From the Book: “Kind Words”

Quite a lot of what I think about when I think about atheism is non-religious morality.

This is a piece that bears on the subject,a short chapter from my book. It grew out of an essay on an older blog, and it’s titled simply “Kind Words.”

Like so many things, the subject has nothing at all to do with religion, but far too many people think it DOES, and find it impossible to imagine it any other way.

It’s obvious to me that the minute you take up believing in gods, you become less able to really understand what’s good and what’s not. For one thing, you mistakenly imagine a mystical superbeing as the major source of good, and it diminishes the necessity of your own performance.

For another, too much of the time you’re more concerned about what Allah (who strikes me as a hemorrhoidal old bastard) or Jesus or God or Yahweh wants, rather than what’s really and truly good.

For instance, it might be a good thing to bake brownies and take them over to the family who just moved in across the street. But if you’re convinced that Jesus Christ doesn’t like them much because they’re Muslims, you don’t do it. You content yourself with doing “God’s will” instead of good will.

I happen to know there is no such thing as heaven, hell, gods, or any of that external mystical crap. For my part, I try to find ways to do good for my own REAL reasons, and not because of mystical mandates.

The only good that happens is the good WE make happen.


Kind Words

So here’s me, wicked atheist with an evil reputation to uphold, and I have this dirty little secret: I like to give people compliments.

Sincere ones, I mean. Not anything phony, to curry favor, but stuff that I notice that’s true, and just as a sort of gift.

Early on, I had to make a deliberate effort to do it – not so much to notice good things about people, but to overcome my natural shyness about speaking up – but now it comes easily.

Nice shirt. You have beautiful skin. Your garden looks really great. I like your hair. That was a good piece of work. Wow, that’s one hot-looking Harley! You look nice today. When I grow up, I want to be skinny like you. I read what you wrote and I thought it was terrific. You have an amazing smile. I heard you on the radio and you sounded like an absolute pro. I know you must hear this a lot, but I think you’re beautiful. Your little girl is really smart. I can tell you’ve put a lot of work into your lawn. Whoa, wicked truck – you’ve got some nice toys, dude. That was a brilliant observation! Your kids are beautiful. You two look really great together. Damn, I can really tell you spend time in the gym. That’s the coolest darned painting I think I’ve ever seen. That was awfully gutsy of you. Your music really moved me. You have the most striking eyes. Thank you very much for your help; it made a big difference.

Part of the reason I do it is that I realized a while back how long compliments stick with you. More than 50 years after, I can still vividly remember a compliment I got from a stranger when I was only about 5 years old (and no, I’m not telling). Even today, I’ll feel good about a compliment, sometimes for days.

The really weird thing about compliments is that they cost the giver not one red cent, but they can be gold to the person getting them. You’d think more people would make the very slight effort it takes to do it. And yet it seems most of us don’t.

Here’s something I believe:

There’s a rough sum that can be made of your life at any one moment, a measure of how much good you’ve done compared to how much bad. I imagine the good and the bad placed on a balance scale from day to day …

You know the kind of scale I’m talking about? One of those seesaw “scales of justice” that has the two hanging pans you can put weights on so that one side dips, the other rises?

For the thing to stay balanced, for your life to stay balanced, if you put a “bad” weight on one pan, you have to put an equal “good” weight on the other. If you weigh down your scale with bads, it will tip down really low on the bad side. If you stack a series of goods on it, it will weigh more heavily on the good side.

This good and bad balance in your life doesn’t happen in isolation, of course. The people who know us have their own estimate about where our – and their own – running balance stands, and they react to us based on that estimation.

My own view is that where our own individual scales stand matters to our larger society.

To change metaphors for a moment, imagine that there’s a bittersweet “flavor” to human society, a blended whole of all our efforts. Every one of us would have some effect on that flavor. The ones who do more good things than bad make it a little bit sweeter. The ones who do more bad things than good make it a little more bitter. And the ones who perfectly balance, or those who do nothing much, one way or the other, they help society be more bitter, too – because bitter happens all by itself, whereas sweet is something you have to work at.

There’s an echo effect back from our larger society into our private lives. If a majority of us inject bitterness or fail to add sufficient sweetness, we’re all forced to live in a progressively more bitter society. Which worsens things even more by making us all a teeny bit less able to feel like adding sweetness.

The bitterness, in case this isn’t clear to you, plays out as things like fear, pain, loneliness, tension, anger, greed, stridency, suspicion, and hate.

The fruits of sweetness are things like trust, camaraderie, fun, fellowship, neighborliness, generosity, safety, relaxation, forgiveness and caring.

Just like everything good, the sweetness is uphill and always takes work. Just like everything bad, the bitterness is downhill and is so easy it happens almost by itself.

The great thing about compliments is that they’re the exception to the “hard work” theory of sweetness. They’re easy. They don’t cost anything. But they can add a lot to the sweetness.

You do have to practice a bit to develop the habit of giving compliments, but it gets to be second nature in only a little while and takes no effort at all afterward. A happy side effect, after you learn to do it, is that you’re always looking for good things to notice about people.

Try it! The next time you notice the beautiful creamy complexion of the young cashier in the supermarket, tell her about it. The next time a convertible pulls up next to you at a stoplight – assuming you like convertibles – roll down your window and call out “Hey! Cool car!” The next time you see a well-dressed older woman on the street, smile as you pass by and say “You look really nice today.”

The only trick to it is that you have to get it into your mind that the compliment has to be, first of all, sincere, and second, a gift and not a bargaining chip. The type of compliment I’m talking about is not wheedling, not a currying-of-favor, not the first move in a seduction. The goal of a compliment is to walk away leaving the other person feeling good about himself or herself, instead of feeling they’ve just heard the first half of a sales pitch.

Guys, this might take a little work on your part to separate the essence of complimenting a woman from that of flirting. The trick is, if it’s a beautiful woman you’re talking to, you have to give the compliment and then walk away. Women will have the parallel problem that some men will hear any compliment as a proposition. But there are plenty of others out there – parents, children, seniors, friends, coworkers – who are just as hungry for compliments and with whom you won’t have the problem.

Developing the habit is tough at first. It takes a while to learn that you’re not losing anything by giving. It takes a bit to get comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to do it. But it becomes a comfortable habit in a surprisingly short time.

And it helps keep the balance on the positive side.

The rule in my own head is: “Anytime you find yourself thinking something good about somebody, tell them instantly. It’s a mistake to hold it back.”

It doesn’t cost you anything. It brightens the day of someone else. It sweetens the society you live in. And it gets you looking for positive aspects of the people around you.

Might be worth a try, huh?

And, once again, you don’t have to read the Bible, or belong to a church, to do it.

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Susan K. Perry Reviews My Book!
  • Anthony

    First, let me say that I truly enjoy your writing. It speaks to me in ways that the other FTB’s just don’t. I am not “educated,” I am have lived most of my life below the poverty line, I’m the neglected oldest child of alcoholic parents, and I am introverted to the point of social anxiety disorder. I came to atheism at a very young age, around 5-ish, which would be about 36 years ago.

    I agree with the sentiment of complimenting people for compliment’s sake, I really do. But here’s the thing for me. It has taken me a significant amount of will to even be able to comment on an Internet blog as infrequently as I do. For me, it is truly a harrowing experience.

    What will you think?
    Is my comment relevant?
    Will I be banned for saying something wrong?
    What if I am ignored?
    How long will it take me to screw up the courage to comment again after being ignored?

    These are the things that are going through my head as I type. And now you want me to go up to a random stranger and tell her that her hair is pretty? Or that I like the tie he’s wearing? I have to take an Ativan just thinking about it.

    You say that doing nothing contributes to the bitterness, and I agree, but what about me and those like me? What of those of us who physically cannot do what you ask? Are we to be shunned or put down because of a (for lack of a better word) disability?

    I want to. But I can’t. And you can’t imagine how shitty that makes me feel.

    • theobromine

      Hey Anthony:

      If only half the commenters on websites and blogs (not to mention the bloggers themselves) would put as much thought into their submissions as you evidently do, the internets would be a much better place for everyone!

      As for random compliments, I must admit that I am very uncomfortable about the idea of complimenting people’s personal physical appearance, especially with respect to things like weight etc. (I have a friend who had lost a large amount of weight due to having Crohn’s disease (from which she nearly died), and she was rather upset about the number of well-meaning people who told her how great she was looking.) And, though I’m sure Hank means it with the best of intentions, and it might be a cultural thing (Southern US vs Canada), if someone were to comment on my skin, or my style of dress, I would not even be able to figure out if the remark was a sincere compliment or a sarcastic remark. On the other hand, compliments about bikes, cars, backpacks, and most especially slogans on Tshirts are manageable, both to give and receive.

    • Margaret

      Anthony, you said you can’t do it but you did. You started your comment with a compliment, thus making the author feel good. You continued with well thought-out and expressed remarks, thus giving all the readers something interesting to think about. And you may not be “educated” but you are clearly educated, as shown by the clarity of your expression. I generally can’t force myself to talk to a stranger in real life either, but here you and I can tell each other Hi! and so make the world sweeter.

  • rwahrens

    What a wonderful metaphor! To liken actions to bitter or sweet is a great way to look at it, and illustrates not only why we make the world better with good actions, but why we need to positively work at good stuff to keep the world a better place.

    This one is worth bookmarking!

  • Lauren Ipsum

    I have long held the philosophy that we get repaid for the kindnesses we do when we least expect it.

    I was working for a demanding boss who liked to run clients and vendor reps through the office and have the various departments do a bit of dog-and-pony show. In this instance, the client also brought his daughter, who was working in the company with him. My boss was very proud that he had an in-house graphic designer (me) and told me to show the daughter what I did.

    So she and I sat down, although we both clearly knew this was just for show for the two old guys, I asked her what level of computer knowledge she had so I knew where to pitch my spiel, and I walked her through what I did. We parted cheerfully and I forgot all about her.

    Nine months later, my boss has me contact Vendor C to get some detailed specs about one of their products. We’ve been having a hard time getting specs from other vendors in the same category. And lo and behold, the person who answered me at Vendor C… was the daughter. Who remembered vividly how nicely I had treated her, and was delighted to give me all the files I needed.

  • Camels With Hammers

    It’s so true what you say about a compliment sticking with. Even more broadly I am amazed by the whole range of things that stick with me and the things that don’t. When I think about all the advice, insults, compliments, ideas, actions, etc. that actually stuck, actually made a dent in me which became a groove which became a characteristic feature of my mind it really blows me away. Who thinks at any given time that they’re really making an impression on others, that something they’re saying as part of a momentary conversation might become a permanent fixture of someone else’s mind? Who can be so audacious to imagine him or herself so powerful, and yet we do it all the time to each other.

    So, yes, you can affect someone, you have more power than you realize, use it for good.

  • Sheila Crosby

    This is so true. And sadly, unkind words can really linger, too. It takes so little effort to re-read your email or forum post, and use the delete key if necessary.

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