I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness recently. It’s defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate”. Synonyms for it include: goodwill, affection, warmth, gentleness, tenderness, concern, care, helpfulness, thoughtfulness, unselfishness, altruism, compassion, sympathy, understanding, friendliness, neighbourliness, hospitality, courteousness, public-spiritedness, generosity, magnanimity, patience, tolerance, charitableness, graciousness, and mercifulness.
I’ve noticed that the presence – or absence – of kindness “out there in the world”, as well as in my own life, can have a marked effect on how I feel about life. For example, I was inspired and gladdened by the kindness of Andrew Graystone (above), who on the day that the awful news broke about the mass murder of worshippers at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand stood outside a mosque in Manchester carrying a placard that read: “You are my friends. I will keep watch while you pray.”
Equally, though, there are too many things that happen that cause me to despair. I have been left angered, frustrated and maddened by the callous bureaucratic cruelties inflicted on members of the Windrush generation by the Government’s “hostile environment” immigration policies; and I have been dismayed and depressed by the mindlessly destructive actions of property developers who have recently taken to netting trees, hedges and buildings to prevent birds nesting there.
We all are capable of kindness and many people act kindly towards others and towards the natural world on a regular, even daily basis. We all know what it is to be treated kindly too, although for some that is a rarer experience than it should be. We benefit greatly both from being kind and from others being kind to us – such actions build mutual regard, trust, a sense of being supported and create joy, friendship and solidarity.
Yet we are also all capable of the opposite. How many times in an average day do we think unkind thoughts, say unkind things or act unkindly? What impact does this have on us? In my own case, I know that being angry or dismissive or contemptuous of other people doesn’t make me feel better about myself or about the world. It just creates unresolved feelings of frustration and bafflement at the way of things and erodes the sense of hope for the future that we all need.
This raises the question: why are we not kind more often? What prevents us from adopting a basic outlook of kindness towards the world as a “default setting”, rather than being mistrustful, cynical, judgemental and uncaring?
There are, no doubt, many reasons why this is. The System 1 pattern of thinking described in Daniel Kahnemann’s pathbreaking “Thinking, Fast and Slow” may be responsible in part. When we react to people or events with System 1 thinking, we use our accumulated patterns of information about the world to arrive at instantaneous, frequently biased opinions and judgements. Judging people on their appearances, on the basis of a few words that they may have said or an action they may have taken leads us, through the network of inferences that we draw from this limited pool of data, to form an overall view of them that may be dangerously shallow and ill-informed.
There is also the tendency for social groupings and communities to seek to delineate and reinforce their sense of identity in relation to “the other”. When we define who we are in the negative, by saying “we are not like THEM”, we immediately make it possible to care less about others and even become downright hostile towards them.
Perhaps we need to start thinking of kindness as a sort of practice that can, and needs to be, developed. This practice might start by building awareness within ourselves of all the times we think, feel or act unkindly and noticing what impact that has on us and on others. It might build through the development of “conscious kindness”, where we commit ourselves to viewing other people and their situations with empathy, curiosity and compassion. It might start to bear real fruit when the practice of conscious kindness becomes the bedrock upon which businesses, communities and governments are built.
None of this, of course, is in any way a call for us to excuse or overlook the wrongs that people do. Acting kindly requires that we speak out strongly about injustice, cruelty and abuse wherever we encounter them and that we stand in solidarity with those who are abused. It also requires us, however, to remain thoughtful and curious about the causes of such wrongs, so that we may learn how they can be avoided in the future. The world in 2019 is in a perilous situation. Kindness alone will not be sufficient for us to avert catastrophic climate change or species collapse, nor will it solve poverty, injustice or war. It will. However, make it much easier for us to work together in tackling these huge challenges and it will make life more joyful and hopeful as we do so. Being kind is something we can all do, at no cost and with no extra expenditure of time. Surely that is worth the effort required to make it a central part of how we live and work together each day?