Being kind dignifies our lives, even in the face of harshness that comes our way.
I recently had one of those weeks when kindness, even basic human decency seemed to be lacking. A laptop bought for my daughter to enable her to do a degree while also working and caring for a small child failed after less than 10 months. When it was sent for repair the response was that it was water damage. We all knew the device, which had been well looked after, had never even been in a humid environment, let alone a ‘wet’ one; this was just the desperate greed of a large corporation with a standard response that could cause huge stress.
The same week, we’d received emails from a ‘professional body that were derogatory and unwarranted, a response of inexperience and poor phrasing that came across as dismissive, rude and hurtful.
It’s so unnecessary, and, as Leo Tolstoy says:
Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.
And Jack Kerouac adds:
Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.
It’s not always easy, especially when we are on the receiving end of indifference or even casual cruelty. We fall short, especially when we are feeling wounded, and our urge is to respond in kind. Yet Tolstoy is adamant that:
The kinder and the more thoughtful a person is, the more kindness he can find in other people. Kindness enriches our life; with kindness mysterious things become clear, difficult things become easy, and dull things become cheerful.
And he goes on:
You should respond with kindness toward evil done to you, and you will destroy in an evil person that pleasure which he derives from evil.
This is far from easy, yet we all know from bitter experience that trying to defend ourselves or ‘set others straight’ is a losing strategy.
In his attempt to live a life of meaning and integrity, Tolstoy spent almost two decades compiling A Wise Thought for Every Day, which became a calendar of daily insights, with quotes from an array of writers as well as Tolstoy’s own thoughts. Kindness is the dominant theme.
Quotes from such thinkers as Jeremy Bentham:
A person becomes happy to the same extent to which he or she gives happiness to other people.
And John Ruskin:
The will of God for us is to live in happiness and to take an interest in the lives of others.
Why cynicism is the opposite of kindness
In an era of social media likes and dislikes and the triumph of the one-off cutting remark that looks ‘clever’, one-upping can appear to have much more value than saying something that is empathic and deep. Yet cynicism is always small-minded and cruel. The easy payoff of point scoring is always easier than saying something of depth and kindness and living by integrity, even when it exposes us to crass injustice.
This is something that Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, more commonly known as George Sand, was acutely aware of when she wrote her only children’s book, The Mysterious Tale of Gentle Jack and Lord Bumblebee.
Jack is a ‘fool’ archetype, an innocent who has unwavering integrity. Whilst he longs for love from his corrupt and avaricious parents, he’s not willing to compromise his morality for it. Nor is he willing to live in a fairy-tale utopia that excludes those he loves, even though they are blind to how kindness could transform their lives.
When he learns that:
The spirit of greed and theft has stifled the spirit of kindness and generosity in every heart and has driven into oblivion the great knowledge which you alone, of all who were born on this unhappy earth, now possess.
Jack heads back into the world, knowing that kindness is what is needed to overcome small-mindedness.
The world needs people who spread kindness and generosity, even when they are surrounded by anger and greed. When we are most challenged by injustice and cavalier unkindness, then we are most in need of ways of showing radical compassion. Einstein tells us that we do this by considering our dependence on others:
A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead … almost the whole of our actions and desires are bound up with the existence of other human beings … We eat food that others have grown, wear clothes that others have made, live in houses that others have built … The individual, if left alone from birth would remain primitive and beast-like in his thoughts and feelings to a degree that we can hardly conceive.
He goes on to say that we ultimately judge people by how they relate to others, but this does not mean that kindness and integrity are matters of ‘following the herd’, often quite the reverse:
A [wo]man’s value to the community depends primarily on how far his[/her] feelings, thoughts, and actions are directed towards promoting the good of [others] … It looks at first sight as if our estimate of a [wo]man depended entirely on his[/her] social qualities.
And yet … it is clear that all the valuable things, material, spiritual, and moral, which we receive from society can be traced back through countless generations to certain creative individuals.
The need for free-thinking individuals within a social and wider context might be the root of much unkindness. As social animals we want conformity. As an ever-evolving species we want new ideas and integrity. These two things are not always quite in step and so innovative thinkers can find themselves scorned.
To show kindness when our ideas are misunderstood or our best efforts are met with defensiveness requires us to realise that cynicism is an all too human response to anything that requires paradigm shift. Einstein puts it like this:
I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves … The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
But he also adds that we all need to find a few like-minded others in order to stay sane and true, in order not to rise to provocation with more of the same, but instead to return kindness in the face of misunderstanding.
Why kindness matters to writers
Kindness is fundamental to our social relations and to how we function as inventive thinkers, sometimes against the misunderstanding mainstream. But why is it of particular importance to writers?
Empathy is at the heart of writers. When we write great characters, reflect on history or offer a poem that goes to the heart of the human condition, we are invoking empathy.
To quote Steinbeck:
As a writer you should not judge. You should understand …
In every bit of honest writing in the world … there is a base theme. Try to understand [wo]men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a [wo]man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love … Try to understand each other.
Writers of all genres explore the human condition and to do so with kindness can only enhance life.
An invitation to become your story
Thank you for reading — I’d love to help you as you transform your story.
Sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. On the website, you’ll also find free courses, Giving yourself time to become a different story and Finding the rhythms of your different story as well as tasters for the paid courses so you can dip in and see for yourself.
Frank Dullaghan says
This is a good blog entry, Jan. Necessary and heartening in these times. Something for me to carry with me through this day (at least). Big love to you.
Janet Swinney says
The point about empathy is undoubtedly true. It’s at the heart of what makes us writers. This is why I dispute the argument that only those who have a particular racial/ethnic/class identity can write about those of the same identity. This would be the end of the literary canon as we know it. Into the bin with social commentators such as Dickens, Rohinton Mistry, Preti Taneja. The only writers left would be diarists and bloggers. The writer’s task is to develop a profound understanding of those s/he wishes to write about, and to write well.
Denni Turp says
That’s a very lovely–and very true–blog article–thank you, Jan.
Fokkina McDonnell says
A very timely piece. Thank you.
Sheena Bradley says
I wish the world followed your ideaology, Jan.
Trish Harewood says
I applaud every line of this blog!
Gathered from many sources and your own life experience, we are, as you say, dependent on others in many ways – one of the multitude of reasons to be kind to each other.
Eileen Carney Hulme says
Beautiful and timely, thank you Jan x