Chestnuts, sticks and stones

05 February 2019 | Opinion

Justicia Shipena

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), health is “a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

If one accepts this definition of “health”, as I assure you I do, then there are a lot of behaviours that have the ability to affect a lifestyle that is by definition “healthy”.

Something I have noticed over the course of the summer as a friend, sister and journalist is the power of my attitude in contributing to a more “complete state of mental and social well-being”, which is so intricately connected to my physical well-being.

The sarcastic side of my brain doesn’t really agree with what my many observations and experiences demonstrate. Sure, when I’m snarky, it doesn’t really make my day better; and sure, when I treat people with openness and good humour, my day does go better.

But I’m sure that’s a coincidence. After all, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”, right?

Wrong. Words have unimaginable power and as we all learned from the sage Uncle Ben in the movie Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility”.

Is this cliché? Yes, definitely, but clichés, adages and proverbs are the oft-repeated, pithy statements that we know and love for a reason: they’re salient observations about the human condition, at least the adages that keep up with current best practices on health and well-being, are. No more “sticks and stones”, please.

In this reality where the way we treat each other has the power to affect emotional health, which is really just “health”, we should pay better attention to what we say to each other. Simply asking someone how he or she is or offering a seemingly minor compliment or note of gratitude makes an immeasurable difference in that person’s day.

I’ll pause for a moment to refute possible naysayers before I forge on. I’m not saying that we should be the “politically correct police” and jump on people every time they say something insensitive, and I’m not saying we should treat each other with kid gloves and avoid having conflict of any kind.

Policing opinions stifle productive conversation rather than encouraging it; conflict is part of a functioning society. No, what I’m suggesting is paying attention to the routine and the trivial and adjusting the ways we treat each other to reflect the way we ourselves would want to be treated; the golden rule is truly an adage worth repeating.

The routine and the trivial can sometimes be confused with the insignificant. First, I’d like to counter that with another excellent cliché, this time from Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

What we habitually do, the trivial niceties we undertake each and every day, are important. Treating others excellently should extend beyond those that we know and like; we must make a habit of treating those we don’t know or those who test our patience, excellently too.

When we ask for something at a store, we should do so politely, taking into account that that person on the other side of the counter is a human, and that showing a bit of kindness will go a long way toward making his or her day significantly better. Treating everyone with this same respect and kindness, when it’s a habit, becomes excellence.

What’s exceptionally noteworthy about making kindness a habit is the way it feels to the person being kind, based on my observations. When I treat someone well, I feel good about it, and it’s something I carry through to the rest of my day. When I can look at my behaviour with pride, or on some days without reproach, I feel general goodwill and excitement about life. I have energy, and I want to keep the happy feelings going.

By contrast, when I’m rude and I can see how I’ve affected someone else intentionally or not, I am annoyed with myself and the feeling lingers. Where I once had positive energy, I instead feel tired and pessimistic.

To me, it’s clear: the reward for treating others with kindness, or failing to do so, is always twofold. Treating others well is good for both parties; treating others poorly is bad for both parties.

I know what’s right and I know what’s better for my well-being, so kindness even when it seems inconsequential, is of the utmost importance. After all, according to Aesop, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

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