Most of us suspect that being a kind person is a good idea for various reasons. But we may not know how to be kind or if kindness in fact helps us or anyone else.
We often struggle with such concerns because we aren’t sure exactly what kindness is, and we often carry several common misconceptions about it.
Misconceptions about Kindness
For example, some people think that kindness means being nice, acting like a doormat, or refusing to confront bad behavior. Those are common misconceptions about kindness. But kindness operates in a very different way.
When we are kind, we act with respect for people’s basic human dignity (even folks we dislike) and show compassion in their suffering.
There are many beliefs and actions that show respect and compassion, but here are a few.
A 1922 photo from the White House archives, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
When we show respect and compassion . . .
We recognize that all people can cultivate virtue and reason and live according to their conscience. (This is their human dignity.) And we support their ability to do so.
We recognize that no human being, including ourselves, is perfect or knows everything. Therefore, we respect our right to follow our own conscience, and we respect people’s right to disagree with us and also obey their own conscience.
We see and treat people as valuable and not just as an object or tool for accomplishing our goals.
Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
And we encourage and build people up because we realize that encouraging people better enables them to make wise, virtuous choices and to listen to their conscience.
We realize that even when people do bad things, no human being is merely the bad choices they have made. So we practice rational optimism that they can do better.
Accordingly, we remember their dignity, even when they make bad choices, although we also refuse to enable or support their bad behavior.
That means that when we face conflict with our enemies, we protect and honor our own dignity. But we also honor the dignity of our enemies, even when we disagree with them and confront the inappropriate behavior (perceived or legitimate).
And we realize that no matter how different human beings are, every human needs basic goods like security, love, and life meaning to flourish.
Therefore, we support the right to these basic goods for everyone, even when we disagree about the best way to ensure them.
In addition, we recognize that all human beings, including ourselves, suffer from heartache, loss, and frailty and that this kind of vulnerability is difficult for everyone.
Therefore, in compassion, we wish people freedom from the suffering that comes with being a human being. And we regularly work to alleviate our own suffering, as well as the suffering of others.
These are a few of the beliefs and actions kindness entails. And if we understand these aspects of kindness, it helps us make more sense of common commands in our moral and spiritual traditions.
For instance, it helps us understand more clearly principles like this:
The New Testament commands us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48) and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31).
Buddhist teachings of loving kindness remind us to wish for happiness and freedom from suffering of all sentient beings. (You can read more about Buddhist ideas here: The Ethics of Compassion.)
The Ancient Chinese philosopher, Mencius (also known as Mengzi) reminds us that every human has seeds of goodness inside them that flourish when cared for by society. (You can read more about Mencius’ beliefs here: Are Humans Good or Evil by Nature?)
A painting of Mencius, courtesy of Wikimedia commons.
Christian philosopher (and early church father) Augustine argues that whenever anyone shows true love to others, Christian or not, they are acting out the commands of God. (You can read more about Augustine’s beliefs here: Are Humans Good or Evil by Nature?)
Philosopher Immanuel Kant encourages us to treat everyone, including our own selves, as valuable in themselves and never just a means to our own end. (You can read more about Kant here: How to Cultivate a Good Will to Live a Good Life.)
Philosopher John Stuart Mill urges us to work for the Greatest Happiness principle in which we maximize good quality pleasure for everyone and minimize pain. (You can read more about Mill here: How to Pursue a Good Life by Maximizing Happiness.)
All these various exhortations remind us of the importance of love, kindness, respect, and compassion. I take love to be the overall virtue that allows us to act with kindness, which entails respect and compassion, to everyone: ourselves, our family and friends, our neighbors, and even our enemies.
But why would we need so many reminders to act kindly to others?
Well, once again, acting kindly requires us to respect the basic human dignity of everyone and to show them compassion. And it also requires that we work towards a world in which everyone, even people we don’t like, have the basic goods they need for safety, love, and meaning.
Unfortunately, most of us have a tendency to act in a manner that is the exact opposite of this. For example, most of us act solely according to impulse, instinct, momentary passion, peer pressure, tradition, or prejudice and bias.
And unfortunately, human biology and negative aspects of society encourage these human tendencies.
For instance, our biology and ancestral inclinations encourage us towards tribalism instead of universal kindness. As such, we tend to favor ourselves and people like us (our tribe) and show hostility to people with different backgrounds or beliefs than our own (not-our-tribe).
And negative aspects of modern society like ever-present advertising and an overemphasis on materialism encourage us to live by our passions and to prioritize our needs and whims above everyone else.
Buried Treasure: illustration of William “Captain” Kidd overseeing a treasure burial. Picture by Howard Pyle, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
As a result, we tend to view people as valuable only if they serve and make us happy. And the more we view people in this way, the less we respect their human dignity and or care about relieving their suffering.
And that is why our moral and spiritual traditions emphasize virtues like kindness so consistently.
But does kindness in fact benefit anyone?
For instance, perhaps we think that kindness is weakness and that it doesn’t prepare people for the “real world”. Or perhaps we believe that kindness requires us constantly to sacrifice ourselves on other people’s behalf.
“The Doctor”, picture courtesy of Library of Congress Use and Reuse.
One answer to these concerns is to consider a good doctor who treats his patient well. In providing proper medicine, nutrition, and care to her patient, a good doctor strengths her patient’s health and relieves her suffering. In doing so, the good doctor is kind to her patient. And her kindness benefits both the doctor and the patient. The doctor strengthens her practice and develops excellent habits. And the patient gains health to live well in the world.
And it’s right to think of kindness as good medicine. We all need spiritual strength and healing to live well in the world. Kindness does this through respecting people’s dignity and working to decrease or end their suffering. And as we show kindness to others, we not only strengthen and heal them, we develop our ability to strengthen and heal ourselves. And all of us grow better equipped to live well in the world.
But another way to address concerns about whether kindness is beneficial is to note that kindness is a seed of goodness all of us possess inside us that wants to grow. So the more we practice authentic kindness, the more we allow the seed to grow. As such, the more life, power, and joy we feel. And we share this joy with the world and it make it a better place, too.
And if we are afraid that being kind means we cannot be strong or confront bad behavior, certainly Martin Luther King Jr.’s life proves the opposite. King believed in a radical love ethic, which meant he attempted to show kindness to everyone he met, even his enemies.
As such King practiced non-violent resistance. He refused to bow to racist societal practices and led marches and other various forms of resistance against such practices. The effectiveness of the protests he led and the influence of King’s life suggests that kindness can powerfully oppose evil and transform society.
You might also like to read about a Quaker woman named Elizabeth Fry who reformed England’s prisons through kindness: Elizabeth Fry: Angel of Prisons
Kindness is powerful because it reminds us of the truth about us and other people. Truth always eventually brings life, power, and joy. And that is why kindness is so beneficial.
Practice kindness, Friend. You will be so happy you did.
Here are two authors who write on kindness whom I enjoy. You might like them, too:
You can find Sharon Salzberg’s Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness at your local bookseller or on Amazon.
And you can find Thich Nhat Hanh’s True Love at your local bookseller or on Amazon.
You might also like this post: A Tricky Thing about Rights
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