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  • Writer's pictureEric Knabel

Thoughts From Six Feet Away: Survival of the Friendliest

In a rare moment of adulting, I found myself watching 60 Minutes, something no one under the age of 70 does, unless they’re my brother-in-law Brad. I was captivated by a program that was entirely about animals, most specifically dogs. They discussed how dogs have evolved from wolves, and how their DNA is “hard-wired” to have a symbiotic relationship with humans, as opposed to their wolf counterparts. In discussion of how dogs have thrived since being domesticated, a researcher at Duke referred to their ascent up the evolutionary ladder as “survival of the friendliest” and also attributed this quality to humans. This brings me to the subject of this week’s “life cheat code”: be kind to everyone.

It brings to mind a story from early in my career. I had a patient who was a little on the scruffy side – his hygiene left a lot to be desired, and his disposition wasn’t all that sunny, either. In dealing with him, I guess I recalled the words of my mother when I was a kid, saying that angels disguise themselves as “the least of us” to test our hearts. I always treated the man with compassion and kindness, offering to help in any way I could. After his appointment one day, one of my nurses came to me and asked, “Why are you so nice to him? It’s not like he can do anything for you!”

I guess I should point out here that this nurse tended to speak before she put any thought into her words. After all, she was someone who asked why she wasn’t getting a raise during her performance review one year, prompting my office manager to reply, “I don’t think that’s a proper question to ask when you were thirty minutes late for this meeting.” But it does illustrate a point, doesn’t it? As a physician, I’ve seen dozens of patients in my career treat my front office staff like total garbage, only to greet me with warm smiles and kind words when I walk into the exam room. In other words, I can hardly fault my former nurse for her words, when so many of us approach life in the same manner.

How do we treat the random person on the street? How many times do we yell at the “idiots” in traffic, not knowing the struggles being faced by the soul behind that wheel? (I’ll confess, I’m still working on that one myself). How often do we make assumptions about a person, based on their appearance, their words, or their mood? I have a phrase that I share with my co-workers when they have to deal with a difficult patient and have maybe been treated in an unfair manner, and that is this: hurting people hurt people. A wounded animal will often growl at the helping hand. How often do we go all “Old Testament,” offering an eye for an eye, reciprocating bad behavior with some of our own? How often do we feel self-justification in our own anger, priding ourselves on giving them “a piece of our mind.” I’ve been guilty of that one too, but how many times do we win the battle, only to lose the war? Human relations are enhanced by compassion and understanding, and our words have a tendency to wound others, even if we are only responding in kind.

In my fifty-two years, I’ve learned one thing: my tongue is a sharp instrument, and my mouth has created more self-inflicted wounds than I can count. Just in the past week, I have recalled two instances where I haven’t treated people with kindness, and I tend to regret my actions and my words almost immediately. In both of those instances, I offered reconciliation to those I wronged, hoping to gain absolution. But you know what? That’s like offering a band-aid to someone you cut yourself. I’m ashamed to admit that in both cases, neither of those people chose to forgive me. That’s when I learned another hard truth: you may be remorseful and regret your actions, but the person you have wronged is under no obligation to make you whole again. And the worst thing you can do in that instance is be angry about it; after all, it was your actions that created the need for forgiveness in the first place. You must resign yourself to the offer itself; you have chosen to move on, and if they will not accept the olive branch, they choose to continue carrying the burden.

Kindness softens hearts. It provides insight into another’s vulnerabilities. Be someone who can be trusted. There is no greater evidence of kindness in this world than my own wife. She is an incredibly caring human being, an attribute that she has passed on to our children. Early in our marriage, she was the designated band-aid carrier, following in my wake and patching up the bruised and bloody feelings of those who had gotten in my path. She became a master of phrases like, “he didn’t mean that,” or “even though he could’ve said it much better, he really does mean well.” Thankfully, she has not had to be on triage duty for many years. The thing is, I have been with her for thirty years, and in that entire time, I’ve never heard anyone say an unkind word about her. I often joke that after I introduced her to my friends and family, they would be on her side in any break-up scenario.

You know what else kindness does? It gives us permission to be kind to ourselves. How often are we our own worst critic? Being kind to others creates a sense of peace in our hearts, and we tend to be less hard on ourselves as a result. Not to mention, it’s exhausting to be nice to someone’s face, only to reveal your true feelings when they are absent. It’s much easier to be consistent with your feelings across all settings. And I refuse to let my kindness correlate with someone’s attractiveness, either physically or socially. I’m proud to say I treat the person who empties the trash in my office with the same regard that I treat the CEO of our organization, because in the end, we’re all the same in the eyes of our Creator. At least, that’s what I believe.

So, be kind to others today. Be kind to yourself. If you enjoyed this today, follow me on Facebook at Eric Knabel, Author; Twitter at @ericthemed, or on Instagram at @ericknabelwrites. In closing, never have my usual sign-off words been more appropriate: be excellent to each other, and…

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