Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
- Leo Buscaglia

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Keeping the Scales Balanced

      Today I spent a number of hours employing one of my talents to help a friend.  Our work together also led me down some interesting paths in my own thinking about kindness.  Let me try to explain.
     As I talked about in a post from earlier this year, one of my "gifts" is my ability to see structure and order where others often see only chaos or confusion.  I can listen to a large amount of information, and then fairly quickly organize it into key ideas or useful categories.  The clarity that I bring to a situation often helps people to sort our their thoughts and to therefore make more sound decisions.  My work today was to help a friend in this way to achieve greater clarity about his own work, goals, and plans.  It was fun to do and I think made a difference (though we have more to do).
     In the course of our conversation about his work, and in my own reflections about my acts of kindness, I've begun to notice an interesting phenomenon.  I've written several times about my observation that often people don't quite know what to make of an unexpected act of kindness.  It doesn't fit any paradigm they have about how people normally interact.  What I'm beginning to see is that the issue is related to notions of balance and equity in our interactions.
     In most areas of our lives, we're accustomed to creating at least somewhat equal exchanges of value.  If we buy a product, we exchange money for the right to own the product.  If we hire someone to mow our lawn, we exchange money for having the service done.  And when we help other people, we have a general notion that we get something in return.  
     When what we give is reasonably small, the return may just be positive feedback, thanks, or just our own feeling of satisfaction.  As long as the service rendered is relatively small, we don't think too much about what's received in return.  But what happens when the service is much bigger?  What if I offer to give you $10,000 simply because you could use the help?  Or what if I offer to tutor your child for 2 hours every day for 6 months?  Or what if I offer to give you my car?  The bigger the service/favor/help, the more uncomfortable it can become for the recipient if they aren't in some way (financially or otherwise) repaying the favor.  While we don't normally keep a detailed "balance sheet' tracking who gave what to whom, I do think that most of us have a general notion of whether there is a sense of balance between what you've done for me and what I've done for you.
     If someone offers to do too much for us without asking for or getting something in return, we become suspicious.  Why are they doing this?  What's their "real" motive?  While my acts of kindness have mostly been relatively small, I sense a bit of this even in these cases.  People want to know why I'm doing things because it's not clear to them what I get in return.  They don't sense the balance in the equation.
     There's another implication to this whole idea about balance, and that's the recognition that it's important sometimes to allow others to be kind to me.  If I constantly do things for other people, and never ask for or accept favors from them, I actually do them a disservice because I keep the relationship unbalanced.  By never allowing them to reciprocate, I'm actually being unkind!  In a weird, ironic kind of way, focusing only on serving other people, without regard to their need to reciprocate, is actually a kind of selfish behavior.  It's ultimately more generous to consider the totality of the experience and to be sensitive to the need for reciprocity.  
     Much more to ponder here . . . and I'd be interested in your thoughts and comments on the topic.

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