Kindness, as an action, is the fluid that makes society work. Keeps things as a cohesive whole. It’s like water to organisms. A simple, transparent, and odorless thing without which we burn and in which we live and thrive.
Kindness, as a word, is one of those rarefied, monumental terms that grows and changes with culture, usage, and need:
Kindness’s original meaning of kinship or sameness has stretched over time to encompass sentiments that today go by a wide variety of names—sympathy, generosity, altruism, benevolence, humanity, compassion, pity, empathy—and that in the past were known by other names as well, notably philanthropia (love of mankind) and caritas (neighborly or brotherly love).
The above lines are from On Kindness, a meaningful collaboration between psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor. The pair ask why “mutual belonging” and the connected nature of things are an anathema to contemporary society. 1
For most of western history the dominant tradition of kindness has been Christianity, which sacralizes people’s generous instincts and makes them the basis of a universalist faith. For centuries, Christian caritas functioned as a cultural cement, binding individuals into society. But from the sixteenth century, the Christian rule ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ came under increasing attack from competitive individualism. Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan […] dismissed Christian kindness as a psychological absurdity.
Though many like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume fought against the mythology of the individual, the growth of individualism hasn’t ceased. One could even say we’re riding its crest at the moment, Christians et al. Through this philosophical monocle, we see each other not as one of a whole but as separate, even disparate.
Phillips and Taylor argue that our natural inclinations to be social and extend ourselves outward come at the cost of making ourselves vulnerable and even weak.
When I met my now-husband, he never used a turn signal when driving. Never. I asked why (implored, actually). He said, “Then, no one can cut me off.” This simple gesture—akin to asking permission— would make his intentions clear and, thus, make him vulnerable.
It sounds daft, but I’m sure most of us are guilty of a similar thing—hiding vulnerabilities behind walls we erect to protect ourselves, meanness or, worse, indifference.
I keep a sticky note of “Hanlon’s Razor” on my desk: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” I thought it might help me remember kindness.
Or at least battle indifference.
Indifference is the opposite of empathy, which is deeply connected to kindness. Especially when we regard others. Susan Sontag’s study of visual-related empathy suggests our concern is triggered when suffering is disproportional, the “product of wrath.”2
The iconography of suffering has a long pedigree. The sufferings most often deemed worthy of representation are those understood to be the product of wrath, divine or human. (Suffering from natural causes, such as illness or childbirth, is scantily represented in the history of art; that caused by accident, virtually not at all—as if there were no such thing as suffering by the inadvertence of misadventure.)
Elsewhere, Sontag elegantly uses the word “pity,” which—although another monumental term of much meaning—is familiar from the lines of war poet Wilfred Owen. Owen, who fought in World War I in order to document the suffering, wrote famously, “The Poetry is in the pity.” He elevated poetry to a status of witness and urged us that our humanity is lost if we don’t feel sorrow (pity) at needless death.3
(Empathy has also taken a hit lately, but I do not intend to argue that it is good or bad. That is all a bit academic, isn’t it? I’ll assume you wouldn’t be on this blog—which purports to value our individual and collective humanity—if you didn’t have some interest in being kind.)
I believe in kindness above almost everything. A full measure of a person can be taken accurately when she gives kindness to those from whom she has nothing to gain.
In a single word: care.
I am not always kind. That we should be kind and being kind are two completely distinct things.
If we talk about why kindness we must talk about how kindness.
It takes extraordinary self-confidence—rooted in self-love—to extend our selves, to open and trust, being at peace with our own vulnerabilities in order to embrace others. The aphoristic Razor never did much to influence my kind nature. It only made me think people might be stupid.
Almost two thousand years ago, Stoics like Marcus Aurelius believed kindness was rooted in our connection to each other and offered this advice on how to be kind: 4
Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. […] and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own—not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them […]. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him.
The idea of unity doesn’t carry much weight in our age of individualism. Fortunately, novelist George Saunders’ reframed the “how” in an individualistic argument with modern appeal: kindness or failures of kindness, is a legacy we leave behind.
In a 2013 speech to graduates Syracuse University, Saunders told this tale: 5
In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentially, her Convocation Speech name will be ‘Ellen.’ Ellen was small, shy. […] When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it. So she came to our school and our neighborhood and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased. (‘Your hair taste good?’—That sort of thing.) I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult.
At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: ‘How was your day, sweetie?’ and she’d say ‘Oh, fine.’ […] Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it. And then—they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing. One day she was there, next day she wasn’t. End of story.
Saunders’ “Ellen” moved away, and he, decades later, regrets he wasn’t nicer. So much so that it became the subject matter and sole focus of his graduation speech to thousands of graduates, who looked to him for advice and worthiness. The breath of expectation hot on his neck, Saunders humbled himself, dug into vulnerability, and gently showed the way.
The speech is a great, great kindness.
A third method of summoning kindness when needed comes from Christie Watson, a British nurse for more than twenty years who delivered massive amounts of daily kindness.
In her 2018 memoir, The Language of Kindness, Watson writes she found kindness simply by imagining others’ needs were her own: 6
For all that I’ve seen and touched and smelled, and as difficult as it is at the time, there is a patient at the center of it, afraid and embarrassed. […] We have all been nursed. We are all nurses.
I have a new sticky note on my desk, wonderful heuristic: “Do unto others…”
When I was applying to graduate school, one of the admissions essays was “What matters to you most?” Simple: Do unto others. I didn’t have to think about it. It mattered to me most, apparently, it mattered to Stanford, it is how I met my husband who now uses turn signals and it is how I return to kindness when it is all but impossible.
Kindness. It is implacably necessary. It is difficult. It is transferable. It is compounding. It is contagious. It is easier with practice. It is a microbial action that gives life to our social ecosystem.
Whether you pull meaning from our interconnectivity or a feeling of legacy, or simply because you wish it were given to you, find kindness. Show kindness. As Saunders told us from the height of experience, “Nothing else matters.”