Random Acts of Kindness (Guest Post)

I’m lucky to come across some wonderful people in my work on kindness. Recently, one of these kindness practitioners, Jennifer Wilhoit, reached out to me with a post she had written on how to offer spontaneous kindness to the people around us. She kindly agreed to let me repost it here.

RAOK: Random Acts of Kindness … Or, A Mini Primer on Kindness

Original Post

Kindness matters. It matters a lot. Being kind is not optional, frivolous, extraneous, or insubstantial.

A random act of kindness is: “a non-premeditated, inconsistent” action designed to offer kindness to the world.

Kindness has emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual benefits for the giver as well as the receiver.

I would add…

A RAOK shies away from recognition.

A RAOK is not imbued with an expectation of a particular outcome.

A RAOK is not always received when it is offered. It is in the offering of something, whether received or not, that kindness is added to the world.

A RAOK can alleviate stress, anxiety for a good long healthy moment.

A RAOK stretches a minute into an eternity, but does not demand any future engagement.

A RAOK does not concern itself – at all – with the many ways in which we separate ourselves from others (i.e. judgments, race, class, party, nationality, status, religion, gender…) for it is inherently unbiased and connective.

A RAOK joins hearts; thus, divisiveness is impossible.

A RAOK might never be remembered beyond the moment in which it is received, but this does not diminish its impact.

A RAOK is sometimes never, ever noticed or known by anyone other than the kindness-doer; it is still a kindness to and for the world.

A RAOK has a ripple effect.

A RAOK is soft and friendly. 

A RAOK has limitless manifestations.

A RAOK focuses a person outward – on others – giving their inner life a chance to heal, replenish, clarify, bloom anew.

A few possible verbal responses to a RAOK:

What are you celebrating?

Thank you.

Why are you doing this?

You’ve made my day!

Do I know you?

For me? Really?!

Or, the unfolding of a story about why this person needed this particular kindness on this particular day.

Or, the deeper unfolding of a much larger life story…

A few possible physical reactions to a RAOK:

A smile.

Giggling.

A Shrug.

Tears.

A deep sigh.

A hug.

The reaching for a hand.

Closed eyes.

A stunned expression.

November 13th is World Kindness Day: a global 24-hour celebration dedicated to paying-it-forward and focusing on the good.

February 17th is National Random Acts of Kindness Day.

I can personally attest to the power of RAOK! Just ask me…

Editor’s Note: You can find the full blog here. I’d especially like to note two other recent posts:

Kindness in Action: Gender, Power, and Expectations

People in positions of power can do enormous damage when they project their gender expectations onto others, and even use those gender expectations to wield power.

You can jump down to some thoughts on putting kindness in action to dispel that damage, or first read a few stories that help illustrate the point as a preface.

In my last year of graduate school, just as my own academic job search began, my department hired a new chair from another university. As with any year in recent memory, few schools were hiring in the humanities. Even landing interviews with “top” schools did little to make me optimistic in the face of tight competition and a shifting discipline that favored identity studies and non-canonical texts. After on-campus interviews, departments told me that my work wasn’t “political” enough. One department told me flat out they decided it would be better to hire a woman for diversity. I didn’t want to give up yet, however. I sought out my new chair for his advice.

I sat in the chair’s office, facing his desk and silhouette in the glare of sunlight from the enormous window behind him. I brought him up to speed with my job search, where I had interviewed, where I had call-backs. I asked for his insight. Sure, I could delay finishing my dissertation and stay another year, but how could I connect better with potential hirers? Some of the advice made perfect sense, if not seeming a bit opportunistic. I could pump out an article or two to appease shifting attitudes. I listened politely, willing to consider what I needed to do for professional survival. “But, you know,” he said with an oddly dead-eyed look, “you can’t get away with being so demure. It’s not suitable.”

“Ok, sure, well thanks for the input.” I scrambled my CV and papers into my bag and went out to meet some friends on the quad. They wondered why I had so little to say. One friend finally got the story out of me. “What an asshole,” everyone agreed.

But that’s not the point of the story. And that wasn’t the end of it; as I found out much later, the powerful mentor I had reached out to was actively undermining me on the job market. The word choice says it all. “Demure.” Not “reserved,” or “shy,” or “introverted.” And presented as something I was trying to “get away with.” I had been gender-bashed for not meeting his expectations for suitable male behavior. Beyond the casual slight of a callously chosen word, it stuck with me, became gossip, and harmed my career (where, that same year, I ended up getting a job after all, and left the profession for other reasons–a story for another time).

Fast-forward to some ten years later, and I’m in a senior position at a consulting firm, on my fifth promotion in as many years. In my annual performance review, my new manager talked about my strong performance, tripling the size of one of the firms largest accounts. “The problem is we all think you’re only doing it for yourself, not for the good of the firm.” I had toughened up a bit since my days in grad school, so I asked what that meant. What was the evidence for my performance having hidden motivations and what can I do differently to change perceptions? “Now you’re just being difficult. People think it’s hard to make a point with you. You come across as being kind of bitchy.” The discussion petered out quickly from there. Again, a seemingly casual word that spoke volumes. I was being held to account for some sort of invisible characteristic and again, gender-bashed with a mis-gendering term.

In hindsight, I’m perfectly happy to own “bitchiness” as a word used by people uncomfortable with my own form of toughness, and “demure” as my own way of listening attentively. In hindsight, these subtle gender-bashings only fueled my motivation and helped move me along to the journey I have taken since, a thriving company of my own, and a path that I make mine with my own ways of being intact. Without experiences like these, I would never have come to a point of focusing on advocacy for kindness in the workplace.

But, despite the good fortune I’ve had in the meantime, these words and moments show just how much damage people in positions of power can do when they project their gender expectations onto others, and even use gender expectations to wield power. The dynamics of the presidential election this year further strengthen my awareness of the way gendered terms are used to level unfair judgment. And finally, I was inspired by a recent piece my long-time friend and colleague Carol Barash posted on LinkedIn, which triggered my thinking about gender, power, and self-empowerment.

As promised, after my long run-up to the topic, here are several kind things I recommend people do about the gendered misuse of power and judgment.

  • Be mindful of the words you use. It doesn’t matter whether you keep these words to yourself or use them in interactions. “He is so…, she is very…, you seem…” Fastidious, bossy, difficult, take your pick. Are these words that embed a gender stereotype? In my examples above, gender terms other than the gender I present were used, but stereotypes about men or women are often used to police a gap between what a person is doing and what is expected of them. Instead, you can pause, think about how else that label is used in other contexts, and why you perceive it here, and whether you should separate it from your expectations of gendered behavior.
  • Step back. It can be hard to admit to yourself that you are using gender to wield power, especially at first, but you can start even by observing and reflecting on how gender dynamics work between other people. Try it at the next meeting you attend. What are people saying and how are they interacting with each other? When are they open or closed to others’ input and how?
  • Refocus on outcomes. Sometimes, gendered labels are shorthand. Underneath them, you may have a concrete need for someone to change what they are doing. When you give feedback, the onus is on you to stake specifically and actionably what you are asking the recipient to do or do differently. In fact, that’s the only appropriate request. Instead of holding people accountable for your perception of them, be clear you are asking them to speak up more directly in meetings, with specific examples, or you are asking them to soften the way they assert themselves, with specific techniques. Don’t hang hidden, mysterious allegations over their heads.
  • Recognize it for what it is. If you ever feel gender-bashed, take a clear-eyed look at what happened and why. In the same way that you can think about the gender dimensions of your outward labels and judgments, you can think about whether words used to you or about you come from a someone wielding gender stereotypes, consciously or not, in order to exercise power. While you may not be able to “fix” it, you can at least not torment yourself trying to address feedback that cannot, maybe even purposefully cannot, be addressed.

7 Ways To Be Kind To Yourself and Get Unstuck

I’m late. I thought I would write a new piece on kindness in the workplace last month, and then this month, but until now, nothing. I found myself writing “kindness post” on my daily to-do list, each morning rewriting it, rewriting it, starring and circling it, but still, nothing. I needed a way to get unstuck.

Over time, the disappointment became louder than anything else I might have felt about the piece, the elusive piece, whose theme I kept failing to catch when looking at my values and experiences. Even though I moved it to my next day’s list again and again, the prospect that I ever could, or would, get it done receded. The tide of motivation went out, exposing all the dead fish and debris of dread and failing to meet my own expectations. I even questioned my resolve to keep up this project.

Today, however, is different. As I looked at my day ahead, at my desk, sunrise coloring the sky behind me, I realized that I couldn’t write because I wasn’t being kind to myself. I had fallen into the self-compassion trap. I had stopped giving myself credit for all the hard work I do for my clients, for my dedication to my partner, for the time I spend caring for my two cats, for making myself available to friends. Every time I thought about writing the now dreaded “kindness post,” I let the fact that I hadn’t yet written it become the focal point, eclipsing any thought or passion for the topic of kindness itself.

By some sudden grace (yes, I believe in it, even with no apparatus of faith behind it), forgiveness came. I forgave myself for not writing, I acknowledged the task for what it was, and I felt not obligation but gratitude for all the relationships and all the beings that had received my time in the interim. I allowed kindness to return, not as an imperative, but as a gift, a gift whose benefits I, too, share. That was the answer to help me get unstuck. By letting self-kindness in, I saw the very topic I needed to write about was kindness to oneself.

I hope my long preface sets the stage for the rest of this post, with 7 specific ways you can break through motivation blocks to help you get unstuck by being kind to yourself.

1. Take inventory.
When you have something undone hanging over your head, you can lose sight of all of the positive, constructive ways in which you spend your time. Make a list of ten valuable things you have done recently and recognize yourself for what it took to do them. Even the smallest things you do depend on your skills, your authentic self, and the ties you have in this world. You can easily take them for granted.

2. Take action.
While you may not be ready to pull out of the procrastination-guilt loop quite yet, you can help break up the logjam by doing kind things for others and by directing kind intentions to them. Offer to help a colleague, do something unexpected for your friends or family, or help a stranger. I don’t have a scientific explanation for why, but it does somehow clear your energy and open you to the task that’s haunting you.

3. Take a break.
You won’t get very far sitting and staring at a screen, or paper, or a workspace. If you stay stuck in a working context, you may find your level of anxiety increasing, to the extent that you lower the chances you will find a way to start or resume work. Instead, just walk away. Read something unrelated, or even take a literal walk to change your surroundings and allow serendipity to take over and motivate you.

4. Take a shower.
There’s a reason why the idea that your best ideas come to you in the shower has become a sort of cliche. A shower is a place to relax, take time to do something for yourself, and let yourself be both distracted an purposeful at the same time. In fact, numerous studies on brain chemistry and brain activity tie our mental state when showering to increased creativity and increased likelihood of mental breakthroughs.

5. Take a picture.
You can overcome obstacles to motivation by making efforts to be creative in another medium. Even if you don’t believe that you need creativity to get your looming tasks done, the act of creativity can help you look at your motivation differently and find ways to overcome it. You can use the camera on your phone to capture an unexpected angle in your office, in your home, or somewhere in your daily perspective. Look closely at it and open yourself up to seeing the world, and your responsibilities, from a new angle.

6. Take solace.
You’re not the first person to get stuck, and you won’t be the last. This is not the first time you’ve gotten stuck, and it won’t be the last. You can reflect on times when you have gotten stuck, and unstuck, in the past. Tell yourself the story of how it happened and how you eventually broke through. Ask people you trust and respect to tell you a story about a time when it happened to them. You’ll find those stories can heal, and overcome.

7. Take care.
You may find that you start to beat yourself up over an uncompleted task. It’s entirely natural, and often gets worse the more committed you are or the more accountable you feel. You can, however, forgive yourself for not doing something that you needed or expected to do. Just remember that you are more than your responsibilities. If you let yourself off the hook for this, chances are, you’ll stop writhing and start writing, or doing, or working, whatever it is that’s blocking you.

Apply these 7 techniques, or your own variants of them. You’ll make great progress, clear the way, and find that they help you get unstuck.

True Compassion…

“True compassion is spacious and wise as well as resourceful. This type of compassion could be called intelligent love or intelligent affection. We know how to express our affection so that it does not destroy a person but instead helps him or her to develop. It is more like a dance than a hug. And the music behind it is that of intellect.”

— Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Workplace Kindness Audit

How kind is your workplace? The questions in the 3-minute Workplace Kindness Audit that follows can help focus your thinking. The questions come from the kindness work of Kindness Communication. I’m sharing them as a gift with the Kindness community to help everyone become more aware of kindness in the workplace and to learn concrete ways to increase it.

Just a few thoughts before you begin.

  • In answering the questions, react to each statement on a scale of how strongly you disagree or agree.
  • Your answers are completely anonymous. In fact, the quiz does not even request your name. Just answer openly and freely.
  • Each statement describes a trait of a kind workplace. They haven’t been designed to force you to vary between positive and negative.
  • In answering, the best approach is to go with your gut. How does it seem to you?
  • At the end of the assessment, you will see a score, and see how it compares to the average. While the score is not scientific, it will give you a sense of your workplace’s kindness profile.

Thank you!

Workplace Kindness Audit

How kind is your workplace? The questions that follow can help focus your thinking. They are based on the kindness work of Kindness Communication. Just a few thoughts before you begin.

  • In answering the questions, react to each statement on a scale of how strongly you disagree or agree.
  • Your answers are completely anonymous. In fact, the quiz does not even request your name. Just answer openly and freely.
  • The questions have been written so that each statement describes a trait of a kind workplace. They haven’t been designed to force you to vary between positive and negative.
  • In answering, the best approach is to go with your gut. How does it seem to you?
  • At the end of the assessment, you will see a score, and see how it compares to the average. While the score is not scientific, it will give you a sense of your workplace’s kindness profile.

Thank you!

Let’s Bring Kindness Back to the Conversation About Guns

I straddle a line between advocating kindness as a way of business and life, and working with healthcare professionals to improve patient care and engagement. Often, that line becomes blurry, as in when it comes to the topic of gun control. When gun injuries take place, either with individual shootings and accidents or with mass casualty events, caregivers stand at the front lines, too. First responders rush to the scene, and victims arrive in emergency rooms and trauma centers. A recent in-depth report in Modern Healthcare gives us a lot of insight into the effects of gun violence on these other victims of gun violence, many of whom wrestle with physical and emotional exhaustion or PTSD. Their sacrifice and kindness inspires.

While I have my own opinion about the necessity of gun control, I won’t address it here. The conversation about guns needs no more polarizing voices. Sadly, perhaps opinions have locked themselves in to a point where conversation, too, freezes up and fails. I will address this aspect instead: the enormous respect and gratitude inspired by the kindness of those who respond and treat the victims. These caregivers put aside the politics and give their all, their time, their energy, and their peace. For them, guns don’t represent an “issue.” Guns mean real people, real suffering, real lives, and they respond with a remarkable depth of care.

As part of the conversation about guns, let’s thank the caregivers for their kindness, wherever we stand on the political spectrum. Let’s truly honor it, by imagining in full the strength and courage it takes to comfort those who have been injured, as well as those around them at the scene, or those in the hospitals that receive them. We have big questions to answer, both as a polity and as people, to move forward past this point. Despite a broken dialogue at the level of opinion and politics, however, we can at least acknowledge this kindness, and perhaps bring some of it along with us when we turn to the topic as a broader issue.

 

 

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Kind Feedback: Don’t Make This Common Manager’s Mistake

Simple concept. Managers, don’t do this!

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We don’t have to give everyone a gold star for everything they do, but let’s also free ourselves from the tendency to focus only on the negative. Managers can focus on reinforcing the best aspects of each employee’s performance. Peers, too, can shift their frame of reference, by keeping unmet expectations and concerns in proper perspective. Too often, we are conditioned to ignore what’s working well; we problematize rather than find ways to maximize and create shared progress through collaborative outcomes.

Photo credit: via Henry Ward.

Kind Initiatives, Kind Results: OutLift

Can a sport culture focused on aggressive personal goals and high-intensity workouts also provide a seedbed for kindness? If you’re among the few people who haven’t heard of it, CrossFit is an intensive conditioning program that has taken the fitness world by storm with its rigorous workout approaches and philosophy of personal engagement and commitment. Here in Los Angeles, a group of LGBTQ CrossFit practitioners has formed OutLift to create a welcoming community for LGBTQ athletes and allies, and do some heavy lifting for visibility and tolerance in the process.

I interviewed the five founders to hear more of the OutLift story and learn about how these athletes champion the cause of kindness. On Saturday, June 18, they are conducting a daily workout dedicated to the victims of the recent horrific tragedy in Orlando. Click here to learn more about their event and how to support them no matter where you live.

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1. What inspired you to create OutLift? What aspects of CrossFit culture did you want to address? 

“CrossFit has been an evolving brand since it first started with military, firemen, police officers, etc.,” says Samantha Kinne, originally from the backwoods of Maine, who heads up outreach for the group. “There is still this stigma that it is only for a certain demographic. My biggest goal has been about making it accessible and inviting for everyone, especially LGBTQ people.”

Kevin Wu, who does programming and coaches workouts for OutLift, adds “I was looking for a social group of like-minded people to do one of my favorite activities. The consistency of CrossFit movements and terminology lends itself to having people from all over work out together, but because affiliates operate independently, you don’t see much interaction between individual boxes [i.e., gyms for CrossFit participants].”

Christian Port, an LA native, longtime nonprofit professional, and social justice advocate, reflects on what gave him the initial idea to form OutLift: “CrossFit has completely transformed my life and empowered the work that I do in ways that I never thought imaginable, and I’ve seen it have that effect on my peers as well. I saw the connection between CrossFit, social justice, and empowerment, and immediately recognized that it had the potential to be a conduit for social change, a disruption to the sense of disenfranchisement I felt during my youth.”

2. What kinds of things do you do within the group and the broader CrossFit community to make it a kinder, more welcoming environment?

Justin Sevakis heads up OutLift’s internal operations and finance. He describes himself as “a grumpy, closeted, pudgy nerd, and within a year became a fit, out and slightly less grumpy fitness enthusiast.”

Justin clarifies that he doesn’t know of any gym owners or coaches who are overtly homophobic. “But certain classically ‘bro’ attitudes can easily creep in from time to time. Having a visible presence for the LGBTQ community within CrossFit reminds the rest of the CrossFit world that we make up a valuable part of the scene. It’s a subtle way of making participating gyms a more welcoming place.”

Samantha believes the nature of the workouts creates kind camaraderie as she does outreach to other boxes. “Doing something new is always scary but in the end, usually worth it. There is something about doing a grueling workout together that builds relationships.” Kevin stresses stress that all athletes and allies are welcome, regardless of ability.

Chris Swanson, a Bay Area native, incorporates this approach into the branding and marketing communications that he spearheads for OutLift. He focuses on getting the word out there “to break down the perceived stereotypes about the sport and help create a brand that is approachable, authentic, and inclusive.” That approach dovetails with his personal experience beginning CrossFit. Although he has participated in a wide range of sports from soccer to gymnastics since childhood, “I was terrified,” he explains, “but by working through fear I found family.”

3. In your ideal world, where will OutLift be in three to five years? How would you like to expand your organization and its impact?

All five founding members see OutLift as a way to create more community among CrossFit gyms across Southern California. They want to break down some of the natural barriers that rise when each box has its own members and culture. Chris describes it as a way to “build stronger communities, providing strength, hope, safety and health.” They also want to help channel CrossFit’s typical high level of engagement to greater good in the world at large. “We’re hoping to work with local charities and do some good works, and also just allow friendships and connections to happen organically, that might not have happened otherwise,” says Justin. Kevin and Samantha both agree with that idea.

When thinking about broader impact, Christian further points out “we have so much work to do to challenge homophobia, transphobia, and stereotypes in athletics at the national level in a meaningful way. We need more honest and direct exposure with CrossFit HQ, and we need more out and proud LGBTQ athletes competing in the CrossFit games. There is a lot of work that we hope to do, such as working with LGBTQ youth and providing them with a safe and welcoming athletic environment that you don’t find in public schools. We hope to be doing big, bold things in the next few years!”

I didn’t go into my conversation with the OutLift founders thinking that a fitness technique would translate into commitments to creating a kinder world. But they reinforced one of the core beliefs I’ve come to in my Kindness Communication work. They turned out to offer a great example of an organization where kind attitudes yield kind results. Energy and commitment, when focused on kind principles such as welcoming and helping others, can translate into much more impact than what it might seem on the surface. If you’d like to stay in the loop with OutLift’s events and mission, I encourage you to like their Facebook page.

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Open Grief (For Orlando And For Humankind)

Words cannot contain the vast sadness of what happened in Orlando on June 12, 2016. So many lives ended, so many more now confronting the loss of loved ones, the inexhaustible specificity of each person’s world. What we see as a single event in fact contains thousands of events, the stories and realities of those who were murdered, and of their families, partners, friends, acquaintances, coworkers, neighbors, and even pets, the impact to those who survived and those who responded. Enough vastness to defeat the mind, overwhelm the heart, and stifle the voice, all those fragments, each in their own right a universe of feeling and potential, now piercing the surface of our own realities as painful shards. But we can also open ourselves to these shards and cultivate them as seeds, not as ashes but as sparks to bring about a better world.

Often, we close ourselves off to the multiplicity of tragedies by looking for easy answers. We neatly package them in our hearts as one single event, unable to embrace the diversity of effects and equally reluctant to accept their many, many causes. Since Sunday morning, I’ve seen so many people grasping for the comfort of a single explanation, be it gun control, radical Islam, fundamentalism more broadly, homophobia, mental illness, domestic security, racism, or any other master narrative that helps it all make sense. But I don’t think making sense of it with a pre-existing explanation helps beyond one’s personal solace. All of these factors and many more converged at a single point in time, a confluence of forces with a tragic outcome which, too, splits off into more outcomes than any one of us comprehend to its full depth. This closed grief, however, also closes off the opportunity to create change.

We can accomplish so much more if we nurture open grief. Instead of closing ourselves off with convenient explanations and consoling tropes, let’s maintain a radical openness, in order to do full honor to all effects and causes. Beyond a call for just respect, however, our openness breaks more fertile ground for cultivating seeds of action. As a society, and as parts of the many interdependent tribes that compose it, we need this. We need everyone’s engagement to combat the many forces that lead to death instead of to kindness. If we only address one or a small few, the others will still come together and conspire with new allies to inflict hatred and pain. We can’t let our rightful, righteous anger at what happened tempt us into denigrating other people’s efforts to pursue change and prevent something similar from happening again. If we can’t commit ourselves to the struggles that our friends choose as their means to promote change, we can at least support them as allies who empathize with their commitments to change.

Similarly, at times like this, we can use our own open grief to reflect on what we can do for a better future. Let singers sing, let writers write, let doers do, let thinkers think, and let none of us look down on how our fellow humans choose to respond. In open grief, we look to our own most powerful tools, and we embrace the special powers of those around us. We can all acknowledge and encourage each other’s power, at our best, rather than scold each others efforts, at our most frustrated. And we cannot defeat the causes of our grief by tapping into the same sort of rigid absolutisms that led to it.

In short, none of us has the answer, but we all have the power. When we grieve openly, showing our sadness, and knowing the sadness of others, we channel that power in tangible ways towards creating a kinder world.

To learn more about the victims’ lives, see this interactive feature in The Guardian.

Harambe The Gorilla: Compassion Is Not A Contest

The needless death of Harambe the gorilla deserves our sadness. By now, however, the news and commentary cycle has fallen into its consistent pattern. We saw the same with Cecil the lion. An unnecessary death hits the news and triggers an outpouring of sadness and outrage. Then, in come the commenters desperate to show they are somehow above it, above those of us who dare to grieve for an animal life. Why are some people so eager to use a murdered animal as a pretext for showing their moral superiority by stating concern for something supposedly more important? I don’t understand the underlying thinking.

As practitioners of kindness, as compassionate people, as basically ethical human beings, we can look at two situations and mourn for them both, each in their own sad terms, each acknowledged as such. Nothing in my grief for Harambe precludes my grief for refugees, my grief at unnecessary suffering and deaths inflicted on any living beings. In reality, our hearts enough capacity to hold compassion for all of this suffering and more. We don’t need to diminish one suffering to raise up another. We have enough kindness for all.

In addition to limiting our capacity for compassion, the pendulum swing points out the danger of a certain kind of moral reasoning. I firmly believe we must not appoint ourselves the arbiter of which suffering matters more than others. We don’t know, and when we pretend we do, we dismiss the grief and suffering of others. Scolding and policing other people’s compassion quickly leads to unkindness.

The kinder approach: let’s lift each other up, console each other, respect each other’s grief, and avoid the temptation of treating our compassion as a contest for who displays the most moral virtue. And let’s honor the victims of cruelty, be they human or animal, by acknowledging them in their own fullness, for their own sake, and in humble awareness for the value of all life.

Photo credit: Robert Streithorst