How to be kind

by Charlie Huenemann

“There’s only one rule I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” —Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Despite Vonnegut’s strong counsel to babies entering the world, kindness seems to be in short supply. Little wonder. Our news media portray to us a world of power politics, corporate greed, murders, and cruel policies which are anything but kind. Our popular forms of entertainment, much more often than not, are stories about battles that shock and thrill us and gratify our lust for bloody vengeance, leaving no room for wimpy, kind sentiments. Success is advertised to us as requiring harsh discipline, dedication, and focus, and kindness, it appears, need not apply. Even though we all like to give and receive kindnesses, they seem to play no role in our political, social, and cultural economies.

We might be misled into thinking of kindness as bound up with ethereal virtues, such as a pervasive love for all humanity, or a spiritual peace from the heart that passes all ordinary understanding. To advocate for this sort of kindness sounds like recruiting for some mystical cult. But ordinary experience tells us that kindness is neither magical nor extraordinary. It’s an everyday thing. You and I meet in the street, and I say, “That’s a cool shirt!” and you say, “Thanks! Kind of you to say so.” A teacher hears out a student’s tale of woes, and grants an extension on a paper out of kindness. You slow down to allow another car pull into traffic, and get a cheery wave in reply. And so on, through many instances of life, in all sorts of ways. Being kind does not require being Gandhi. It doesn’t even require love. It just requires a bit of, well, kindness.

Kindness, I think, does not require spiritual attunement, but requires only patience and empathy.

Patience is also in short supply, as we rush about to attend to our VIMs, or Very Important Matters. But if we ever have the chance to slow down and stop thinking of ourselves and recognize someone else’s plight, or something about them that is praiseworthy, or something about which they have evidently taken some care, and we say or do something in response to that, then we have succeeded in being kind. We don’t need to like the person, or even like the way they wear their hair. We can just observe that their hair must mean a lot to them, and we can say, “Your hair is really stunning!” and they will rightly regard the remark as our being kind. We have taken the time to compliment them on something they evidently care a lot about.

Our online interactions are perhaps where kindness is hardest to find, and that’s too bad, given the time we spend online. Anyone who has found themselves battling others in a comment thread knows that replies are fast and furious, with no time being spent to empathize patiently with anyone else. The stakes are too high! Kumquat999 is denying climate change! and is probably an anti-vaxxer! and if we let that stupid remarks go unpunished, we fail in our fight against Truth! So we feel we have no time to be patient, and we have no empathy for that idiot. And Kumquat999 feels the same, surely, as there is nothing in a rapid-fire exchange of barbs and poop emoji to inspire anyone toward empathy or patience. The kind thing to do would be to stop engaging in battle and try asking Kumquat999 what they think we probably agree on, and then to see if we can both work outward from that point to find where our paths diverge. (Yeah, not gonna happen, I know. But that would be the kind thing to do, wouldn’t it?)

It’s not clear whether kindness should always prevail. If you are walking with a small animal (human or otherwise), then, yes, by all means, slow down and consider their experience, and be kind. But suppose you are trying to help a child overcome his fear of the night. At some point you may have to override your empathy and let the kid tough it out on his own in the dark for a bit. Or suppose someone has hurt somebody else; they should feel remorse over doing so, and if we are the ones imposing punishment on them, empathy will be playing a secondary role in our thinking (though of course it should not vanish completely). In both cases, our empathy alerts us that the person is going to suffer, and perhaps our kind impulses will urge us to refrain; but we override those impulses for the sake of some other important end (like education, or justice). 

Now maybe these can be understood as cases of “a greater kindness” overruling a lesser one; or maybe, on the other hand, these are cases where kindness just isn’t as important as something else. Thinking about what kindness requires, or when (if ever) it should be overridden, are questions we perhaps should be thinking about. In a short article I came across  (“The Compatibility of Justice and Kindness”), Daniel Putman writes that negotiating between justice and kindness requires some sophisticated dialectical thinking:

The just person needs to weigh the demands of kindness and empathy in order to keep justice from being dangerously divorced from people’s real lives. Likewise, the kind person must weigh the demands of justice if kindness is not to become exploitation, either of the agent or of the other by denying his or her dignity. The two virtues require each other.

As Putman explains, achieving the right sort of balance in one’s judgments about kindness and justice requires what the ancients called phronesis, or the sort of wisdom any mature social being ought to have. It’s our job, Aristotle said, to try to become that being.

So how do we cultivate patience and empathy? I think it’s not all that hard, in fact, but it does require some focused exercise.

  1. Patience. It is inevitable that in the near future you will find yourself waiting in line for something, or in a painfully dull meeting, or trapped somehow in circumstances you cannot flee. Resist the impulse to check your phone for a quick fix of distraction. Practice instead some low-level mindfulness. You do not need to close your eyes or chant or anything like that. Just begin by noticing your breath. Realize that there is no way to shorten the wait, or end the meeting, and take this time to realize how wonderful it is to breathe. (You won’t always be breathing, so take advantage of this experience while you can). The VIMs that are on your agenda will still be there for you; right now they will just have to wait, as you are busy breathing. The more you take the time to do this, the greater your capacity for patience will become. Soon, whenever you need to, you will be able to enter a zone where the most important thing you can be doing at that time is continuing to breathe. That is patience. And this will allow you an opportunity for – 
  2. Empathy. Breathing is very important, to be sure, but once you have savored it adequately, at least on this occasion, you might begin speculating about what is animating the other people around you. Are they angry? Are they smiling? Are they looking worriedly at their phones? What might have been going on in their day? What have they been going through, and what (if anything) moves them forward? (For an excellent presentation of the creative scenarios you might consider, see this marvelous presentation of David Foster Wallace’s commencement address, “What is water?”) If you have entered a zone of patience, you can choose to notice what is going on in the faces around you. And if you notice this, with patience, you will find yourself being kind. We all will be better for it.