Sunday, January 24, 2010

Laugh More. Be Kinder. Leave Peace in Your Wake.

I wrote and delivered this piece as the Credo for the January 24, 2010, service at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco.

“Laugh more. Be kinder. Leave peace in your wake.”

These three lines form a kind of summary instruction manual for me. My everyday credo, in near-haiku form. I use it as the signature at the bottom of all my emails so that I’m reminded of it every time I send a message. It’s a visual mantra, incorporated into my most regular daily practice.

“Laugh more. Be kinder. Leave peace in your wake.”

The lines came to me all at once, three elements of a single whole, but they started in different times and places.

Laugh more. It’s a simple reminder that there’s always room for a little more joy, and that I don’t have to take everything quite so seriously. I appreciate earnestness, but in the end, my money is always on humor.

For a long time, though, I didn’t know I was funny. My sense of humor seemed to misfire with my peers. I remember one time in high school coming up with a witticism that neatly tied together several different strands of the conversation. I was incredibly pleased with myself...until I glanced up to find a half dozen people staring at me with looks somewhere between pity, incredulity, and disdain. Things finally shifted many years later when I was having lunch with my housemate Chuck one Saturday afternoon. Between bouts of laughter at the kitchen table, he said, “You’re so funny,” and I could see that it was true. When I asked him if he really thought so, I got another look, but this one was considerably more affectionate.

Leave peace in your wake came from something I’d read by Thich Nhat Han, a well-known Buddhist monk and writer from Vietnam. He described a walking meditation in which the goal is to walk slowly and mindfully, being present for every moment as you pick up your foot, place it on the ground, shift your weight forward, and lift your other foot to begin the process again. What really struck me, though, was when he asked readers to consider what kind of energy we trail behind us. If we rush from place to place, it’s going to be agitated, churning, like a speedboat racing up a river. Certainly not a tranquil presence moving through the world. I realized then that I needed to take more responsibility for my energetic footprint and its effect on those around me.

But for me, perhaps the most important line of my mini-manifesto is Be kinder.

When I was in college, I had a close friend with whom I traded letters after he graduated. I was always thrilled to hear from Bill and delighted whenever I caught sight of his handwriting among my mail. In fact, I loved the shape of his lower case f so much that it still shows up in my own handwriting. We’d keep in touch about his research, my classes, people we knew, music, philosophy, and everything in between.

In one letter, he did me the kind of service that only a true friend can: he told me an uncomfortable truth about myself. “May I offer you a topic for reflection?” he began. He went on to observe that I often expressed my opinion of people in harsh or dismissive terms. I was shocked – and chastened – because I immediately recognized that he was right. In my impatience with a grocery store clerk or frustration with a coworker, I’d moved from occasional venting about life’s inconveniences toward a pattern of hubris. My friend’s invaluable feedback became a spur to do better.

Fast forward to a few years ago. Now, I don’t think I’m alone in occasionally checking in with myself about the big picture of my life. This particular time, it took the form of asking, “If I died today, how would I want my friends to remember me?” As I ran through the possibilities, I realized that the adjective I wanted at the top of the list was “kind”...and I wasn’t sure it would be.

It’s not that I thought people would lead by saying I was unkind, but I saw that I wasn’t living in a way that made kindness central to who I was. So once again, I set out to do better.

And you know what? Kindness doesn’t cost extra. It more than pays for itself in the time it takes me to hold the door open for someone. It comes back tenfold in stopping to help a tourist struggling to figure out a MUNI map. It’s my pleasure to thank the waitress every time she fills my water glass. I do these things with no expectation of getting anything in return – except becoming the person I want to be.

I can’t control what word first pops to mind when my friends think of me, but I’m doing what I can to make sure “kindness” shows up first in my own mind.

Laugh more.
Be kinder.
Leave peace in your wake.

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