I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness lately, because it has become to me increasingly apparent that despite every effort, it has remained an elusive virtue to achieve. But perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise. You see, early last year I set the intention—as a resolution of sorts—to be a kinder, more compassionate human being. I told myself and everyone who was willing to listen that when I leave this earth I want to be remembered not as someone who was great at what he did, nor someone who was very talented and very successful; on that day when I finally leave this vessel I want to be remembered as someone who was deeply kind. I should have known that when I put something out there, the universe would respond.
It always does.
Because since I’ve embarked on this journey of self-improvement I have been placed in circumstances and introduced to people and brought to places which have repeatedly tested my resolve. I wish I could say that for the most part I’ve succeeded, but I’m afraid I’m not that lucky on that front. Sure, there are days when I would catch a glimpse of the person I want to be—offering strangers a smile, say, or doing someone a favor without prompt or a reward in mind—but often I would hang my head in defeat and catalogue the day’s sins of either commission or omission—the petty remark given carelessly, the failure to give a passing beggar a dime, the little thoughts that would fester in the mind for days on end—and in turn anger myself for my inability to change.
But what even is kindness, exactly? Surely it is more than mere politeness and generosity, goes well beyond opening doors for people, or striking up conversations on the subway. Moreover, your idea of kindness may not necessarily be my own, nor mine someone else’s. Kindness, like most virtues, is something we know about in the abstract but hardly recognize when confronted with. It may manifest in varied and plenty ways, but in reality kindness is nothing more than a byproduct of that peculiarly human ability to connect with someone else. Put yourself in other people’s shoes, we are often told. That’s precisely what kindness is, viewing the world from a lens that is not our own, a lens that is to us strange and puzzling and by all means flawed, but acting from a place of benevolence anyway.
Most people have this misguided belief that to be kind is to be at other people’s mercy, to be held prisoner by others’ whims.
It seems a simple enough explanation, but those of us who have made a concerted effort to be kind know that it is not in the very least a simple enough task. In order to understand why this is, we must first consider ourselves and look inward. At our very core we are deeply self-interested beings, concerned only with our own wants and fears and happiness. To be able to establish that fictive bond with another requires sacrifice, a temporary dropping of all judgment and self-righteousness and pride, and not everyone is comfortable—much less willing—to do just that, for it requires a concerted effort to step out of our comfort zone, a wrenching of ourselves from our ego.
Most people have this misguided belief that to be kind is to be at other people’s mercy, to be held prisoner by others’ whims. Kindness, they believe, makes one a doormat. On the contrary, kindness is an illuminating thing, having the capacity to shed light to situations to which others remain blind, to offer placating explanations however misplaced (in that place of benevolence, it doesn’t really matter what the real story is). Kindness gives anger its flavor. It impels one to stand up for one’s beliefs, speak up, say “no” without any trace of guilt; for kindness allows us recognize what is “too much” and what is “too little,” allows us to recognize what we deserve and what we need. Kindness allows us to see the value of things. Perhaps that is the reason why kindness directed inwards remains its most elusive manifestation: we know ourselves too much.
Whether or not we admit it, we all have such high expectation of ourselves. All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, we hold ourselves in such high regard. In our minds we can always do better, be better. The benefit of the doubt that we can afford another does not work for ourselves. No excuse is valid enough, no justification for our mistakes strong enough to absolve. Each new shortcoming is a failure, and every failure is magnified. It seems a great feat to be kind to one’s self when you subscribe to that kind of self-mutilating narrative. And yet kindness to one’s self is necessary to the beginnings of its more outward manifestations, because at its core kindness is an internal affair. It is not something you can access if you yourself do not have it. Try as you might, you can never be kind to another if you are not kind to yourself, otherwise it is much like promising a loan when you’re broke.
Although talked about with reverence out loud and in public, kindness has a strange reputation in that private space in our heads where reason resides. Every one of us has at some point or another questioned ourselves about the expedience of being kind. We have asked: Why should I be kind when others are not? What’s in it for me? Why bother?
It is especially difficult when you live in a country where it is strange to see a smiling face on the street, where confrontations are common, and where old people hiss hässlicher Ausländer under their breath for no other reason than you’re neither white nor German.
We may each have different answers to these questions, and we are all entitled to them. All I know about why kindness matters is that in its absence, I like myself the least; without it I am agitated, resentful, given to fits of jealousy and indignation, stuck in a well of self-hatred and self-reproach. Kindness shelters me from this storm of pessimism and negativity, and helps me come to terms with the fact that I am fallible and that’s all right. Perhaps more important, kindness is the well from which my inner peace springs, and I’m eager to protect that peace in every way I know how.
Being kind, it’s not always easy. It is especially difficult when you live in a country where it is strange to see a smiling face on the street, where confrontations are common, and where old people hiss hässlicher Ausländer under their breath for no other reason than you’re neither white nor German. In fact, it involves a lot of hard work and dedication and a substantial amount of emotional cuts and bruises, especially if you are as sensitive as I am.
And yet despite all of this I remain convinced that it is a worthwhile endeavor. I remain convinced that it is necessary to cultivate this peculiar ability. Not only because we owe it to others, but also to ourselves. To live without it is to go through the motions of daily life blinded to the pleasures that only human interaction can bring. Camaraderie. Empathy. Intimacy. Goodwill. Laughter and joy. Without bedrock kindness as its foundation, every other virtue will only be fleeting, superficial, in the end without much value—for strength and courage and integrity and honesty and discipline and even forgiveness, especially forgiveness, requires one’s capacity for empathy.