Practicing Kindness: What Are You Scared Of?

One of Dr. Seuss’s lesser-known children’s stories is called What Was I Scared Of? The narrator, a whimsical, yellow Seussian creature, kept passing a pair of disembodied pale green pants on dark and lonely roads. The pants were just going about their business, neither a bother nor a menace. Still, the narrator was terrified and tormented by this bizarre sight: he hid in a desolate orchard, altered his routine, and lost sleep over his fear of encountering this anomaly again.

That is, until this one night, when the inevitable happened.

The world today is not unlike this story. We live in a fearful world. We’re fearful of other people, fearful of reading headlines, fearful of sending our children down the block alone. We avert our eyes from others and laser-focus on the screens in our hands. Kindness has been rudely elbowed aside by fear and suspicion.

Performing acts of kindness, and not taking others’ actions personally, are not only mood-lifters for others; they are for you, too. University of North Carolina psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson calls thinking positively “a miniature health tune-up.”

Here are a few actions you can take to bring those positive vibes back into your everyday life.

Give people a break in traffic

When you’re inside a two-ton vehicle, the rules are different. Driving is a series of split-second decisions. Scary viral videos and the movie Duel aside, the average person behind the tinted glass next to you is most likely just trying to get to work on time, or dealing with a tantrum in the back seat, or a tourist navigating the tricky lane change that you take for granted. Breathe, wave them in, turn up the radio and sing.

Don’t take rudeness personally

I used to become unglued if I held the door for someone and wasn’t thanked. “You’re welcome!” I’d say loudly and sarcastically. Then there was the one time, distracted as I was, that I didn’t say thank you to a door-holder, and that kind soul never seemed to notice. He just smiled. I saw in that moment just how obnoxious and self-important I had been. When you consider that most everyone is focused on themselves, do they really have the bandwidth to scheme about hurting your feelings?

Just do a kindness

The other night, a friend and I were eating outdoors at a fast-casual restaurant on a breezy night. One of our many napkins blew onto the ground. Both of our hands were filled with messy burrito. A few minutes later a man walked by, scooped up the napkins and put them into the trash. No stink-eye, just an autopilot act of kindness. We all need more of those. Do it; it takes just a second.

Compliment on social media

The comments section of any online article has become the Coliseum of the era, where the most innocent opinion is met with ad hominem attacks or dissected for political intent. Like the two-ton vehicle, the keyboard allows us to unleash our worst selves. I have made it a goal to refrain from throwing fuel on a fire; instead, I ignore the flamethrowers and the trollerati, and I find a comment to praise. If I must disagree, I say it with a spoonful of Miss Manners. It lowers my blood pressure and gives someone, somewhere a smile. It feels really, really good.

Don’t judge, don’t assume

A good friend of mine became a football mom and kept seeing another woman in the stand who resisted all attempts at conversation. She never even said “hi’ back, the bitch! My dear friend, never one to be discouraged by anyone’s bad behavior, began talking about how clumsy her own son was on the field. This led to a confession by the Ice Princess that she had recently begun breast cancer treatment. The tears flowed. A friendship was born. You never know someone’s story, so try not to pre-judge.

Spoiler alert

The story of the mom in the stands is what jarred my memory about What Was I Scared Of?. If you don’t plan to read it or download it (and, please, you should), I’ll reveal the end. The main character screams in horror upon bumping into the pale green pants yet again. The empty pants, equally startled, begin to tremble and cry. The main character realizes, “I was just as strange to them as they were strange to me” and they become friends.

Who are your pale green pants? Instead of fear — fear of someone different or fear about making yourself vulnerable — react with vulnerability and kindness. Even a single gesture. It’s really the easiest thing in the world.