone you love” and the themes continue on from there (“Do something kind for a friend,” “Do something kid for an acquaintance,” “Do something kind for someone with whom you’ve lost touch,” etc).

As the weeks pass I ask participants to reflect on their experiences, specifically how completing each theme causes them to feel. Invariably, they discover that every kind act they complete is actually a kindness to themselves.

So aware, I conclude the class with the same theme with which it began, “Do something kind for yourself.” This time, however, the awareness of doing something kind for oneself INCLUDES doing something kind for anyone or anything. My hope is that the participants have a new understanding of kindness.

As Emerson also said: “No man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”

2 October 2018 : I Wonder What a Country Would Be Like if its Supreme Court Was Made Up of Musicians & Artists?

John Prine – A White American Male I Can Like

I generally stay away from politics in my writing, leaving the discussions to in-person conversations that lend themselves to a back & forth exchange. And I’m really not intending to make this piece about politics, either. It’s just with all the angst and attention around the Brett Kavanaugh nomination, I’ve been wanting to find a white American male in the public eye to like.

I’ve settled on John Prine.

If you don’t know him, John Prine is a singer-songwriter who has been singing and songwriting for the better part of 50 years. He started writing songs to pass the time as a mailman, then got up the gumption to sing at some open mic events in Chicago. Kris Kristofferson, among others, heard him and it wasn’t long until the US Postal Service needed to replace Prine on his mail route.

Prine’s first album came out in 1971 and demonstrated him being someone who can get to the heart of human feelings. His songs “Hello in There,” about the loneliness that can happen when people get old, and “Sam Stone,” about a wounded Vietnam War veteran who comes home addicted to morphine, still choke me up. And Prine’s been writing songs like these ever since.

I learned about John Prine in the early 1980’s, introduced to his music by a buddy of mine named Hank with whom I worked in a radio station in Alaska. During that time, Hank talked about three unknown-to-me songwriters who over the next few years became my, pardon the expression, spiritual advisors — Harry Chapin, Tom Waits, and John Prine.

My mom, a John Prine fan.

One of my life’s favorite concert experiences was taking my mom to a small venue in north Seattle called Parker’s to see John Prine perform. He was solo, just John and his guitar, making it easy to understand his delicate and humanistic lyrics. This also allowed him ample time to engage the audience. We might as well have been in his living room, so intimate was the feeling.

I’m sure Prine is no saint. In a recent song he describes heaven as being a place where he can drink a vodka & ginger ale and smoke a cigarette that’s 9 miles long. But I’m sure he wouldn’t mislead a Senate committee or show blatant disrespect for its members.

“The Tree of Forgiveness” is Prine’s latest album, and one of its songs, “Summer’s End,” was just released this week as a single. The music video is a tearjerker. It’s directed by Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon, known for their Academy Award nominated documentary called “Heroin(e)” about the opioid crisis, which is a spoiler alert to what the music video is about.

You’ll find the music video below as well as with a little more detail about the song at this link.