Several times this week, I have read on social media people suggesting that kindness is weakness.
It always surprises me when I read things like this.
On the one hand, I can understand how someone might come to believe that kindness is a sign of weakness. Sometimes people mistake kindness for niceness. And I don’t think niceness is, in fact, a virtue.
For example, when people are overly concerned with being nice, they are often concerned about keeping up appearances, not rocking the boat, or not ruffling any feathers. You have probably seen examples of this on TV.
For example, have you ever seen a television show in which it is clear that the family portrayed on a show is falling apart? Maybe the mother and father constantly bicker. Or the father and son are at each other’s throats. Perhaps the daughter has found out some secret about crimes certain family members are involved in.
The family is rotting from the inside out. Perhaps they constantly yell and fight behind closed doors. And, yet, in public they dress nicely, smile at everyone, and demonstrate lavish expressions of love and support for each other.
But it is clear that all of these pleasant appearances and expressions of love are insincere. The family engages in them to appear nice and pleasant. They don’t, in fact, actually care about each other or even about being good. Rather, they engage in these pleasantries to maintain appearances—usually to look good in the eyes of the community and earn the rewards of a good reputation, even if that reputation is false.
Or, on the other hand, sometimes people in a variety of relationships act nice in an insincere manner because they sense there are serious problems festering below the surface. But they don’t know how to deal with the problems. So their veneer of niceness aims to cover over the trouble lurking below.
And, of course, some people just loathe conflict. So they act nicely and politely to everyone, even people behaving badly, to avoid any sort of conflict.
The point here is that niceness often promotes a type of cheeriness, civility, and peace but for all the wrong reasons.
And niceness as I have characterized it here often is, in fact, a sign of weakness. I say this as a description rather than a judgment.
After all, it takes a lot of courage and emotional fortitude to face problems and confront unpleasantness. Sometimes we don’t have the emotional strength to battle other people’s demons or their dunder-headedness. Probably most of us have experienced such moments of understandable vulnerability before. I know I have.
On the other hand, I suggest that kindness is entirely different from niceness, even though sometimes they may share similar behaviors. And, in fact, kindness requires a great deal of strength, character, and self-control.
When someone is kind to others, they recognize that other people, no matter how they act, always possess dignity and worth as human beings. And, therefore, kind people often act with patience, compassion, empathy, and respect.
Furthermore, kind people often encourage others, speak gently to others, try to de-escalate situations if they can, and make peace if possible. Such actions can look nice and polite, and so sometimes people may mistake kindness as a sign of weakness.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema, Courtesy of Unsplash
But this is a mistake, and to explain why, please imagine several scenarios with me.
Scenario One: Imagine that two people—Joe and Ellen—are having a conversation. And imagine that Joe says something derogatory about Ellen’s religion. Ellen feels hurt and angry because her faith is the most important thing to her. But rather than return Joe’s insult with an insult, Ellen realizes that no matter how rude Joe is, he possesses dignity. And Ellen further considers that Joe may have the opinions he does because he has been deeply hurt by religious people. Ellen recognizes that she has an opportunity to show Joe the kind of love that she believes is at the heart of her religion. So rather than lashing out at Joe, Ellen expresses empathy and asks him to tell her more about his religious experiences. She listens patiently and non-defensively, and it ends up being a wonderful discussion. At the end, Joe says, “Hey, I am sorry about what I said earlier. I was just upset, but I really appreciate you listening.”
Scenario Two: Imagine two men–Carlos and Paul–work together. Paul tells offensive jokes all the time, and Carlos is tired of Paul’s inappropriate humor. But the more he listens to Paul, the more Carlos senses that Paul tells these jokes out of thoughtless habit. Carlos suspects Paul does so because this is the kind of humor he has been surrounded with his entire life. In fact, Carlos senses that Paul tells a lot of his jokes on auto-pilot and does it because he doesn’t know what else to talk about. So, Carlos decides to befriend Paul. He asks him about his weekend went and finds out about his hobbies. And Carlos tells Paul about his fishing trips and a truck he’s building for overlanding trips. Over time, Carols notices that Paul tells offensive jokes less frequently. He and Carlos build a sincere friendship together over shared hobbies.
Scenario Three: Imagine two college women—Amy and Carmen—who end up roommates their freshman year of college. Two weeks into the semester, Amy discovers that Carmen is involved in some lifestyle choices that Amy doesn’t approve of. She also regularly hears Carmen make political statements that she thinks are off the wall. A couple of times, Amy feels freaked out about how different she and Carmen are, and occasionally she wants to tell Carmen off or request a different roommate. But Amy also knows that it’s important to learn to how to get along with people who have different opinions or views of life. Amy decides that she is going to be honest about her beliefs with Carmen but that she is also going to treat Carmen with dignity no matter how much she disagrees with her. Much to Amy’s surprise, by the end of the semester, she and Carmen have become strong friends. Amy still doesn’t agree with everything Carmen does, and she is honest about it with Carmen. But she realizes she has also learned a great deal from Carmen and better understands the world she is coming from. And Carmen tells Amy that Amy has taught her a lot.
What’s the point of these stories?
I suggest that these three stories all illustrate situations in which people could have responded to people with harshness, rudeness, or condemnation. But instead, they showed kindness. And their kindness did not proceed from any sort of weakness. Rather, it proceeded from virtues like patience, compassion, and empathy. Their compassion proceeded from a desire to understand how to work with or get along with people from a different background.
And, in fact, all these virtues take a lot of strength and character. On the other hand, the character traits opposite these virtues do not require much strength or character.
For example, showing patience to a person who offends you takes character. Retaliating spitefully and impulsively takes no character.
And viewing an unpleasant person with compassion and empathy takes character. Demeaning or being rude to such a person takes no character.
Learning to work and live with people who look, think, and believe differently from you takes character. Only associating with people who look, think, and believe like you takes no character.
The difference between niceness and kindness is especially important to remember when we are in environments or situations with a lot of conflict or disagreement. Niceness is not very helpful in such situations. That is because niceness often encourages us to stick our head in the sand to avoid unpleasantness. Kindness, on the other hand, requires that we look unpleasantness square in the face. And it further requires us to figure out a compassionate and creative response that honors everyone’s dignity.
That’s true strength.
Growing up I heard a lot of cool stories about missionaries who were powerfully kind in the most creative and compassionate way. And they inspired my thinking on this matter. Mary Slessor was one such missionary.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this one: Treating People with Dignity—Even Mean, Ignorant Ones.
You might also like this post: I’m Just Telling It Like It Is:
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