Benevolence is my new word. It has been on my mind a lot in recent weeks and months, particularly given what we’re going through as a nation and world.
The simple definition of the word is a desire to do good to others, to be charitable, to act kindly. I think of the word as expansive and encompassing. It is not like a watering hose we use to douse this or that plant but more like a 360 degree sprinkler head that shoots a spray indiscriminately outward. Benevolence casts a broad net of goodwill to all who come within its radius. As such, it is an attitude, a paradigm, a place I “come from” that extends a deep sense of respect, warmth, generosity and concern to others as well as oneself.
Most of us would agree that the world needs more benevolence. We have become so agitated, intolerant, and polarized in the U.S. and around the world. We not only disagree but demonize those whose values or opinions differ from our own.
Perhaps this phenomenon is due to the increasing complexity of the world and to a proliferation of options about where to get our news and information. When I was a boy there were just a few news channels (ABC, NBC, CBS) which means they had to be middle of the road and balanced in their approach and appeal. Everyone, from all ends of the political spectrum, tuned into these few stations. But through the years, due to the growth of communications technology (cable and satellite) and incredible availability and ease of use of the internet, the number of information sources and voices has simultaneously exploded and narrowed. We don’t have to listen to a balanced perspective. Someone is out there promoting exactly what we want to hear. We’re no longer seekers of truth. We no longer value tolerance and dialogue. We revel in hearing what we want to hear which is becoming more and more extreme.
Unfortunately, we are paying a high personal and social price for our intolerance. Not only does it cost us our personal tranquility and sense of well-being but drives us further apart and makes it more difficult to solve our shared problems.
So what are we to do? How do we change this dynamic (which is so much bigger than any one of us)?
It helps me to know that benevolence is our normal state. Given the choice, most of us prefer harmony over conflict, goodwill over animosity, kindness over cruelty. We know and desire what is good. Something pretty deep within us is drawn to these qualities. This thought brings me hope.
I develop benevolence as I take time to be aware of what it feels like. When have you experienced kindness and goodwill from others? Who has extended it towards you? What was/is it like? How does it feel in your body, heart, and mind?
Benevolence grows when I nurture it through self-care and kindness—as I release self-judgements and become more accepting of my mistakes and imperfections; as I accept myself for who I am rather than comparing myself to someone else or trying to live an ideal image; as I take some daily time-outs to do small and simple things that meet my needs and bring me joy.
Benevolence expands as I make it my daily intention—“I choose to meet this day with goodwill and kindness towards myself and others.” It is a choice which, when planted deep in my heart, becomes my automatic response to the events of the day.
I create benevolence as I return to my breathing often. I calm my mind and find peace and goodwill as I take two or three minutes to consciously breathe in love and breathe out stress.
I find benevolence as I cultivate gratitude and appreciation. I choose to focus on the good things that are happening in my life. I recognize all the ways in which life and the actions of others bless and support me.
I spread benevolence as I greet others warmly and excitedly; as I look into their faces and eyes and really see them; as I call them by name and genuinely ask how they are doing or extend them well-wishes.
I deepen benevolence as I make positive assumptions about people and events. I do my best to see their behavior from their point of view. I give them the benefit of the doubt by seeing the intention underneath their behavior. I allow them to be imperfect or see the perfection in the process of their development.
I expand benevolence by deep listening, by being a safe place for others to open up and talk, by being present as they share their joys and suffering, by letting go of the need to fix them or persuade them they are “wrong” or need to change.
I create benevolence as I engage in dialogue rather than arguments. I advocate my point of view clearly but respectfully. I am curious, ask questions and encourage others to share their points of view. I avoid polarizing language and search for common ground and win-win outcomes.
I make the world a more benevolent place by getting out of my routine and doing unexpected acts of kindness each day. As Gandhi said, “The simplest acts of kindness are more powerful than a thousand heads bowed in prayer.” It could be as simple as a smile or greeting to a stranger on the street, giving to someone in need, helping a family member do an unpleasant chore.
I often wish that entities “out there” were more benevolent—government, a business, political party, interest group, television or radio host, and so on. But I also know that, ultimately, benevolence is more personal than political. I will never know it “out there” if I don’t cultivate it and feel it “in here.” Most of us will make the world better not because we change what is happening in the realm of politics but because we change what is happening in our own hearts. The most important place I can begin creating benevolence is inside me.