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The Art of Kind-zen

A bus with the words Make America Kind Again on the side.

Making kindness our daily custom

by Ari Weinzweig

You will likely know the Japanese concept of kaizen. It formally means “change for better” and is used—around the world and here at Zingerman’s as well—as part of the very effective approach to continuous improvement that’s justifiably gained fame through The Toyota Way (thank you Dr. Liker) and LEAN management. I’d like to build on that innovative work and propose that we capitalize on the concept of kaizen by creating a constructive cultural corollary that I’ve been imagining we might call “kind-zen.” In the same way that kaizen practices can help elevate the quality of our work, alter our approach to life, and enhance the quality of all we do, I’ve come to believe that kind-zen could help take our organizational culture and communities towards a better, more inclusive, more respectful, gentler, positive place. 

How a man and his bus are spreading the message about kindness.

For the last four or five weeks, we’ve had an old cream-colored school bus parked on the southside of the Roadhouse. Her name is Bertha. She was born in the year 2000 and she belongs to Dr. Peter Glatz, his wife Ann, and their terrific little black and white terrier, Toulouse. Here’s a bit about their story, as told to Lisa Barry at WEMU. On each side of Berthabus, there’s a sign that states calmly, “Make America Kind Again.” As you’ll hear in the WEMU interview, and you’ll find out if you meet him in person, Peter Glatz’s life is congruent with the message on his bus. Every interaction I’ve had with him has exemplified kind-zen.  

The day this enews is published, Peter, Ann, and Toulouse will have headed Bertha north for a cooking job at the Milkweed Inn. I hope they come back to visit again soon. Their kindness, the message on the bus, and their calm, caring energy have all been wonderful blessings to the Roadhouse, the ZCoB, and Ann Arbor. I have a feeling that if you come stand in the space where the bus was, you’ll feel the kind spirits that have been gathered there over the last few months filling your own soul. In an homage to Bertha, Doc Glatz, Ann, and Toulouse, I started to wonder—what if we took Bertha’s message and did what we’ve done so many times now over our years here at Zingerman’s—begin with a beautiful concept and turn it into a repeatable recipe, and call it the way of kind-zen. 

Civility is not enough.

There’s been a lot of talk of late about how American society would better shift towards civility. Compared to killing, and active hate, civility is a big step up. I agree. But somehow, for me, civility is not enough. Civility seems like a cease-fire. Same goes for politeness. While it’s not a bad thing, superficial politeness to paper over anger and hate isn’t going to help anything. Kindness, by contrast, is purposeful and proactive. It’s not just the absence of criticism. It’s about active connection and meaningful caring. My friend, minister, bacon-lover, Canadian, author, and all-around good guy, Darryl Dash shared this quote with me from Aaron Menikoff’s Character Matters: “Kindness is the presence of compassion and generosity toward others. The kind person is helpful, useful, and lovingly working for the well-being of others … Kindness exists for the benefit of others.” 

I understand that kindness on its own won’t fix the centuries-old systemic issues that underlie so many of our struggles. Racism will still be wrong. Women’s pay inequity will still need to be resolved. Hierarchy will still be harmful. Patriarchy will remain a problem. Divisive politics will still be difficult to deal with. And the long-standing systems that support all of these won’t have gone away. I’m not suggesting kindness will cure all ills—many people have been victims of direct and indirect violence and need to find ways to be safe and stand up for themselves. But I do believe that, while we’re working to make all that better, kindness would be the beginning of a meaningful difference. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

With all this mind, I came up with six types of kindness to pay attention to. 

Six types of kindness.

  1. Kindness to those we love
    This seems like an obvious place to begin the practice of kind-zen. And at first thought it seems like it should (there’s the clue that it’s not) be easy. We often act out our anger and anxiety on those we’re the most emotionally attached to. Approaching each new day with our loved ones as if it’s our third date in a budding new relationship, or the ninth day of a new job, seem like positive constructs to use. It keeps us in a place where we’re working hard to be positive and prove our worthiness. Taking those we love for granted isn’t good. Treating them badly is . . . worse. By contrast, small kindnesses, continued daily for years, both at work and at home, for our partners, longtime coworkers, our family, and our good friends, go a long way to helping our colleagues, customers, suppliers, and neighbors feel the love we have but sometimes hide. 
  2. Kindness to those we don’t agree with
    To actively work to be kind to those who say things I don’t agree with, who behave in ways that don’t work well for me, or believe in things I don’t believe isn’t easy for me. People whose political sway is different, or who eat food I wouldn’t eat, or work in ways we don’t want to work. It’s easy for any of us to bluster or speak angrily second hand about someone we’ll never meet. Paul taught me 40 years ago to try to learn to “disagree without being disagreeable.” Kindness can make connections and bridge gaps that anger would turn into chasms. 
  3. Kindness to those we know
    It’s easy to take those we work with every day for granted; to forget to say thanks to our IT departments, the people who process our payroll, the people who deliver our produce every morning. And yet, I believe, active kindness inserted regularly into our equations can only help enhance the richness of our cultural connections. At Zingerman’s this is often our 3 Steps of Giving Great Service. Everything from buying the coffee for the friend behind you in line, to sending heartfelt thank you notes . . .
  4. Kindness to those we don’t know
    If we’re all—as I believe—living in the same ecosystem, and if every small action impacts the ecosystem in meaningful ways, then . . . I begin to wonder how much good could come if acts of kindness to our fellow community members were to become our norm. “Helping Kids Rise,” writing in Medium, says, “One small act of kindness can change the world and one book can be the spark that ignites that act of kindness.” (If you want to read about one really small and wonderful act of kindness that Kim Green at the Roadhouse did for someone she didn’t really know, and a dog named Sugar, see page 432 in Part 3.) It won’t fit here but if you want, send me a note and I’ll email you the story.)
  5. Kindness to the world
    Someone taught me a long time ago that one could generally judge a person’s demeanor by how they treated animals. I realized later that the better saying shouldn’t be “Beware of dog”—it’s “Beware of people who take their anger and rage out on dogs.” My friend was right. The way we treat animals seems to almost always be a direct reflection of how we’re likely to treat other humans. The same extends to the world as a whole. Tammie, Melvin, and other sustainable farmers, I realize, treat their plants kindly. Good cooks bring love to the ingredients; they consistently cook with kindness, and you can taste it in the quality of what they cook. Showing kindness to the planet can only help.
  6. Kindness to ourselves
    As I learned the hard way (and then wrote about in the “Managing Ourselves” essay in Part 3, how we talk to ourselves is a big deal. If we don’t start with kindness to ourselves, we will fail, consistently, to convey respectful kindness to others. This can be easier said than done. As artist Anne Truitt said, “It takes kindness to forgive oneself for one’s life.” Ultimately this may be the most difficult of the six to master. We can use rigor and regimen to help. As Julia Cameron suggests, each time you take a conscious breath, take a moment, and “Ask yourself how you are feeling. Listen to your answer. Respond kindly.”

Kindness as a practice.

Having laid out this kind-zen construct, I’m going to challenge myself to do each of these daily. And if that turns out to be easy, then I’ll double down and do each one twice. And then maybe three times. If we do we would surely live up to our name as members of humankind. 

I realized in writing this that kindness doesn’t have to be casual—we can construct systems around it too. What if, on the odd hours of each day, we were reached out and did an act of kindness. Every day (depending on when you get up and go to bed) at 7am, 9am, 11am, 1pm . . . we do an act of kindness. Even if we all only did six a day, and there are 100,000 people living in Ann Arbor, that would be—no joke—over half a million a day! If the whole town could keep it up for the whole year, every day, which honestly doesn’t seem that hard, my math says it would get us to 219,000,000 acts of kindness. 

What makes what we do into kindness? Three things come to my mind:

  1. Free choice. Kindness is a conscious choice. Kindness is never compelled. Free choice is a super powerful—and in my opinion underappreciated—element of our lives. 
  2. Makes someone else’s day better. Meaningful kindness needs to be for the benefit of someone else. (Yes, I do believe in the big picture it benefits us as well. But you know what I mean). 
  3. Comes from a loving place. Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana says humans are naturally loving beings. I say love emerges naturally from a healthy ecosystem. We all have it in us— as Emma Goldman wrote a century ago, “No one has yet realized the wealth of sympathy, the kindness and generosity hidden in the soul of a child.”  

As I was working on this piece, I kept thinking about my friend, the artist, Takara Gudell. Sadly, I know, her beloved brother, Kevin Eric Beathea, passed away in April 2019. I’m sad, and sorry that I never got to meet Kevin. Every time Takara talks about him, she says how kind he was. Here’s what she shared: 

My brother Kevin. He was so kind and considerate. You would’ve loved him! Music genius, played the trumpet, he and I were lovers of the woodwinds. I always felt safe around him. He was my protector, always far away and still close enough. His kindness started when he was young. Pre-teens grocery shopping for the elderly in our community. His kindness wove the siblings together. Always listening and seeing ahead of the curve. His eyes were soft and curious and his tone … stable. At 6’3, while he may appear as a threat to some, others sighed and quietly smiled when he walked in a room … Peace entered. He was a Gentleboy that became a Gentleman. Kindness is subtle. Kindness is quiet. There are days I just sit in his kindness and smile. Kevin Eric Beathea

If we practice kind-zen regularly, make it a way of life and a way of working, our worlds can only get better. If we follow Takara’s lead, built on Kevin’s life, what if we could sit, daily, in each other’s kindness, and smile?

Read more about the Spirit of Generosity by Ari Weinzweig.