I believe in kindness. My faith in kindness is unlike the way people generally debate atheism. Is there a supreme being or not? Kindness does not float on an invisible realm like in some Platonic world of forms. Kindness exists only insofar as people are kind to one another.
My belief in kindness relates to its use. I trust in the ability of kind actions to change lives, organizations, and even the world. Maybe that sounds naive these days. Everything feels cruel and indifferent — wars, terrorism, environmental degradation, politics, economics, social media, refugee crises, racism, family life, and healthcare. Kindness seems to be in short supply.
I’m guessing, though, that you experience several acts of kindness every day. I do. These acts of kindness often go unnoticed, but they exist nonetheless. A hug from a loved one. Someone holding the elevator. A thank you from a coworker. Although kindness rarely shows itself on the same scale as cruelty, these kind deeds can add up to something substantial.
Kind acts can change the course of our day and our lives. Small acts such as genuine words of encouragement aren’t so small. I know more than one person who did not commit suicide because of the kindness of someone simply willing to listen for a few minutes.
I don’t know what would tools or methods we could use in order to measure kindness. How could anyone tally all of the kind acts done in a day? We could not calculate the total time given to kindness? There’s no practical way to create a Gross Kindness Quotient, and determining the magnitude of a single kind act would be impossible.
Kindness takes countess forms. In The Power of Kindness, Piero Ferrucci, describes 18 categories of kind acts. Some — like forgiveness, empathy, and generosity — are obvious. He suggests that we also show kindness in less apparent behaviors such as through honesty, respect, and flexibility.
You might compile your own classifications of kind deeds, and I would add that tone is essential to kindness. We all know a kind tone when we hear it, and tone can make a world of difference. Consider honesty. By itself, honesty is not necessarily kind. Someone can be truthful in a vicious and spiteful way. A kind tone makes the truth palatable, and a kind tenor begins with intention. If we want to practice kindness, we have to work at it.
I teach second grade, and the staff at my school takes emotional education seriously. We have spent several years implementing the RULER program designed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The tools and techniques, including the Mood Meter, empower children to understand and direct their emotions.
They’re helpful for adults too. The ability to identify your emotions empowers you to act more in accord with the goals you wish to achieve. As a teacher, I want my students to learn. For students to learn, they need to feel cared for. I intend, therefore, to demonstrate kindness to my students. To realize this objective, I must have an awareness of my own emotional state and use that awareness to direct my decision making.
And kindness results from decisions.
Acts that seem insignificant, like greeting each child by name at the beginning of the day with an affirming message, helps me build relationships with my students. “Good morning, Sophia. I’m so happy to see you today. Hi, Carson. That’s a cool Spider-Man shirt.”
I have also discovered that simple practices like this help me focus less on myself and more on the children in my care. As an educator, I must set aside my desires and address the needs of the students. I am present for the kids; they’re not there for me. The ancient Greeks called this outpouring of self “kenosis.”
The emptying of self through kindness has the paradoxical benefit of making me feel better. The pleasant feeling we have after doing good for another person is the product of kenosis. By intentionally searching for ways to show kindness to others, I’m able to focus less on my own perceived needs. I become a giver, and it is more blessed to give than to receive.
In the classroom, self-forgetting has the added benefit of bringing about the results that I desire. I want my students to achieve academic excellence, to feel secure enough to make mistakes, and to discover how to interact with people. When I model kindness, students feel the necessary level of protection to be successful in school. Additionally, my kindness to them contributes to a culture of kindness. The students learn how to show kindness to one another, and classroom kindness expands to life outside the academic setting.
Of course we’re not perfect in demonstrating kindness, but kindness is a practice, not a perfection. And I believe that kindness might be the most important practice any of us can undertake individually and communally.
If we commit to translating kindness from isolated individual actions into a guiding principle that directs our collective decision making, we would experience a radical transformation of our institutions. We would see the difference how dedication to early childhood education would decrease levels of incarceration. Instead of compensating corporate executives with exorbitant financial packages, companies could invest in the flourishing of workers. Personal kindness donates to someone’s GoFundMe, but and social kindness develops systems to care for people’s health and wellbeing.
Some might object by saying that forming a kind society is too idealistic, doesn’t take into consideration human nature, or has never succeeded in the past. All of that might be true, and community kindness would not eliminate public problems. However, the current extent of unkindness is destroying lives, crushing spirits, and poisoning our biosphere. Something has to change if we want to survive.
Yes, I believe in kindness. To paraphrase Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I believe that kindness will save the world. But only if we intentionally practice it.