The kindness question

Continuing choleric Facebook posts in my feed are countered by requests for kindness and respect. I also am exhorted on most blogs written by women to "be kind", over and over. But when I think of real persons, not the pseudonym-protected snipers online, I see much kindness, or at least civility, in everyday life.

So why, I wonder, am I so often importuned to be kind? Perhaps because its opposite, meanness, is disruptive, painful, and when escalated, violent.

Kindness is a fragrant bough that sweeps away the pebbles on the path of life. Alain de Botton's site The School of Life calls kindness an art, and provides a primer, "Mastering the Art of Kindness". 

I am glad to find this free book, because I need help these days, what with those Facebook feuds and my suspicion that when some of those parties tell those who see it differently to "be kind" , they may be trying to stifle protest, to duck the hard and complicated questions.  "You're not nice!" is calling someone a "nasty woman" with sugar on top.

Somewhere, I realize, is a balance point as tenuously glued together as President Trump's hair. (Yes, I am being mean. Sometimes snark, which is diet-lite meanness, is fun.)

What's missing in these pleas for kindness is an examination of why we continually request caring and consideration. We need it. Kindness helps us muster on, because it contributes to our safety and security.

Whether one adopts Maslow's hierarchy of needswhich places physical and emotional safety just after the physiological needs like air, water, and food—or other models, humans can govern themselves better when they are not in a continual fight or flight mode.

We appreciate meetings were differences are discussed without ad hominum attacks, we're grateful when a friend readily forgives us for forgetting a date, we enjoy even the passing generosity of a held door. Kindness serves life.

My friend Marianne is an intelligent, compassionate, warm woman. Seven years ago, she worked for a practiced bully who systematically undermined her work, despite her efforts to appease, problem-solve, and even confront his tactics. Because of her beliefs and her nature, she never fought fire with fire. Eventually he succeeded in having her fired; she spent from 2009 until last year struggling to get back on her feet.

During that time, Marianne lost her life savings and was often depressed, but received many kind acts. One of her friends moved her into her empty basement apartment in her home. Other friends provided low-key kindnesses: including her in social events that cost nothing, taking her out occasionally, giving her good clothes so she could go on interviews, and just keeping an eye on her. Even her bank was kind, helping her hang on to a family property that provided a tiny income from its occasional rental.

It's easy to be kind to a person like Marianne, and much harder to be kind to someone acting like a jerk, including ourselves. Sometimes the best we manage is a clenched civility.

In me, the milk of human kindness dilutes down to skim on a bad day. I prize the virtue, and wish to be thoughtful, generous, tolerant. Lately despair about the state of the world and our vulnerability can erode my stores. Then I hoover down a slab of endangered fish (when Le Duc is not around) and snap at someone I love. (I am hardly ever mean to strangers, but being kind to some persons whom I know well has taken deep effort, and I've often fallen short.)

When I attend the services of various faith communities, the promotion of everyday kindness is a universal topic—but, presently on leave from such affiliation, I'm hoping the School of Life provides guidance.

The beginning of the treatise quotes findings from a survey attributed to DoubleTree by Hilton, and I wondered, What is a hotel chain doing exploring kindness? But there is money to be made in delivering a nice plump bed, a kindness that earns customers' loyalty. A good hotel or restaurant (not necessarily a luxury one) cossets you; hospitality is really institutionalized kindness.

There's more to say, but what about you, friend? Is kindness important to you? How do you top up your capacity?


Living in a large city in the US, at this time in history, I think that kindness might be the sole thing that keeps civilization together. We're facing unprecedented (unpresidented?) challenges, and the small generosities, considerations, and acts of love will make all of the difference in determining if we have a culture worth saving, or one that well deserves to be gutted and started over.

So thank you, as always, dearest Duchesse, for sharing your thoughts, your intelligence, your insights, and your sincere personal generosity and kindness with strangers and "digital" friends. I respect you and love you for it.

Unknown said…
Yes, kindness is important to me When on the receiving end I am grateful and
always mindful to "pay it forward". What goes around, comes around.

Lizer Pearl
LauraH said…
Small everyday acts of kindness keep the wheels turning more smoothly, especially in a big city where we are so apt to rub up against each other. Some of these small acts are perhaps more along the lines of good manners, whereas acts of real kindness seem to call for more effort. My kindnesses (is that a word?) - sharing information of mutual interest with friends or passing along information that might help them with a concern we've discussed. I also try to listen, not always successfully.

I think I am kinder than I used to be, not as judgmental. Age has taught me some things, thank goodness. I also think I'm kinder to myself, more forgiving. Topping up my capacity? I find certain patterns of behaviour wear me down and I've learned to recognize them and avoid those people. It's easier to be kind when someone isn't exasperating you for the umpteenth time:-)

As always you've provided much food for thought in the days to come.
Madame Là-bas said…
I agree with Janice that kindness must be the cornerstone of civilization. After having worked in the school system, I consider that kindness and empathy are the most important lessons that we can teach children. To be successful academically or financially without consideration of others who may not be as fortunate is a recipe for disaster.

Globally, we must continue to support those countries who require help with healthcare and education. This aid is also in the interest of our own safety and security. Personally, I find that communities of faith remind me to try to be kind on a daily basis and also allow me to acknowledge and accept that it is far more challenging to be kind and tolerant to those who are close to me.

Thank you for presenting such a thoughtful post.
Lou said…
I work in a college setting and I find that kind professionalism goes a long way to avoiding irritations. Kindness means that I try to be nice and polite, to put aside small things that don't help the situation and that therefore can become unnecessarily hurtful. Professionalism means that everyone is clear about my role here at work and my limits. This approach has served me very well through decades of work in law and education. On the few occasions I have had to double-down on professionalism at the expense of kindness, it has been either with students' parents or people higher up the ladder. Asking someone to put something in writing does focus minds and avoids future misunderstandings. It can also promote a discussion that would be too difficult face to face. Also, saying no is often the adult thing to do.

I am sorry your friend was bullied by an employer. That's the pits. Regrettably, we don't always get to make friends at work.--Louise
Kristien62 said…
I worked in a prison hospital for twenty years. As you can imagine, it was not a place where kindness was prized or where it flourished. Being professional with the inmates sometimes had to substitute for being kind to them. And even then, an act of professionalism was often taken for a kindness since kindness was in short supply. I am a much different person as a result of those years. I try to be kind as often as I can since I realize now that an act of simple kindness can mean the world to a person.
Sharon said…
Am on indefinite, perhaps permanent, leave from my faith community but cling to it's greatest gifts: support and reinforcement for the urge to be kind to and promote justice for those less fortunate. Your enjoyable and stimulating posts give me great pleasure which often helps me to be my best self, patient, kind, generous when my darker impulses threaten to break through. The kindness of others through the years helped me through many trials. Paying it forward feels so good. Please feel free to express your opinions!
Francie Newcomb said…
Yes, kindness is very important. It is something I do have to top up. Yoga and meditation help. I think you are very thoughtful and kind, Duchesse.
Beth said…
Kindness is very important to me; sometimes I think what people will remember most about us is whether we were kind or not. It seems to go hand-in-hand (for me, at least) with patience and gratitude, and to disappear when I'm exasperated or so depleted that I can't remember all the good things in my life. Topping up means self-care and alone-time: in my case, making music, doing some meditation, taking a walk in nature. A recent trip also demonstrated to me that rationing my intake of news and social media helped a lot with my mood: negativity is contagious, but we don't have to immerse. Thanks for this thoughtful post.
Leslie M said…
The new Dave Chappelle show Live at the Hollywood Palladium on Netflix talks about the "Care Bear Stare". I don't know the "stare", (too old, no kids?) it apparently signifies the effort to solve a crisis that requires love, caring and kindness. Kindness was always something that I felt I owed everyone else. What I have learned is that kindness is what everyone else has provided to me. My success in my life is directly related to the kindness of grandmothers, friends, parents of friends, teachers and co-workers, among many others. Kindness is what has made my life rich. I don't think I have repaid the kindness, but I continue to try. You have caused me to think about this all day long and I expect that to continue for the days to come.
Adele said…
For me, the easiest way to "top up" my stores of kindness is to acknowledge, with a trusted friend, the times when I could have been kinder than I was. Or, to acknowledge when I've been a bit snarky and let the person on the receiving end know that I was having a bad day and I am sorry I let in affect our interactions. Somehow, that acknowledgment and letting go is a way of being kind to myself -- otherwise, the guilt would start the tape of negative thoughts in my mind..............
Mardel said…
I think kindness is important, but not always easy. It is difficult to be kind to others when one is not always kind to oneself. It seems to me to be something that comes from the heart, from an awareness that we are all fragile, and all trying our best, as best we can, even though life wears us down. Niceness is something altogether different, and I have become suspicious of admonitions to "be nice" and worry sometimes that exhortations toward kindness are actually usurping that meaning. To me niceness is a veneer, and can often be a mask or snobbishness or superiority, whereas my understanding of kindness is that it stems from something deeper, from listening and understanding or accepting rather than telling. But of course you know I think too much.
I thin LauraH summed things up really well for me - as I get older I appreciate simple kindness more and I hope that I reciprocate. On one hand I tend to judge less (live and let live) but I also find that I am more annoyed by "stupidity" or life's petty aggravations and that can lead to some less than kind comments - so I am trying to remember to take a deep breath and think before engaging.

I had a real lesson in kindness yesterday as I had some knee surgery. A friend drove me o the hospital - stayed - and then drove me home and looked after me last night. Another friend is arriving later this morning to help me out for the next couple of days and the staff at Women's College Hospital could not have been more professional, and yes, very, very kind every step of the way. And it was very much appreciated.

I am going to try and take this more to heart as no matter how old, how rich, how important or insignificant we may be (or think we are) a simple act of kindness goes a long way to get us through the day.

Thank you for yet another thoughtful post.
Lynn said…
I think kindness becomes so important when society begins (or continues) to designate "in" and "out" groups. Our new US president seems to be doing that in spades -- you are "with him or against him." No acknowledgement that good people can disagree and that mutual respect is important. For the first time in my more than 20 years of college teaching my students are afraid to voice their opinions, we have hate speech on campus and those with uncertain immigration status are in hiding. The best I can do is try to be kind and understanding of everyone (almost -- I could not manage the Nazi on campus last week)and hope that mutual support and kindness will prevail.
Jean Shaw said…
Mardel, I am with you on the distinction between kind and nice. The calls to "be nice" carry the baggage of childhood, while kindness feels more mature. I also feel that "nice" is a convenient cover for weakness. In contrast, one can be both kind and strong (think of the surgeon's cut--ruthless, exact, AND healing).
Duchesse said…
Jean Shaw and Madel: I have always suspected that when women are enjoined to "be nice" someone is trying to shut them up.

Perhaps when children are taught to "be nice", we do not yet trust that they can navigate the moral issues behind kindness, so we ask them to behave in ways that reflect kindness and consideration, before they can understand the concept. We ask them to share, to say please-and-thank-you, to do other civil acts, before they receive more mature instruction in morality and ethics.

All: Other matters mean I can't respond to each comment as I would like, but I have read them and am thinking about your points and experiences.
materfamilias said…
Just chiming in to agree with Jean Shaw and Mardel, and your response to them. As well, just to say that there are times when it's my husband of 42+ years whom I have to remember to be kind to. Somehow, it's all too easy to let that effort lapse with the one closest to me, when so much depends, truly, on a modicum of kindness in a marriage of longstanding... Or perhaps that's only me?
emma said…
I found myself nodding at this quote: "When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people." -Abraham Joshua Heschel
Now I'm older, I value kindness so much more.
(I don't think I'd have been "nice" in the '70s to preserve the status quo. Looking back, I could have been kinder more often.)
Today, I see how members of my family are so kind. I appreciate them so much...and I value my "intellect" less these days. To me, the measure of a person is when they can be kind...

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