Friday, October 19, 2007

An interesting way of thinking....

How an “X” Written on Your Hand Can Equal An Act of Kindness... and Improve Lives

By Brian Vaszily, Founder of

Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind. – Henry James

If someone you know reasonably well has written an “X” on the back of their hand, you’re naturally curious what it means. Especially if it is an adult who penned that “X,” as writing on the skin is a far more common pastime of kids and teens.

I am routinely one of those Xing adults.

Perhaps once or twice a month, and despite the fact that my cell phone, computer, watch and probably other gadgets all have audio reminder capability, I’ll find myself scribbling an “X” in the canvas between the back of my thumb and forefinger to remind myself of something particularly important.

Peacock Leaf
”Peacock Leaf,” by Deanna Leonard.

Inevitably anyone who knows me and who sees this has to ask, “What’s that for?” And usually my reason is mundane; the other day I did it to make sure to get my ex-wife a birthday card, for example. “Oh” is all people usually have to say when you give them such boring truths.

But the time before that, about a month ago, the “X” I had scribbled in black on my hand had a more interesting purpose behind it.

Nice Teeth, Brian

That morning, I awoke in one of those super blah moods where I knew that, if I allowed it to, the world and everyone in it was going to grate on my nerves. I realized why I was in this bad mood – not enough sleep several nights in a row, consuming fast food for the first time in a very long time the day before – and I also realized I had better go through certain motions to release those negative emotions before I faced the day.

I went through those motions, but this time – perhaps because I chose to supersize the %$^#& fast food the day before – enough of the blahs still lingered that I had to do something more.

So I decided to try something different.

With a black pen, I created an X on the back of my left hand that was double the size of my normal X. Then I outlined it with a red pen. Now, discounting the voice of an old schoolteacher who warned her students that the ink would surely leach into the skin and poison us, and accepting that my left hand wasn’t the world’s most professional-looking left hand but that was a small price to pay, I felt prepared to face the world.

That’s because that black X in red outline stood for a commitment I made to myself so as not to let my chemical mood get the best of me and ruin my and other people’s day (or worse), and in fact to possibly transform it: no matter who I encountered, the X said, I would pay them a big, honest compliment. Two or three if necessary.

Kindness at all costs, even if I encountered the very devil or the very ex-girlfriend from long ago who stole my entire cassette tape collection.

Since I was the first person I met that day, I looked at my X and then stared into the mirror. “Wow Brian,” I complimented me, “kudos to you for so vigilantly trying not to let your toxic emotions control you.” I also added, “Nice teeth,” because after brushing they looked particularly bright and shiny.

The next person I encountered was my wife. Now, anyone who is married knows that, when you’re in the throes of the blahs, the one other person most likely to pay for it is your spouse. Especially if she’s running late for something and doesn’t like her hair that day. So I looked long and hard at that X on my hand – I would’ve even licked it if necessary – and then paid her a series of important compliments.

And she left the house beaming.

I did the same with my kids and, although both seemed to have awakened on the same side of their beds as me that morning, after my compliments their stomping turned to happier, buoyant steps out the door.

I won’t give you a chronological history of everyone I encountered that day in person, on the phone, and via email or the compliments and kindnesses my X made sure I handed them. But I will share with you two important points:

Three Ghosts Not Required for this Scrooge

First, one of the people I encountered earlier in that day was someone who, in a different, younger life, I would have called a complete and total jackass (in a moment of contemporary weakness I still might use this designation). This person, being full of anger and therefore vindictive, and also being in a position of power, had stabbed me and many others in the back over the years.

I only still dealt with him periodically because business demanded it of me.

The call he was placing to me was not to chat about old times or make amends… on the contrary. Momentarily I wondered if I would fail my X, if I should’ve carved it deep into my flesh versus merely using ink, but I pressed forward. As he launched into the nature of his call, negative tone intact, I dual processed, considering the biggest compliment I could hand him.

When he paused, I inhaled deeply and began: “Before we go on, I just always meant to tell you something despite our history together.” And I proceeded to tell him how much I admired his tenacity in the face of adversity (leaving out his part in the adversity) and several other compliments. (Everyone – and I mean everyone – has some good qualities, something you can learn from or appreciate in them.)

When I finished, and though admittedly I expected him to proclaim my compliments nonsense, an amazing thing happened. His entire tone changed, as did the intent of his call. I could feel him backtracking – still preserving his ego of course – on his intent as he spoke. By the call’s end, he had basically talked himself out of the negativity he had meant to pursue.

I realize kindness is not always this immediately “magic,” and that my compliments to him likely didn’t change the man permanently.

But I also strongly suspect that if I and others more vigilantly responded to his anger with kindness, that act alone really would “magically” help heal his heart and transform his character. His anger had typically been met with more anger and fear – and negative emotions only breed more negative emotions – but what if it had been met with unrelenting kindness? What if it could be?

Though it is perhaps the hardest medicine of all for people to administer, kindness cures where nothing else can.

In Which the X is Transferred to My Heart

The second important point I want to share is that, even before the near-miraculous transformation of Scrooge earlier in the day as noted above, and certainly thereafter, several amazing things happened as I presented compliments and kindness to everyone I encountered:

dB Drag Racing
”Veined Splendor,” by Deanna Leonard.

1) My day brightened… intensely. It is a beautiful thing, and it should be an obvious thing though all too often it is obvious only in retrospect, how shining light upon someone returns light. Simple kind words – to business associates, friends, the man behind the counter at the gas station and other strangers – can transform a day (or more), transforming yours right back.

2) After a certain point, I no longer needed to look and listen to the X on my hand at all. Around midday was the last time I recall needing to look at it, in fact. After that point, the compliments and kindness to friends, associates and strangers just came naturally and easily. It was now penned on my heart (which would make my old schoolteacher really nervous about the ink leaching through if she knew.)

Now, I would love to conclude this piece by noting that since that day I have been committed to constantly practicing kindness, including kindness in the face of adversity.

But that wouldn’t be true.

I don’t always pay sincere compliments to those I encounter, though I have seen the power of it and know doing so would be best. Due to negative emotions or lack of sleep or a headache or any number of other excuses I can muster, I am not always kind … though I have seen how being so can transform people, including me, like nothing else in this world.

I have not been 100% kind and complimentary since then, and I also know I will never be 100% so. But I thoroughly intend to try to be so -- and to kindly forgive myself when I fail and keep trying again – because everything that needs to be said and done can be said and done far more effectively in a kind way.

There is nothing more that we or the world around us needs more than that knowledge, and that commitment.

As J.M. Barrie, author of perhaps the greatest children’s story ever told, Peter Pan, noted, ”Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others, cannot keep it from themselves.”

That is worth remembering, even when it takes a black X outlined in red on the back of your hand to do so

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