The appearance of niceness

Back in the 1990’s, when it was still new to many people, my work involved conducting workshops about online communication. Twenty years later, most of what I taught then is common knowledge. But there are still a few points that might usefully be revisited.

One principle is that “silence cannot be interpreted.” When we are missing information, often our imaginations fill in the blanks with our fears and suspicions. Alternatively, our imaginations might fill in the blanks by creating a fantasy of that which we wish were true. Neither tendency is reliable. Without solid clues, you can’t know what is in those blanks.

Without the cues of body language, tone of voice, facial expression, and observing real-world actions, written communication leaves out a lot of information. People feel very deep emotions through the written word and very deep connections to other people. Thoughts put into writing can go very, very deep and be very expressive. But they are still only partial.

Imagine the phrase, “Thank you,” as said by the following:

  • Growled by a surly clerk at Motor Vehicles after stamping your paperwork
  • Squealed with glee by a child who just received a wished-for toy
  • Sneered with sarcasm by someone calling an insult to your attention
  • Whispered tearfully by your lover in an intimate moment

The words are the same, but the meaning behind them could not be more different in these situations. You discern the meaning—and the sincerity—not from the words, but from the non-verbal cues—cues we don’t always have available online. Without that information, our imaginations make assumptions that may or may not be correct.

Some of us compensate for this lack of information by trying to add expression to our words through emoticons, or just by writing more elaborately. That can be very helpful. Unfortunately, it can also be a trap. It’s helpful when you are communicating something genuine. It’s not so helpful when one is communicating something false.

From time to time, one will encounter a person, quite skilled in the use of language, who seems to be very friendly, courteous and kind. Sadly, based only on their words, we cannot know for sure if they are genuine. They might say to you:

  • [Name] smiles softly. “Thank you, my friend.”

At first glance, this seems to communicate warmth, and friendship. It might inspire trust. Alas, you cannot really know whether this person really is smiling softly, or if they are blank-faced, or yawning, or laughing derisively behind the screen. I hate this, because words like those above appeal to my own fantasies about warmth and kindness. I really want them to be true.

For my own self-protection, over the years I have learned not to form opinions about people online based on what they say, or how they say it. Instead, I form opinions based on what people do—how they treat people, the choices they make, the actions they take. I love words. But actions mean more.

I admit I am disappointed when I meet someone whose words project an image of kindness and nobility, but whose actions reveal them to be manipulative, self-serving and deceitful. I really want them to be that kind, warm person, and it is a big disappointment to learn otherwise.

It is far better to place my trust in someone whose real-life actions repeatedly demonstrate generosity, honesty, kindness and real caring.

Being “nice” is only a façade if it goes no deeper than words and expressions. Buying into the appearance of niceness is a great way to get hurt.

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The Perfect Birthday

What is your perfect birthday celebration?

Sometimes, I wonder if we all get so enslaved to tradition that we do the same kind of birthday celebration all the time, because it’s what we always do, without stopping to consider whether it is what we really want… or if there might be a better choice.

Having a big party where people gather around you and wish you happiness, getting presents and eating cake is one kind of birthday celebration. And it’s a good one. But it’s not the only kind, or even the best kind.

Over the years, I have come to understand what makes a birthday good for me. And it’s not what most people would expect.

It’s great when other people tell you that they think you are fabulous. But what is even more important is if YOU think you are fabulous. Nowadays, on my birthday, I don’t wait for anyone else to start the celebration. I celebrate me. I have a lot to celebrate.

I have a very dear friend who calls me every year on my birthday and tells me that he is glad I was born. I love that he does that. And it inspires me to admit to myself that *I* am glad that I was born. I take the occasion of my birthday to give thanks that I have been given the extraordinary gift of life, and to celebrate all of it, the ups and downs, the sorrows and joys, all of which have made me who I am. All the amazing experiences I’ve had, all the people who have been given to me to love, all the wondrous things I have learned. It really is quite remarkable… and worth celebrating.

That goes for my age, too. I don’t lie about my age. I sort of brag about it. I am damned impressed that I have survived this long. I consider it quite an accomplishment. In the journey of life, through maiden-mother-crone, I am fully embracing my crone years. Being a crone is not a bad thing. It is an achievement. It is a time to value wisdom, and insight, and grace, and a greater capacity to love. I am better now than I was when I was young.

I am not much of a party person, but this year for my birthday I was treated to a quiet, intimate evening filled with laughter, good food and good wine in the company of three of my dearest friends. It was lovely, and showed me, so clearly, how lucky I am.

I also received one very thoughtful and delightful gift from my Master. But the greatest gift I have received is my Master himself… and all the other beautiful people I am privileged to call friends. My way of returning thanks for these, and so many other gifts that this life has bestowed on me, has been to use the occasion of my birthday to GIVE gifts. Maybe I’ll buy cupcakes for everyone in the office. Or tickets to an event for my close friends. It has become something I look forward to.

These are the things that make a birthday happy for me.

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Do It Anyway

It is a sad fact of life that “no good deed goes unpunished.”

Perhaps you have done a kindness by helping someone in need, as Androcles removed the thorn from the lion’s paw. But for every Androcles, whose lion repaid his kindness, there are ten who are attacked by the one they tried to help.

Some good Samaritans get so discouraged when this happens that they just give up, and stop helping others. If our motivation in doing kindness is to get a reward—even the reward of gratitude—we often will be disappointed.

Instead, we do kind things because that is the person we want to be. Do it for ourselves. Do it for our sense of self worth, our self respect. Do it for one’s own sake.

In his 1968 booklet, “The Silent Revolution,” Kent Keith advised, “give of your time and effort because you care and want to give, not because you are expecting anything in return… Do things because you believe in them, and the simple satisfaction of having achieved them will be enough.”

He goes on to admit that helping others often results in being attacked and mistreated by those you are trying to help. But his response was not disappointment. Instead, he proposed “Ten Paradoxical Commandments,” that rang so true even Mother Teresa posted them on the wall of her orphanage.

People are often illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.

If you are honest and sincere, people may cheat you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.

If you are successful, you may win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.

Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough.
Give it anyway.

We show kindness to a lot of people on Littlefield Grid. We give of ourselves without any expectation of reward or profit. Sometimes, our kindness is repaid with gratitude. But that’s not why we do it. We extend kindness because that’s who we want to be.

Sometimes, we are repaid with thoughtlessness; and, on a few rare occasions, hurtfulness from the very people we helped. Thankfully, we have some terrific folks in our community, and that rarely happens. When it does, we could be resentful. But we aren’t. We keep right on extending kindness. And we always will.

We do it anyway.

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My Christmas Struggle

grumpy-cat-christmasI struggle a lot with Christmas.

Wait, let me rephrase that. Truthfully, I don’t struggle with Christmas at all. What I struggle with is fitting in during the holiday season.

Nearly everyone else observes Christmas in a completely different way from me. I have reasons for following a different path, but it’s very difficult to hold true to myself without offending the people around me. They tend to think that because I don’t do things their way, I must be criticizing them. I’m not, but their attitudes toward my customs range from indignation to puzzlement. Well, let me try to clear it up.

Up until about 25 years ago, Christmas had a very unpleasant stranglehold on me. Then one year, I finally broke free. At the time, my loved ones thought I’d lost my mind. I hadn’t, but I knew I would lose my mind for sure if I didn’t change my ways.

You see, my family, when I was growing up, was enslaved by a holiday defined by quantity and a drive to impress others with perfect decorations, food, presents and parties. My mother actually counted the number of gifts under our tree as a way of “rating” the quality of that year’s holiday. And it wasn’t only about gifts; to qualify for a “good” Christmas, our house had to be decorated better than any other house, inside and out, and we had to give “the” party of the season with the most impressive gourmet food and drinks. And of course we had to put on a good show, exhibiting “holiday cheer”—whether we felt it, or not.

From the outside it looked great; with decorations, parties and gifts my mother certainly knew how to “impress with excess.” But in the frantic rush to do everything, perform perfectly and be artificially happy, everyone got far too stressed, and made each other thoroughly miserable.

When I became a young adult, not knowing any better I began to duplicate that craziness. I, too, made myself crazy trying to give outrageous gifts and do everything perfectly for the holiday. I didn’t have financial resources like my parents so I tended to spend a lot more money than I should have. As things in my life started going sideways, the stress of trying to be perfect, and exhibit holiday cheer when I felt none became a bigger and bigger burden. Finally, in one particularly depressed year, I couldn’t face it, and I said: no more.

I knew that I had to change. I just wasn’t sure how to do it. My head was swimming, trying to grasp the difference between trying to impress someone, and trying to please them. My mother’s methods had always seemed a little aggressive to me, as if gift-giving were a contest that she was trying to win. It seemed less about pleasing the recipient and more about showing off how much money she had. I knew that was not the way I wanted to keep Christmas. I had to replace that competitive attitude with something more meaningful. I just didn’t know what that was.

The only thing I could think of was to start totally fresh, with a blank slate.

I declared a moratorium. I announced that I would accept no gifts, nor would I be giving any. That year I did not decorate, or prepare any special treats. I had no Christmas tree, did no shopping, and listened to no Christmas music. I rejected all offers of Christmas dinners, parties and other gatherings. It was a truly minimalist Christmas.

christmas-night-skyMy only acknowledgement of that season was going to church on Christmas Eve, alone, in a small church nearby. I didn’t speak to anyone after the midnight service. I slipped out the back, and set out alone to walk the few blocks home. I remember feeling so light, and peaceful. It was a beautiful night, crisp and clear; it needed no artificial decorations to make it beautiful. The sky was deep black, studded with diamond stars, stretching to eternity, more stunning than any Christmas tree. It was still, and quiet. Quiet enough, finally, for me to hear what I needed to hear, without the noise of all that pointless activity. In that silence I felt like an enormous weight had been lifted and I breathed freely of the cold night air, feeling at peace for the first time in a long time.

Wrapped in that crisp, bright darkness, gazing up at the infinite night sky, I suddenly comprehended what it meant for eternity to enter into time. In one blazing flash of insight, I realized that Christmas is about one thing. To immerse myself in that one thing is all that I need. Anything that flows from and serves that one thing is good. Everything else is a distraction.

And at that moment, I realized that I was free.

Since that cold dark night 25 years ago I have settled into my own lovely, small Christmas celebration. Others are welcome to do as they wish, but I know what works for me. I ignore most elements of commercial and secular Christmas, not because there is anything wrong with them, but because I find them irrelevant. I have come to understand what is important for me, and I focus on those things.

Gift giving, for me, now, is not a way to impress, but a way to honor the gift that originated this holiday. I exchange modest gifts with a handful of loved ones, as I am able, not out of any sense of obligation, but because I enjoy pleasing them. My loved ones mostly feel the same, and I am always genuinely pleased by them, too.

I do not decorate. I have no use for Santa, elves, reindeer, or anything else commercial. I don’t object to them, but they are meaningless to me, and certainly not worth expending any money, time, attention or effort. For me, they have nothing to do with the one thing that gives Christmas meaning.

I keep a few quiet traditions that are deeply meaningful to me, but they are private, and ancient, and intimate, and since most people would not understand them, I tend to keep them to myself. I don’t need anyone else to understand them, and I feel no need to convert anyone else to my way of observing the holiday. I do what I do because it’s right for me.

People with families have different priorities, of course, but I feel no pressure to participate in holiday gatherings just because it is Christmas. I treasure time with my loved ones all year long, but I am perfectly comfortable with solitude. In fact, my most intimate Christmas ritual is spent alone, at home, on Christmas Eve morning, listening to a famous radio broadcast. I say alone, but I am not alone. I join an invisible audience of 200 million people who, like me, are in front of radios and computers all over the world, listening to the same broadcast at the same time. Even though I can’t see them, I know we are all attuned to the same thing. I immerse myself in the beauty of that one thing, and I wait to bow my head humbly, honoring that moment when the eternal and the now became one.

That is my Christmas.

I don’t expect anyone to understand it, and certainly don’t expect anyone to change how they celebrate the holiday. Others will find meaning in other ways. But hopefully they will understand that I am not judging or criticizing. I am simply honoring what is meaningful to me.

As the commercial holiday season gets underway, I wish everyone happiness, and joy, and peace.

Virtual Thanksgiving

As a solitary person with no “real-world” relatives, my observance of Thanksgiving differs from most. I have RL friends who are as family to me, but for the past several years circumstances have prevented us from celebrating holidays together. Since coming to the virtual world in 2006, my Thanksgiving has been almost entirely virtual.

In the early years, I sat down for a virtual dinner with one or two friends.

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Thanksgiving 2009

Then after Master took me as his, we had very lovely Thanksgiving dinners in our home in Second Life.

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You may think a virtual feast is easy, but I worked hard cooking the meal!

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Today in Littlefield Grid, our “family” has widened to include everyone on the grid. We have a table set up at Stonehaven and some folks dropped by to share good conversation and friendship.

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Apparently the virtual meal is still quite satisfying!

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I am so grateful for all the fabulous people I have known in the virtual world. Thank you, each and every one of you, for the beauty and joy and fun you have brought into my life. And thank you, Master, for loving me–it is what makes everything possible.

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I thought it was just me

If we ever got honest enough to go out in the streets and uncover our common grief, we would discover that we are all grieving over the same things.

–Miguel Unamuno

shared-sorrowWe all know people who are a little too generous in sharing their troubles. On the other hand, there are those tight-lipped souls who refuse to share anything at all. I’m not sure which is more frustrating.

How often do we try to mask our heartbreak with a veneer of cheerfulness? Sometimes “official smiles” are necessary when you have to function professionally despite being in pain. At other times, I may do it to protect my privacy. It is not everyone’s business to know whether or not I am upset about something.

But in the context of an intimate relationship, whether a close friendship, romantic or D/s relationship, I am not sure that “official smiles” are helpful–or even effective. The people who know you know if something is wrong, no matter how brightly you are smiling. They may just feel the subconscious tingle of discomfort that comes from knowing that something is wrong and you are concealing the truth. Or if they realize that you aren’t telling them what’s troubling you, they may feel hurt at being shut out. Or if they are paranoid, like me, they may not be able to stop their imagination from worrying whether they caused your pain.

So before you “put on a brave face” and hide your sorrow, take a moment to consider if doing so will protect those close to you–or hurt them.

Nobody owes it to me to reveal their troubles. I have no right to demand it. But with those I love, I am always hopeful. I want my dear ones to tell me when they are upset. It’s not a burden. Actually, the honesty is a relief. And when they choose to share their pain, I am honored. I will listen with an open heart, and will not judge. I probably can’t take away their pain. But I can care. I can be with them in it, and support them with my love.

My belief is that love is stronger than sorrow. The only thing worse than being in pain is being in pain alone. Not everyone is able to help. But there are people who will listen, and not judge, or argue, or try to talk you out of your feelings. They will simply care about you, and for you. I try to be one of those people.

When your heart is aching with disappointment and sorrow, it does not make you weak, or flawed, or needy. It makes you the same as every other human being on the planet. We are all grieving. That ache in your heart resonates with the ache in my heart. And when that happens, by being open with each other about it, we both might find strength and healing in our common grief.

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Real Friends

Let me tell you about friends.

In addition to having the best family in any world, I am blessed to have some really awesome friends. I also have a lot of pseudo-friends. There is a difference. There’s nothing wrong with pseudo-friends, but it helps if you can tell the difference.

How can you tell if someone is a real friend?

A lot of people will SAY that they are your friend. But just because they say it, that doesn’t mean it’s believable. If they really are a friend, they will SHOW it.

What really matters, more than what you say, is what you do to the people you say you care about.

Real friends will show you that they want you. If they actually like you, they will take the initiative to seek you out, because they enjoy your company. Even simple, casual contact, phone calls and IMs show you that they want to be around you.

Real friends will show you, in word and action, that they respect you. They will show you to your face… and they will show it behind your back, too. Even when you are not present, they will not say anything negative about you to others, or do anything that communicates a lack of respect for you. Real friends will defend your honor.

Real friends will show respect for the things that are important to you, even if those things are not important to them. They will refrain from making derogatory comments about the beliefs and people you cherish.

Real friends will honor important milestones with you. They respect your significant events, places and people.

No one else but you is responsible for your feelings, but real friends will notice your feelings. They let you know that your feelings matter to them. They show you that it occurs to them to wonder how you might feel, and that they care. They know you well enough to sense how you feel.

Real friends share their important feelings with you, because they want you in their lives. Pseudo-friends continually shut you out, which tells you that they don’t want you or trust you.

Real friends allow you to care about them, and for them.

Real friends value you for more than your skill set. They value you for your character: for who you are, not just for what you can do.

Real friends give you room for failure. They do not devalue you for being imperfect.

Real friends are dependable. When you need them, real friends are there for you. And they trust that when they need you, you will be there for them, too.

Are you a real friend? I try my best to be one.

Are you blessed to have real friends, like I am? I hope so.

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