The Kindness Challenge

Let’s admit it: we’re obsessed with winning. Just look around. Everything has become a competition. Our will-to-win is everywhere, and it’s not going anywhereBut what if we gave it something better to do? What if we all decided to compete at a game called kindness?

kindness

Photo Credit: goto10 via Compfight cc

We’re at the kitchen table—my wife, youngest son, daughter, and I—and we’re playing Go Fish. The game is quickly becoming too competitive: my son is hiding cards underneath the table, I’m pretty sure my daughter is sneaking cards from the pile, and heated words are starting to fly. Most of them are not from me. I’m tempted to end the game.

Instead, I announce we’re changing the goal of the game.

We’re going to keep a tally of kindness during the game and, regardless of who has the most cards at the end, the winner will be the one who has shown the most generosity and gentleness. At first, the kids look at me like I’m crazy.

Then it changes everything.

My son asks me if I have an eight. He has a strange-gleeful glimmer in his eye and, as I start to reach for my eight, he stops me. He pulls a card from his hand. An eight. And he gives it to me.

Suddenly, I have more cards, but we all have smiles on our faces.

It quickly devolves into the weirdest card game I’ve ever seen. By the end, it’s not clear who has the most cards, because we’ve been trying to give them all away and we’ve been too busy laughing to keep track. But one thing is clear:

Joy happened.

A week after the Go Fish game that devolved (or, perhaps, evolved) from competition to kindness, I’m sitting along the river walk in the town where I work. On a bench. Still. Face turned toward the slanting rays of the late-autumn sun.

It’s the middle of a Saturday afternoon and the river walk is busy. Pedestrians walk by me. They’re all dressed impeccably. Classy. Hair glimmering. Cleanly shaven. The scent of aftershave and perfume is everywhere. They’re almost invariably fit. Strong. Everything is in place. They are clearly winning at this competition called life.

And not a single one of them looks at me.

Admittedly, I must look a little crazy. Blue jeans. Frayed hat. Dirty tennis shoes. Sitting still, staring at the sun. I try to make eye contact but, as they approach, they suddenly become very interested in the ground. There are no exceptions.

Until there is.

She’s young. And she doesn’t look like the rest. She looks a little untethered. She’s wearing black clothes and black eyeliner. She’s flirting with a Goth persona but she’s not all the way there. She’s a little bit on the fringe of everything, including herself.

And she’s not interested in the ground.

Our eyes meet and hers soften and before I can get a word out, she says, “Hi.” I hear something in her voice that breaks my heart. It’s relief. That someone saw her. I feel it, too, and there’s relief in my voice, as well, as I smile back and say “Hi.”

Two people competing at kindness and ending up in a tie.

Another week later and I’m in a Target store, cranking out Christmas shopping. Anonymous shoppers push past me, bump into me, and reach past me for the last set of Legos on the shelf. It’s like I’m an invisible player in a highly competitive game of consumer Go Fish. I’d like to suggest we change the rules, but no one would be listening.

Which is when I sneeze.

And from an aisle over, I hear this: “Bless you.”

It’s long and drawn out, not well-articulated. It sounds wet and nasally and was clearly said through a speech impediment. When I hear it, I remember the group of young people I’d seen earlier in the store—a collection of physically and intellectually disabled children, brought to the store by several guides to complete their own Christmas shopping. In a store full of people competing for the best presents and the best life, they aren’t competing at the game the rest of us are playing.

Their DNA has disqualified them from the contest.

So, they play a different game altogether. A game called kindness. And, in a Target store, finally, I decide it’s the only game I want to play.

I look around the corner and I say thank you.

I contemplated various New Year’s resolutions this year. I could drop some pounds, meditate more, grow my business, or set a sales goal for my book. But two little kids at a card table, a teenage girl on a river walk, and a disabled kid in a Target store have convinced me to focus on something else:

Kindness.

That’s my resolution for 2016. Try to win the kindness game. Until it devolves into a life of love and laughter. Until joy happens. Until I’ve quit playing games altogether.

How about you? Want to take the kindness challenge?

I dare you.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Next Courtyard Conversation: Here’s your first chance to compete in the kindness challenge. We’ll be having another Courtyard Conversation this Sunday, January 17, at 2pm CST. Without exception, each gathering has been attended by the warmest, kindest bunch of people you’ll ever meet. Every Conversation ends up in a “tie.” To find out more about how to join, click here

Next Post: How Therapy Is Like Blogging and How It Makes Meaning of Life

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Aoife Keegan

    Awesome post- it has me grinning a ridiculous grin! Thank you for this (from the girl with the muddy boots and a shoelace instead of a belt).

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Aoife, and you are welcome! In the kindness game, muddy boots and shoelaces for belts are a totally appropriate uniform.

  • Victoria

    Yes! I want to play. Thank you for the invitation!!

    The thing is I already made the decision to practice more kindness for 2016 when I drew a new years “virtues” card from my deck of 52. (From: The Virtues Project), When the kindness card was drawn I thought to myself, hmm…I think I practice a fair amount of kindness toward others, but began to contemplate how else I could bring more kindness to others. Then it hit me. It’s been a really tough year, and I’d been rather negative toward myself, even unkind and overly critical lately. So not only do I want to practice more kindness toward others, I need to practice more kindness with myself.

    I really enjoy your blog and thank you for the energy you spend writing.

    • drkellyflanagan

      THANK you for this addition, Victoria. “Be Kind to Yourself” by Andrew Peterson has been on the playlist at our house for months, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

  • amy

    YES! From the mother of 2 of those challenged children, now adults, the world would be the best of everything if more folks thought this way!

    Great work, as always!

    • William Bennett

      Interesting the words “challenged children” that is commonly used, isn’t it… with this article, surely it is the contrary – in that what has become the “norm” are the “challenged human beings” – the “challenged children.”

      • drkellyflanagan

        “Challenged” certainly is a word that has been defined by the majority, hasn’t it, William?

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Amy! May your adult children run into all sorts of people taking the kindness challenge this year.

  • Carrie

    Reminds me of my pastor’s challenge to choose one word to guide us through the year. I’m not sure, but I think my one word will be presence. To be present with myself. To be present with the person I am with. To be aware of God’s presence. I wonder what I will learn through this.

    I couldn’t help but smile and find joy with you when reading your post.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Carrie, you may have just identified the primary method for connecting with the kindness in us. Presence. : )

  • Candace Moody

    What a lovely thought – I’m in. If only we could put a dollar value on smiles (and even more value on laughter – my favorite joy investment) we’d all be rich. I’ll be giving away my riches as fast as I can every day, starting today.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Candace, I LOVE the idea of kindness being “giving away our riches.” It deepens the meaning of it all.

  • Katherine Mackenzie Oliver

    I’m in!! Thank you for your writing 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Wonderful! And you’re welcome. : )

  • mauricienne

    Great post! I have been feeling a pretty persistent nudge from the Spirit lately to be kinder in my words, thoughts and actions. A wise leader at my church once said he always treats people with the gentleness that we give those when we know are going through a great trial, because at any given time, if We were to know what was going on in their life, at least half of them actually are struggling! We all can use a little more kindness, can’t we? Thank you for the reminder of all that a little kindness can do.

    • drkellyflanagan

      This is lovely, Mauricienne. I have a feeling you’re going to like this trailer:
      https://youtu.be/DT6QJaS2a-U

      • mauricienne

        Yes, I do! Everyone has a story, indeed…. And if we knew their story, we would (hopefully) be kinder and gentler with those around us. Thanks for sharing!

  • Paula MacPherson

    Count me in! Since my children, now 9 and 12, were toddlers I have taught them that the two most important words to remember are “Kindness matters”. If they learn nothing else in life, that alone will take them places. most of the time they remember this. Fortunately, they have learned other important lessons as well.
    Thank you, Kelly, for your invaluable words of wisdom! I look forward to them every week.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for beating me to it and passing this idea on to your children, Paula.

  • Linda Granholm Myers

    I’m in. I’ll practice making eye contact with the panhandlers and the homeless. Thanks for the nudge.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Lovely. Thank you for this, Linda.

  • Nanci Burn

    I’m in! My husband and I have had discussions very similar to this – I’m in!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Nanci (and husband)!

  • YES! I’m in, Kelly! Thank you for another wonderful post. I am also trying tin get back in touch with my inner kid so that I can once again remember how to have FUN! Ii’s something I have lost touch with and am now going to re-learn. Thank you for the great reminder to also be kind to myself!

    • Michelle Bolton

      Try getting on a swing, go as high as you can, if you need to close your eyes and block out the world, especially the critics! It is a wonderful, exhilarating feeling that has direct ties to childhood!!
      Michelle

      • Toni Rogers

        What a fabulous idea. I love swings, and there is a playground over the road from work!

        • drkellyflanagan

          This exchange is a gift in a number of ways. Thanks you, all three of you.

      • Thank you for the great suggestions!

  • Grace

    Yes!
    I can see each of those encouraging exchanges. Lovely.
    God Bless you 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Blessings to you, too, Grace. : )

  • William Bennett

    Beautiful!

    Accepted. Thank you!

    But keep playing… we need more play in life! All of Creation – all that Is the Divine that infuses all that Is – plays, and loves to do so!

    Love to Play.
    Play to Love.
    And your deck of cards will be all hearts!

    • drkellyflanagan

      I actually think play might be the key to my kindness, William. Thank you for this.

  • William Bennett

    People have become more comfortable looking at phone and tablet screens than each other’s own eyes. Anyone a visual artist out there? Here’s an idea to create – human beings with tablet screens as their heads/faces – depicting it’s the only way we will look at each other. Maybe in the blurry background, real heads/faces/eyes turned away from each other… EyeContact replaced by iContact.

    I always think – if people went as crazy as they do over mindless Pop culture gossip and were as knowledgeable and invested in as those who are living, breathing saints on this Earth, and went as crazy as they do as the latest and greatest cell phone or gaming system that is about to come out – Wow! Just Wow! The world would be even more amazing to live within than it already is… it’s coming though – constantly unfolding – and we are now one more article, and a handful of game participants ever so closer…

  • Toni Rogers

    Oh my goodness, this was my resolution too. Initially I had decided that I was going to stick up for myself more, but then I realised that with the way my life had started to change (in every element – as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend and even employee) that I needed to change more than ever. I had to soften my edges, not harden myself. I am not a competitive person, but I too am going to compete at kindness, and I am sure it is the best game I’ll ever take part in. There can be no losers if we all played this.

    • William Bennett

      Just let us all be mindful and aware of the Ego wiggling itself in, and the judgments – as in, “I am kinder than you” or “I am the kindest person” or “I can’t believe that person cannot be kind…” etc, etc. Seems us humans have a way of even distorting the Joy (if one delicious cookie is delightful and causes joy for me, five must be even better! Oh wait, now I am suffering with a stomachache – and diabetes…).

      Love All… As Is!

    • drkellyflanagan

      I love the idea of you finding that middle place, where you are assertive in caring for yourself while extending kindness to others. That’s the good stuff!

  • Sue Nields

    Challenge Accepted,Sir!

  • Kat

    My 10-year-old son and I went hiking last weekend. Generally, we say hi and make eye contact with all the other hikers. Usually about 1/3 of them say hi back. This time, my son smiled and said hi to every single person we passed and remarkably, every single person acknowledged him and replied. You could see the interaction trigger some light in them. It felt like a literal reminder that we are all on the same path. Kindness can make all the difference in this world.

  • Gloria Boysal

    May all the kindness you give – come back to you in kindness, upon kindness, upon kindness!

  • Anjail

    I just love it. Here in India where I currently live, I am constantly amazed by the kindness that surrounds me especially from those less fortunate than me. It inspires me to pay it forward.

  • Joy O’Toole

    Yes, this is fantastic challenge/goal for 2016. Thanks.

  • Jalati Musson

    Thank you for another inspiring post Dr Kelly.

  • Your “story” reminded me of a different way to play what is typically a competitive game. When I & my husband married in 2000, he introduced me to how he had revised the game of Scrabble so that the goal is for the highest *total* points scored by the players. We sit together viewing each other’s tiles and planning the words to be made by each based on what tiles each draws unseen. What the game of Scrabble (or any generally accepted competitive game) played this way represents is us “against” reality – together making the “best” out of what “life deals us”. We live our lives this way as much as we can, keeping in mind that most other people will be contributors to what will benefit us in the widest view long run, even without us knowing them. So therefore, we initially treat others as potential value-contributors until/unless they demonstrate otherwise, in which case we reduce or withdraw our voluntary association.

  • Holly S. Strelzik

    I’m In!!!!! It’s really the only game in town my friend!!!! Have a beautiful day!!!!

  • Liz Fogo

    I’ve been catching up on your blog posts, and realizing that I really should be reading them as you publish them because each one makes me want to sit and meditate on the topic for about a week. 🙂