On Kindness

Here’s a thoughtful and interesting post at The Marginalian: How Kindness Became Our Forbidden Pleasure

[Y]et, although kindness is the foundation of all spiritual traditions and was even a central credo for the father of modern economics, at some point in recent history, kindness became little more than an abstract aspiration, its concrete practical applications a hazardous and vulnerable-making behavior to be avoided — we need only look to the internet’s “outrage culture” for evidence, or to the rise of cynicism as our flawed self-defense mechanism against the perceived perils of kindness. 

…People are leading secretly kind lives all the time but without a language in which to express this, or cultural support for it.

Are we? Is that true? What a sad thought. But I don’t really think it is true. Not that one doesn’t run into shockingly rude and mean people, but I personally expect to see most people being kind most of the time.

Could this be an urban vs rural perception? I wonder, because I expect that when it snows, a neighbor will plow our driveways. When I recently put air in my tires and the numbers on the readout didn’t indicate that air had been added, the next day I called this neighbor and asked if I could check the actual pressure with his tire gauge and not at all to my surprise, he said, “Oh, bring your car over and I’ll check the tire pressure and add air if necessary.” (The readout inside the car was wrong; the tire pressure was higher than the numbers indicated.)

Anyway, I expect to see the car in front of me brake to avoid hitting a squirrel and swerve gently to avoid a turtle, the same way I would. That’s what people do, generally, most of them.

A few years ago, when my Honey disappeared from a new home into the St Louis streets, I was soooooo grateful that a jogger took the time to coax her over and pick her up and then got on Facebook and found my lost dog post and contacted me. I will always be grateful to that jogger! But I wasn’t surprised.

People I know routinely say things like, “I’m worried about my neighbor; she doesn’t drive and I think she’s having a hard time. I think I’ll swing by on my way home and see if she needs anything.” I mean, this is perfectly normal and ordinary. This is how people behave. Isn’t that how people behave?

The most paradoxical part of the story is that for most of our civilizational history, we’ve seen ourselves as fundamentally kind and held kindness as a high ideal of personhood. Only in recent times — in large part thanks to Emerson — did the ideal of independence and self-reliance become the benchmark of spiritual success. 

I really don’t see it. My most self-reliant neighbors are the ones who are most happy to do stuff for other people. They have the chainsaws and the little bulldozer and the air compressor and all that stuff. It seems to me that people who are able to be helpful, are helpful, most of them, most of the time.

Not that we don’t have crazy neighbors too. Don’t get me started. But that’s not the rule.

You know, this is making me think of The Curse of Chalion. You remember when Bergen says to Caz that he had never valued kindness because kindness seemed so easy and trivial. Let me see, yes, here:

“Any man can be kind when he is comfortable. I’d always thought kindness a trivial virtue, therefore. But when we were hungry, thirsty, sick, frightened, with our deaths shouting at us, in the heart of horror, you were still as unfailingly courteous as a gentleman at ease before his own hearth.”

I had forgotten this conflation of kindness with courtesy. That’s a different dimension of the topic. But I wonder if, to the extent that kindness might be forgotten or rejected in some parts of modern society, that might be because people are sufficiently comfortable to consider kindness a trivial virtue.

I don’t really know how to wind up this post, so I’ll just suggest that probably today would be a good day to do something nice for someone.

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4 thoughts on “On Kindness”

  1. That post sounds like one of those hand-wringing denouncements of “cancel/outrage culture”. People calling out others for being hurtful isn’t a sign of increasing unkindness- rather the opposite. It’s a sign that more people are trying to watch out for marginalized populations.

    And, yeah, we practice kindness in ways much like you mention. Maybe the author doesn’t, and is projecting?

    I do think that some kinds of kindness have been politicized, though – lots of things that should be thought of as “charitable” get labeled as “handouts” once you talk about helping people at scale.

  2. SarahZ, good points. I don’t think of any kind of charity as the same thing as individual acts of kindness, though. Charity by its nature is faceless; less personal than shoveling the neighbor’s driveway or jumpstarting a stranger’s car.

  3. There’s definitely a distinction there, but I guess I just think of them as two different categories of kindness – generalized vs targeted?

  4. Lovely post! And I agree: most people are kind. Unkindess is just more interesting to report, so that’s what we see on our screens. And it’s easier to be unkind on the anonymous internet. In real life (that’s an acronym now, isn’t it: IRL!) I see kindness and courtesy much more often than not. But that could be because I expect it.

    The pandemic certainly created some polarization about whether it’s the kind or courteous thing to wear a mask (among other things), (and whether one should therefore do it despite the annoyance), but I am encouraged by how many people continue to wear masks despite not personally believing in their efficacy, simply because it makes other people more comfortable.

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