I lost two of my closest friends the past year, one due to death from kidney disease and one due to a fight. It was over something petty, but I had to be right. We had danced this dance before. However, this would prove to be our last dance.

It’s been a hard year. Many times I would have liked nothing better than to reach out and reminisce with them, share a laugh, catch up on our week and make plans to spend quality time together. It was a lonely feeling, knowing they were gone.

In truth, I’ve had a habit of creating adversarial relationships, speaking bluntly while building a wall to protect myself from being hurt. I rationalized this as being direct and wondered why most other people weren’t.

A wise teacher recently suggested that if I alienate others with my bluntness, I may not have many friends left. I was in enough pain to be able to hear her gentle guidance.

Doing Soul Repair for Rosh Hashanah

I was ready to start shifting the habit of being so critical and confrontive. It seemed appropriate to begin working on this just before Rosh Hashanah, as this is a time of reflection and commitment to personal growth.

Every small change matters when making big changes.

I decided to change my energy from negative to positive. I set a goal of creating love and compassion more often as my way of being. My intention was to be of service to other people, loved ones and strangers alike. My friend encouraged me, noting that every small change matters when making big changes.

I concretized my goal by committing to doing one nice thing a day for someone for 30 days, the minimum amount of time it takes to change a habit. My “Kindness Practice” could be a simple smile or hello, but I wanted to stretch myself more in creating my new habit of being loving and compassionate, patient and giving.

I approached the grouchy-looking security guard at work one day and found out her name: Cathy. Through conversation, I began to see her as a person rather than an object slowing me down because I had to show her my badge to enter my workplace. I now call Cathy by name when I see her, smile and chit-chat, which makes for a much more pleasant interaction.

There was a mean-looking clerk at the grocery store. Now I know her name is Lisa and she’s been working at the grocery store for 30 years. And she’s actually much friendlier than I thought.

My newlywed neighbor had gotten irritable after starting a new job and waking up at 4 a.m. every day. I offered her respite by walking her dog after work so she could spend time with her husband.

I was building my kindness muscle one day at a time, letting my mentor friend know what action I took that day. Giving chocolates to coworkers. Helping a blind woman to a meeting. Consoling my brother whose friend was dying. Treating a teenage friend to a manicure. Treating a middle-age friend to lunch to celebrate her engagement. Complimenting people on a job well done. Making amends where needed. Hosting friends for Shabbat dinner. Not honking in traffic during rush hour.

I also took note of and texted my friend at least one blessing every day. Learning Torah. Riding my new bike. Enjoying a morning swim. Appreciating my family. Having out-of-town guests. Getting candle wax out of my tablecloth. Being able to work at home instead of the office. Remembering my computer password. Seeing the beauty of nature. Talking with old friends.

Three weeks into my Kindness Practice, God gave me many opportunities to practice love, kindness and patience. One day I spent over an hour talking to the phone company about my landline and Internet service—patiently. The next day I waited over an hour at my lawyer’s office for our scheduled appointment. She’s a good friend, and knowing she runs late I had planned accordingly and brought reading material. I amazed myself at how calm and loving I was. We had a great visit.

The next day I was on the phone with the computer help desk at work because of log-on issues. The technician, Rashid, gave me a compliment – an unexpected positive affirmation that my Kindness Practice was working. “I like talking to you. You’re so calm in a frustrating situation,” he said.

“Really?” I asked. “Are most people irate?”

He said some are and he lets them vent, but it takes longer to solve their problem.

Sweetness and Honey Work Better

My 30 days ended yesterday, and I am beyond grateful for the lessons:

  • It’s as easy to look for the positive as the negative. It just takes practice.

  • There’s a way to say what I think, with sweetness and honey, without being critical and combative.

  • I can still be direct by being tactful, which isn’t the same as being blunt.

  • I can figure out how to give “the grouch” a pass. Maybe something is going on in his or her life, like starting a new job and having to wake up at 4 a.m. and lose sleep.

  • Character-building training is like training my body for a half-marathon. I’ve been building the equivalent to muscle memory so that next time my reactivity impulse kicks in, I can remember how it feels to practice mindfulness and kindness instead.

This template works and the ingredients are simple: 30-day commitment to reach a very attainable goal. I’m ready to apply it to my next area of growth (I think I’m ready to work on restoring that lost friendship). With Rosh Hashanah around the corner, now is the perfect time to give it a shot. Shana tova!