We live in uncertain, trying times.
Uncertain because several surprises have arisen, from general elections and corruption in the "civilized" world to genocide and terrorism.
Trying because we are constantly confronted with situations or outcomes that don't reflect our values. We feel that our own way of life is under threat and that we don't control it.
The past year has brought questions like these:
Where’s the balance between offering desperate refugees relief and safe harbor, retaining resources for the domestic citizens who paid them through taxes, and protecting the homeland from terrorist threats?
Where’s the balance between being a leader who was elected largely for being outside the institution yet who appears to disrespect the legal customs of the institution?
Where’s the balance of building a wall between countries to punish a sophisticated yet evil drug empire while ordinary citizens continue to suffer under an impotent government?
Why do we vote for separation instead of union?
Where's the balance between privacy rights and security measures?
The issues of the past year have polarized us. People seem to be at opposite ends of the continuum on issues. Best to avoid touchy subjects. Friends "de-friending" friends on social media. Family members holding grudges and declaring moratoriums on hot topics at holidays. Neighbors against neighbors.
When we shut down, emotions and ego displace discourse. We. Them.
Occasionally our political divergences are transmuted as we are united in grief -- like last week's suicide bombing following Ariana Grande's concert in Manchester, England, that killed 22; the Orlando nightclub shooting that killed 49 people; the hijacked truck in Nice, France, that killed 84 people, among other tragedies.
Naturally, these real life happenings bring us down, and they can overshadow our hope and our optimism. When they do, they directly affect our quality of life. Their cumulative effect may stunt our collective progress.
So how do we "get along" in everyday life? And where's the balance between representing your own beliefs yet trying to find common ground in volatile times?
When we find our values challenged, we have to roll back to the basics.
What are your basic values?
How do they manifest themselves in your thinking and your behavior?
If we had to pick just one value to consider, kindness seems a shortcut to all of them.
Kindness -- to yourself and others -- is about having empathy and compassion. It's a certain gentle way of being. It stems from a spirit of love, which happens to be the higher message of every faith tradition (organized religion) and non-faith believers like atheists, humanists and spiritualists.
Kindness is common ground.
In action, this value is easy to recognize. It's when a person...
...holds the shop door open for you.
...listens with interrupting while you speak.
...gives you a hand with your suitcase up a flight of stairs.
...says, "Please" and "Thank you."
...asks how you are doing.
It's common courtesy, which can be uncommon today -- especially in these times when we're side by side with people of all cultures and mixed values.
These times call for a standard operating procedure based in polite interactions. Manners are our first indicator of values. They say, "I respect myself enough to respect you."
It doesn't mean being fake or feigning friendliness to that rude person on the subway; it means, at the very least, using neutral body language and polite speech. "Excuse me, please." "This is my stop. Can I get off, please?"
At the most it means a positive disposition, perhaps even friendly. Smiling to a stranger. Saying, "Thank you," at the shop checkout. Letting someone know they dropped a glove, or their scarf is dragging on the ground.
Communicating with foreigners who don't speak your language is testament to the power of intention and body language. It's possible because, according to research, non-verbal communication accounts for somewhere between 60 percent and 93 percent of getting a message across. The most often quoted figure, which has been challenged for being reported out of context (see link), says 55 percent of communication is conveyed through body language, 33 percent through tone of voice; and seven percent through words. While the interpretation of Albert Mehrabian's research into percentages is up for discussion, one thing is clear: Actions speak louder than words.
Test this yourself tomorrow: Change up your body language, tone and words as you go about your interactions.
Once you've tried it with strangers, try it with family and friends. We tend to stick to patterns with those closest to us, sometimes behaving more loosely (impolitely) than we would with someone on the street. Test it out.
I've tried this. For me it's about keeping my mouth shut a little longer, giving the conversation time to breathe. Listening a little more intently. Asking a question before pontificating. It requires patience -- with yourself most of all -- and it pays dividends. You can actually learn something and others start behaving differently, too. Patterns can change.
In a world that is growing ever more connected through technology, travel and global humanitarian concerns yet it seems so disjointed and at odds, we must find common ground. This is not a pat answer to disturbing realities, but it's one way to "quality control" your everyday ordinary experience.
The greatest opportunity each of us has is the choice we make each moment to interact with someone. We are responsible for what energy we bring to it.
Good manners are a sign of being civilized, and they cost nothing but mindfulness and thoughtfulness. No matter what someone's current mood, nationality, religion, political leanings, economic status, education, or any other limiting category, they can set the framework for a common human experience.
If we can slow down these moments of interaction and act with kindness, we could change someone's experience. And our own.