Goodwill and Acts of Kindness

by Dr Angel Adams and Dr Patricia Papciak

The ideas that have lighted my way have been kindness, beauty and truth.

-Albert Einstein

A photo of a rainbow at dusk

© T. Beth Kinsey

Have you ever heard the expression Assume Goodwill? Have you ever thought about what that really means? It’s an attitude. You live your life with the mindset that people in your life want to be kind, gracious and fair. You assume that although your world may not be perfect, you can develop a healthy attitude that the people you interact with on a daily basis will usually respond from a place of kindness, thoughtfulness and fairness.

Simply put, we need to develop an outlook that most people mean well. That seems easy enough. Why don’t we all live that way? One of the main reasons is that we have had experiences that have taught us to be distrustful, fearful and suspicious. We might not want to have those feelings of distrust or fear, but they stem from the times we have been taken advantage of. We feel afraid that those things will reoccur. The idea is not to allow those fearful feelings to determine the way you live your life. Instead of allowing the negative feelings that are self-limiting to control your response, it is healthier to respond from a position of goodwill. Your positive responses become habitual, and you encourage those with whom you are interacting to respond with the same kind of attitude. In not allowing that cycle of negative feelings to begin, you remain calm and encourage trust to keep growing between you and others.

Probably the biggest area of mistrust accompanies people’s experiences with finances. This is often a minefield when it comes to acrimonious divorces. All the deep feelings of resentment, retribution, anger and insecurity often come out in the interchange of power struggles, with children being played like pawns and solicitors who reap the financial reward. What a difference it would make if the two adults could separate with an attitude of grace and understanding towards one another and make their children a benefactor of that good will, as children are often torn between the two people they love the most. The adults have to learn to let go, respond with grace and not react from the primitive part of their brain.

Another area is when we want to buy something, and we aren’t sure which item is going to be the best one for what we can afford. Salesmen and advertisers seem to have irresistible offers or the perfect answer to all the questions, but then often we aren’t satisfied with what we buy. We might become disappointed and hence become distrustful. Then there is the area of service. We have to trust a mechanic to repair our vehicles, a serviceman to repair appliances in our houses, or a doctor to repair our bodies. Every time there is an occasion for repair, we tend to become anxious about whom to call, what to ask for, how much to pay, whom to consult. We don’t seem to easily call someone, present the problem, and relax while waiting for the suggestions to produce good results. We don’t naturally assume good will.

We would like to hope that the salesperson or the repairperson really does have good will at heart, but things go wrong. The product has flaws. The repairman finds problems he hasn’t anticipated. The doctor finds that the body is not in as good a condition as he had imagined. There are so many variables. It’s not that good will is the problem; it’s that the outcome turns out differently than imagined, and we can’t help but be upset by the end result.

We might understand that the end result is a condition of the original problem that wasn’t visible to begin with, but we are still upset and tend to blame the person whom we have hired for the services rather than being able to look at it all carefully and take measures to truly understand what has happened.

Why can’t we trust that the salesperson or the repairperson meant well, but there was a snag, a further problem, and a bigger time involvement that no one anticipated? Why can’t we sit down and work those things out together by collaborative problem solving, instead of pointing the finger and blaming. We say to the salesperson, “but you said. . .” and he says to you, “but there was no way for me to know that from what you told me.” How can we fix these kinds of things without making one person be the bad guy? We are not saying that one should blindly trust others and be taken advantage of by a person who has dodgy ethics or morals. But sometimes, we find it easier to blame the person and forget to look at the problem from all angles.

We have these kinds of problems with our friends and co-workers too. We are often disappointed with a friend or an acquaintance because something doesn’t go according to plan or someone changes the plans. Our tendency is to be instantly upset rather than being able to take a deep breath, assume that the other person is doing the best they can, adjust our thinking a little, accept the other person’s limitations graciously and move forward. Getting out of sorts and upset over these kinds of things doesn’t help.

If you are waiting at a restaurant for a friend who is usually late, it’s up to you to either not meet any more or to find patience (see our past article on How to Cultivate Patience). You can order a cup of coffee, bring a good book with you and enjoy yourself rather than getting anxious and resentful. If your friend is truly a friend, then you must assume he is doing the best he can. We have to become astutely aware of our automatic negative thoughts about people, such as: “They did that on purpose” “They don’t care” or “They don’t want to help.”  “They think I am an idiot” or “They are always judging me”

Dr Joe Dispenza states this well: “Who is in the driver’s seat when we control our emotions or when we respond to our emotions? We know physiologically that nerve cells that fire together wire together. If you practice something over and over again, those nerve cells have a longstanding relationship. If you get angry on a daily basis, if you get frustrated on a daily basis, if you are mistrustful on a daily basis, if you suffer on a daily basis, if you give reason for the victimisation in your life you are re-wiring and re-integrating that neuro-net on a daily basis and that neuro-net now has a long-term relationship with all those other nerve cells called an identity. We also know that nerve cells that don’t fire together no longer wire together; they lose their long-term relationship because every time we interrupt the thought process that produces a chemical response in the body, every time we interrupt it, those nerve cells that are connected to each other start breaking the long-term relationship”. (From his book: Evolve your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind.)

These same kinds of problems arise in families. Parents and teachers can be short tempered with their children/students because they don’t like their behaviour. They forget that the child is young, not as controlled as might be desirable, not as intelligent as might be desirable, not as mature as one might hope. Again getting angry over the child’s behaviour doesn’t help much and reacting immediately with punishments is certainly not helpful. This is not to say that you can’t have rules and stick by the boundaries that you put in place for your children, but assume good will. Assume that your child is doing the best he can even if you have to remind him over and over. Find ways to externalise those reminders. Accept that he has not reached the level of maturity that would make life easier for you.

This is a great clip by Ross Greene who has a basic assumption about children: Kids do well if they can. This is the belief that if kids could do well they would do well. In other words, if the kid had the skills to exhibit adaptive behavior, he wouldn’t be exhibiting challenging behaviour. That’s because doing well is always preferable to not doing well. Something must be getting in his way! This is a totally different attitude than kids do well if they want to!

All of these things go back to the same idea. Assume good will. Assume the repairman is doing the best he can. Assume your friend is doing the best he can. Assume your child is doing the best she can. Respond with thoughtfulness, calmness, and kindness. It won’t hurt you. You will feel better. And even if at times you feel taken advantage of, you will know in your heart that you are living your life in the way that is good for you. Try not to worry about whether or not the other person has done the same. It won’t change the situation for you to be worried about whose fault something is. It won’t help your friendships to be impatient and intolerant. Your children will struggle with this issue if you don’t set the example. You aren’t in a competition with your child, you are the parent, and it’s up to you to show them the example. Do not take things personally with your child, and rise above that useless belief. Assume good will.

Following the attitude about good will, the next concept is about being proactive with your positive behaviours, and dedicating yourself to random acts of kindness. Doesn’t it feel wonderful when we have dropped something, such as a handful of coins on the street and a stranger comes by to help us pick it up? Or when someone kindly gives us directions when we are lost, or someone spontaneously opens the door for you, or gives their seat to you on a crowded train. It’s wonderful to see a stranger helping a woman carry her child in a heavy pram up and down steps. People see others with their hands full and help out. Isn’t it thoughtful when someone bothers to bring the post to you when it was delivered to the wrong address? How good it feels when you are ill and someone brings you flowers, books or food. It’s uplifting to see people give their change to buskers in the underground who are singing and performing to earn some money.

It’s important to communicate your kind and warm feelings to your others (especially your kids) whenever possible: thank you, you love them, you appreciate them, you hug them, you respect them, you complement them, and you are mindful to notice their strengths, not their weaknesses. So often we assume that the other person just knows that we feel this way and takes it for granted, however, that should not stop you from expressing those positive feelings and thoughts openly and regularly. Say it, text it, email it, snail mail it, write it, show it. Teach your children to do the same.

Speak and show random acts of kindness with no intention of getting anything back because the act of doing it is the whole purpose. Research shows that being kind to others helps to maintain good health and decreases the negative effect of physical and psychological problems. It can also enhance our feelings of joyfulness, emotional resilience, and vigor according to the information on this site called “The Acts of Kindness Foundation”. It has lots of free downloadable documents for parents and teachers. For example, click here for a PDF doc that helps children practice random acts of kindness.

With respect to our interest in the wisdom of animals, we would like to include here how pets are often so helpful when we feel upset, angry, distressed, or emotionally imbalanced in any way. How quickly they can cheer us up. We generally have no trouble being nice to a dog or a cat when we feel upset with another human. These animals usually respond with absolute joy from our loving attention (provided they have not been abused by humans or trained to fight and be vicious). It is so sweet when a trusting dog rolls over on its back submissively inviting you to scratch its belly. It is so easy to cuddle the cat up in our arms when you don’t feel good.

You probably know someone who feels that their pet helped them through some traumatic experiences, or was there for them when they experienced a loss. And it’s true. Our pet has constant, loyal, warm, accepting presence through whatever it is we may suffer. It’s truly a wonderful thing to know your cat will come jump up on the bed and purr the minute you pet him. Your dog is forever ready to go for a walk, bounding along in the open air at your side, splashing and jumping in puddles, even protecting you if a stranger approaches you in an unfamiliar way.

Photo of four friendly labrador dogs

© T. Beth Kinsey

You only have to leave the house for two minutes and when you return your dog greets you again with its tail wagging, or your cat comes running up full of delight as though you’ve been gone for two years. They are warm and so ready to forgive and forget, never harbouring ill feelings. They have such unconditional love. If we have reprimanded them or let off steam, they simply walk out of the room and come back in two minutes with no chip on their shoulder, no coldness, or bad attitude. This may be because they have short-term memory. Well maybe it would good for all of us humans to have short-term memory lapses when someone is having a bad day, or makes a mistake. Our pets set examples for us in many ways, and being alert to their kind sensitivities can only help us remain calm when under pressure. Our pets can truly teach us about goodwill and kindness. Keep your heart, mind and spirit in a position for deep understanding of the complexities in the lives of others, remain calm; show kindness and patience, and assume good will. You will be happier, others will be happier and you will live longer.

A photo of a child playing with a cat

We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.

-Winston Churchill

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