What we talk about when we talk about Kindness?
In May earlier this year, we were inundated with #BeKind posts on social media. May is celebrated as Mental Health Awareness Month and in the UK, the Mental Health Foundation hosts the Mental Health Awareness Week each year. This year, it took place from 18-24 May 2020. The theme, as you might have guessed, was kindness.
This isn’t one of those times we dole out a vocabulary lesson on the difference between kindness, compassion and empathy. Yes, the three words – often used interchangeably – signify a variation of the same emotion, but when you strip them all of the logistical features, they can all be easily placed under an umbrella of ‘caring of others’. And that’s what we talk about when we talk about kindness.
Go back in time and ask Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius and he would tell you how kindness is humankind’s greatest delight. But over a period of time, kindness has come to be identified as a weakness. In their book, On Kindness, Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor trace through history how the meaning of kindness has evolved and changed through the vicissitudes of time. So, what does kindness look like in 2020?
On making kindness meaningful, actionable and accountable.
“Kindness is everything”, wrote Naomi Wolf in her essay in What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self. There’s no better exhibition of this fact than during a crisis: kindness is everything, and it can make all the difference as to whether one of us makes it, or all of us will. However, kindness doesn’t have to be a grand gesture that requires you to self-flagellate. Real kindness doesn’t require people to be selfless, instead, real kindness changes people in the doing of it, often in unpredictable ways.
The onus for kindness, however, cannot be on an individual and it certainly cannot be in our words alone. Increasingly, there is a need for our acts of kindness to be actionable and meaningful.
This implies reforms on two ends. One, we need to be kind as a system. Individual kindness is great. We should all look out for each other, look after each other. Kindness is a powerful force, but it isn’t enough. We can be kind and it might not make a difference if the people your kindness is supposed to serve are still at the mercy of an oppressive system.
To that effect, we are still looking at people like they’re “others” – the ones marginalised, or less privileged. If we are to truly make a difference, we’ve to shun the saviour complex and look at people as people. Marginalised identities should not receive kindness as a favour. At the same time, what we perceive to be an act of kindness may not suffice (or could even be counterproductive) for serving the one it’s intended to serve. Kindness has to be meaningful, effective and actionable.
Two, we have, for a long time now, subscribed to the idea of kindness being a weakness. Succeeding professionally is often equated with a brand of ruthlessness that only people who can shed all emotions on the battlefield can achieve. The ones who take mercy on their opponents are thought of as weak. Kindness is actually anything but. To stay fiercely kind in the midst of a metaphorical storm requires an incredible amount of bravery. The dilemma is understandable: can we foster compassion when the systems are designed to reward those who show none? Where’s the incentive?
True kindness, then, lies somewhere in the middle of these two extreme versions. Kindness doesn’t have to be heroic – it just has to be actionable.
More to read on Kindness
- This article on Maclean’s talks about the politics of kindness, and among other things, highlights the link between societal lack of compassion and epidemic levels of stress, anxiety and depression, bullying, crime, growing wealth and health inequality, more children growing up in poverty.
- This brilliant, brilliant short graphic novel by Ezra Claytan Daniels that talks about the concept of “Empathy Myopia” and acts as an explainer for the “Just World Fallacy”, among other things.
Off the Internet:
- Did you know that the University of Oxford has its own multidisciplinary empathy centre called the Empathy Programme which brings together medical practitioners, philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists for research work?
- It’s likely that if you care too much, you might exhaust yourself. It’s called compassion fatigue and it’s legit.
Adishi Gupta, based in Delhi, India writes Letters of Kindness (@lettersofkindnessofficial)
She writes letters to strangers who are looking for a little pick-me-up. To date, she has sent out 84 hand-written letters as well as emails and 24 short notes to people all over the country since starting out in 2019. She has also been engaging with the ideas of kindness, empathy, vulnerability, among others, through her monthly newsletter, Tender Tales.
She shares with us what kindness means to her and how it pervades her life.
When I posted on my personal Instagram handle that I will be writing letters to people, I wasn’t aware that I was starting something. Writing letters & the ideas of kindness and empathy have always been quite close to my heart because of my own experiences as a highly sensitive person. The letter writing bit had fizzled out because I got tired of only writing letters & not receiving them. And I felt too ashamed about this feeling so I never brought it up & just stopped writing altogether.
In creative coaching, I realised that I needed to get back to writing letters because it was something I held dear to me. So I really just went ahead, created a Typeform asking the questions that I thought I’d need to write to someone and posted about it on my profile.
As for my fascination and commitment to kindness and everything that supports it, they are rooted in my experiences of the world as a frightened, neglected and invisible child. I grew up hating my (hyper)sensitivity because I always ended up being more hurt than I could handle, always getting reminded in direct and indirect ways that if I carry my heart on my sleeve, this is what will happen. Most of my years went by in rubbing this insensitivity off my skin until I realised I could not wish it away. I could either continue living with it while hating it or I could continue living with it while giving it the welcome that it was so desperately looking for.
For what it’s worth, it has led me to where I am today. I wish it hadn’t taken from me all that it did, nobody deserves that. But I am here. And I hope that I can try to make people like me feel less alone—people who are always easy to get hurt, people who find it hard to believe (& accept) that some people are irredeemably unkind and violent, people who hope that kindness and empathy become a way of life for all of us, in everything we do. And that above all, we practice what we say.
What does ‘kindness’ mean to you?
I engage with defining kindness a lot, but all I can conclude is this: it looks and feels different in every situation, with every person, and for every person. Because of how much we have pedestalised it, it is at once something that is considered saintly and also suspicious at the same time. However, I dislike and disapprove of these grand narratives of what kindness is.
I think that kindness is acknowledging the flawed nature of the world and the people (including ourselves) and still saying, “I see you and I am here for you, while we work to make this better.” And this is one of the hardest and the most vulnerable things to do.
I think that kindness is acknowledging the flawed nature of the world and the people (including ourselves) and still saying, “I see you and I am here for you, while we work to make this better.” And this is one of the hardest and the most vulnerable things to do. Which is to say, it is anything but comfortable or pleasant, at least not always. But eventually, all of us are just hoping to be seen for who we are, while we become who we want to be.
Message to the readers
To think that kindness is a selfless surrender of your needs & wants is an unhealthy idea to live with. I hope we can move beyond these toxic ideas and understand that kindness is, first and foremost, towards oneself. If a situation and/or a person leaves me feeling unworthy, the kind thing to do is to walk away. This holds true, especially for romantic relationships. We have been spoilt by too many romantic comedies to think it is our responsibility (and the kind thing to do) to stick with people who make us feel like shit.