Admittedly, it may be somewhat ironic for me to talk about kindness given that I’ve lived more days as a curmudgeon than a bastion of goodwill. However it’s something I deeply respect, and as I age it’s a virtue I try evermore to embody.
Kindness goes beyond merely offering up polite platitudes, letting someone cut in traffic, or opening a door to suffice our desire to see ourselves as good people; kindness is a worldview that is demonstrated by our attitudes and how we treat people around us. People like Pope Francis and Thích Nhất Hạnh are archetypes of kindness, but for the rest of us there are factors we need to first consider if kindness is going to arise organically in our day to day lives.
This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.
~ Dalai Lama
What Kindness Demands of Us
Openness and vulnerability Connection the very fabric of what makes our lives worthwhile and simultaneously enhances other people’s lives. In order to connect we must be open to letting people in, and that requires a degree of vulnerability. Brené Brown has a great TED talk about how being vulnerable is a vital asset. There is significant risk involved with putting yourself out there with a child like abandon, but the risk has a huge payoff and is fundamental to giving our lives meaning.
Being Kind to Ourselves
When we are quick to judge ourselves, we are subsequently quick to project that outward and judge others by the same measure. Being kind to ourselves means accepting our own faults, and in turn responding to them as if they were a process to be worked through, rather than an indictment against ourselves. It should be noted however that being excessively kind to ourselves is merely being self indulgent and has no real benefit. Self compassion is to be your own perfect parent, where the child is not spoiled, but they are also not burdened with crushing guilt.
Empathizing with other’s plight is the pinnacle of altruism. When we empathize with others we put judgement and ego aside and do one thing: understand. It means listening first and not simply assuming. To be empathetic, we have to understand the suffering of others. We must attempt to occupy their headspace and know their plight. It’s important to note that empathy is not sympathy or pity. Empathy has a quality of depth that allows us to relate to one another sans feeling superior.
Being empathetic is not an easy task. While it may be easy to empathize with tsunami victims or poverty stricken children, it’s not so easy to empathize with people that have done things we would judge as irresponsible or even horrific . To empathize doesn’t mean we enable, but empathy lays a foundation for appropriate response. If we want to prevent future tragedy we must empathize with people that are prone to committing such acts. Negative behavior is born out of immense inner turmoil, and the only way to diffuse it is to empathize with their humanity and relate to the redeemable parts of them before events caused them to do things we find difficult accept; only then can we take appropriate action to prevent future damage.
Lastly, awareness is quintessential to being kind. Buddhist monks spend lifetimes trying to master awareness through intense meditation, and while meditation can be a great tool for clearing our minds of superfluous clutter, it’s not a necessity for being more aware. Increasing awareness only requires effort to be in the moment. Being cognizant of how our words and actions impact others is kindness in action. Awareness to not speak every time a visceral thought enters our mind, and putting in the effort to think about what will create more joy and allay suffering.
A Last Word on Kindness
Our modern age, while an improvement over the past, is filled with hypercritical judgments and societal inequities that lead some to blame those that are most often products of their environments. Not everyone is equally culpable when it comes to fostering callous attitudes, but everyone could stand to exercise more kindness.
We must recognize that every person is also us, just with slightly different biology and sometimes vastly different life experiences. There’s nothing special about any one of us that makes us more saintly or less demonic than our fellow man. We all are here trying to make the best of things, doing what we can to cope with our own suffering while attempting to create more happiness for ourselves.
It’s only through the frame of kindness do we cure our ills. Kind without judgment, condescension, or ego laden patronization. As trite as it may sound, it’s the capacity to be kind to each other that will change our world. While our technological abilities have been increasing at an exponential rate, our social construct has become stagnant in comparison. Advancing humanity and avoiding a dystopian future requires we bring kindness into everything we do. From political and economic views to how behave in our daily lives, when compassion is at the forefront of our decisions humanity moves forward.