Monday, February 16, 2015

The burden of being observant and kind

There is incredible burden that comes with being simultaneously observant and kind.

For starters, you're always noticing great ways to help others.
For another, you notice all the time how very often, you're the only one.

I'd argue that this combination can be exhausting. Ones who share such a burden think, "I'm always the only one noticing the old lady with the groceries and helping her cross the street," "How come I'm the only one who thinks to send the thank you note?" "Why am I the only one who understands how freaking loud that ridiculous Dyson air blower is in this bathroom and some people who might have sensitive ears like I don't know maybe this infant in the room might be bothered if I use it to dry my hands for an exceptionally long period of time?"

First of all, take a deep breath.  If this is you, you aren't the only one. I swear! There are tons of people like you! And there is hope!

I've deduced that there are four types of people in these possibility-of-helping-another-if-only-someone-was-paying-attention situations:
  1. Kind, but not observant.
  2. Kind and observant.
  3. Unkind, but observant.
  4. Unkind and unobservant. 

Type 1: A pregnant lady gets onto a crowded subway. This person, seated, does not observe the pregnant lady's situation and therefore doesn't think to give this lady his or her seat. (Perhaps someone taps her on the shoulder and points out the pregnant lady. Then this kind person will give up his or her seat for the pregnant lady.) I believe there are lot of people who just don't pay attention, no matter how big their hearts are.

Type 2: A pregnant lady gets onto a crowded subway. This person, seated, notices the struggle and invites the pregnant lady to take his or her seat.

Type 3: A pregnant lady gets onto a crowded subway. This person, seated, notices, but does not want to give up the seat to anyone, as getting a seat is hard. Perhaps person type three will justify not giving up his or her seat because they had to stand the last time, or perhaps they let an old lady sit there once before. It's someone else's turn to give it up. Being unkind also doesn't mean you're conniving, it just means you don't want to go out of your way to do nice things for strangers.

Type 4: A pregnant lady gets onto a crowded subway. This person doesn't notice because they're too busy pickpocketing the old blind man in front of her.

I'd also like to point out the bystander effect. Perhaps we see someone in need of help and assume someone is coming for them. For example, a car blinking on the side of the highway. We assume, "they've got a tow coming" or "someone else will help." I'd argue that the widespread use of cell phones has helped millions of Americans escape the perils of a flat tire or a dead battery, but it has also created an alternative scapegoat. I don't think it's right to assume "someone is coming," however, I do see its justification.

It's fair to say that these four people "types" are fluid. For example, you may be an observant person, but if you're always looking at your phone or stop practicing your observation skills, you become less observant.

There is the possibility a person started out as kind and observant, and over time, became a little hardened by noticing general disregard all of the time. This is the burden I'm talking about. It is exhausting to constantly notice how shitty people treat each other. It can lead to some serious cynicism.

On the other hand, you may be very kind, and decide you want to help people more often, but you rarely know how. Being alert and on the lookout for situations where you can lend a hand helps. Keeping the thought on your mind gives you a greater awareness of those around you.

Being a thoughtful and observant person has its burden.

Yesterday as I was walking up to Starbucks, I noticed there were two entrances: One was a double door — the kind where you walk through a small room to get to the actual entrance — the other went straight into the Starbucks. I noticed the doors and I thought to myself, "hmm, it's furiously cold out. I should use the double door because then people won't get as bad of a chill."

I posted up in Starbucks and spent the next hour being blown in the face by one hundred people using the single door. Some even threw open the door and it didn't shut behind them.  I am one of four people who used the double door during the entire hour I was there. Even the Starbucks workers didn't think to put a sign up that says please use other door because it's cold.

It's not that people are bad, or trying to make everyone in the Starbucks cold, it's that they just aren't making this observation and applying it to possibilities for the future. Kind people walked through the single Starbucks door, obviously. Unless you're a supervillian, I really doubt any conniving ass holes walked through the door thinking "I'm going to make everybody freeze!" Unlike me — the freak of nature —  people just didn't think about it at all.

Nonetheless, If you're one of these people — the thoughtful, observant and kind — it is imperative that you not give up hope.  Surround yourself with the kind of people who take pleasure in the amazing people around them. Surround yourself with the kind of people who would give their seat to the pregnant lady on the subway. 

In the end, I would rather be the kind of person who thinks about doing nice things and does it, than someone who thinks about it and doesn't?

I'd rather pull up close in traffic so the person behind me isn't stuck in an intersection, even though nobody will ever know that's why I'm pulling up.

I'd rather see my neighbors garbage bin rolling down the hill and put it back in its place, even though they will never know it wasn't properly put back by the garbage collectors.

I'd rather notice the little boy with the armful of books who's about to walk into the library behind me and push the wheelchair button . (I also have an empathy theory that refers to how a kid in high school pushed my books out of my hands and pushed me on the floor  (I know wtf?!) but this blog is getting long.)

I believe that cynicism is a horrible and contagious disease of the heart. I don't think it does any good for anyone.

Subsequently, I believe doing nice things for people is good for your heart. It makes you feel good, even if nobody ever sees. Because you see.

I am not good at distracting myself on a train, so I will likely remain observant until my brain fails me from observing. I don't see avoiding observation skills to be a choice. If I'm going to be observant for the long haul, then I'm stuck deciding between two options: Am I going to be unkind or am I going to be kind? Am I going to open my heart to the places it needs to spread or am I going to avoid eye contact and cynically justify the shear numbers of how little helping one person could make on the world?

The answer is obvious.

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