Friday, April 14, 2023

In the words of Maya Angelou, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I think about my impact on others. I also remember the people who have had an impact on my life by allowing me to make mistakes and grow with dignity. The professor who let me assert myself as a 20-year-old, colleagues who have tolerated my growing pains, parents who let thoughtless words pass. With the benefit of time and experience, their kindness is revealed to me, and I feel their grace in my life.

The concept of “grace” is an unmerited gift of compassion we give to or receive from others. I find that internalizing grace in my everyday interactions makes me more aware of the compassion of others. It allows me to see good in myself and accept and receive forgiveness more readily. This is important to my well-being and mental health. Grace reduces my feelings of regret and hostility and teaches me empathy. Practicing grace allows me to recognize hidden acts of kindness from others and the potential in myself to be a source of generosity.

In my life and career, I can point to many instances when colleagues and strangers have afforded me the grace necessary to thrive. Often, an act of grace is an act of restraint. A decision not to act. Sometimes we can see it, but mostly it is a nearly invisible act of compassion.

What Does it Mean to Give Grace?

A simple way to understand the giving of grace is to think of it as the intentional act of spontaneous forgiveness. Giving grace is leaving something unsaid, not having the last word, not being right at the expense of a friendship, an intimate relationship, a child’s self-esteem, or a professional relationship.

Giving grace is the decision to forgive a strongly worded email. Giving grace is providing an off ramp in difficult conversations. Grace is saving someone embarrassment without their recognition. I think back to something my father would tell me about children. He would say, “Don’t crush their spirit; you have the advantage of experience and wisdom, let them win and don’t be quick to point out mistakes. Someday they will recognize this, and they will love you for your patience.” We all recognize the importance of giving grace to children, even to our families, friends, and acquaintances. What about colleagues?

What Does it Mean to Receive Grace?

Receiving grace can be just as challenging as giving it to someone else. Sometimes you might exchange a look of acknowledgement. Often you won’t know until later that someone has given you grace. It’s not a transaction and it doesn’t require reciprocity. The best way to receive grace is to recognize the compassion that is afforded to you and decide to treat others the same way.

“Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.”- Ian MacLaren

Tips for Living in Grace:

  1. Spontaneous forgiveness. An important part of living in grace is to readily forgive yourself and others, without reservation. When your default orientation is to let things go, it makes everyday interactions less stressful.
  2. Practice restraint. Pause and reflect before you speak. I don’t often wake up in the middle of the night stewing over things I should have said, but I do wake up wishing I could take back words. Practicing grace helps me avoid regret and improves my sense of mental well-being. 
  3. Don’t assume the worst in others. Afford colleagues, friends, and especially strangers the benefit of the doubt; they might be facing their own challenges and are not out to get you. Imagine pulling someone back from the brink rather than pushing them over.
  4. Don’t expect recognition. The special thing about giving grace is that it is a nearly invisible act of compassion. It requires no reciprocity. 
  5. Imagine how others have silently helped you. Practice seeing how you have been afforded grace by those around you. It generates feelings of support and connection.
  6. Trade short-term vindication for long-term relationships. Remember, people will never forget how you made them feel.

Learning to offer yourself and others grace can be contagious. The simple act of letting go of slights, seeing the best in others, and recognizing the invisible generosity of our friends, family, colleagues, and strangers leads to a sense of mental well-being that spreads like a ripple of water. It takes work and it’s not easy, but having a mindset that seeks to find the good in others tends to make us happier, strengthens our social bonds, and leads to better mental health.

Cover image by Alex Shute.