The power of kindness

I am not beholden to that influential piece of propaganda that says kindness is weakness. Here’s one example of how wrong that propaganda is. The act of responding to anger and rage by walking away is an act of kindness because the person walking away, disengaging, if you will, is choosing not to inflame the moment any more than it already is. Yet the act of walking away is often considered weak. Rubbish. If it is an act of weakness to be kind, to walk away, then why is it so hard for so many to do exactly that?

If walking away was weakness doing it should be breeze, and it ain’t. As a human rights advocate, I’ve walked away, figuratively and literally, from some nasty, cruel and very often dishonest people, when a part of me fancied the idea of dribbling a few of them around the room and out the door.

There is a reasonable question to be asked. How is it, exactly, that walking away is, in fact, an act of kindness? If we equate the world we live in to the body and mind we live in, would it not be fair to say I am treating my body and mind with greater kindness by sparing both surges in stress and anxiety and anger? Are we not being kind to the world we live in when we choose not to add conflict? I certainly think so.

Kindness is just about as close to sacred as a human trait be, in large part  because you can’t have kindness without respect. Nearly every wound one human inflicts on another requires the absence of respect.  In fact, the depth of the wound one person inflicts on another, can often be measured by the degree to which the respect for the person is missing.

A matter of allegiance

There is little I value more in someone than kindness. Few things move me more than witnessing or learning about real acts of kindness.

Kind is defined in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary as “having or showing a gentle nature and a desire to help others : wanting and liking to do good things and to bring happiness to others.” The definition is incomplete. Kind is also having or showing a gentle nature and a desire to help yourself by being kind to yourself; wanting and liking to do good things and bring happiness to your life as well as to the lives of others.

I was in the sauna  at my local YMCA recently when I heard a conversation going on just outside the door. One person was offering a helpful suggestion to another person who’d been dealing with a painful condition for some time. Hearing the kindness and compassion in the voice of the one offering support coupled with the heartfelt emotional tones of appreciation in the voice of the one receiving the support brought me to tears. There are many things I love about life, moments like these are among my favorites.

Like you, I’ve witnessed acts of kindness and cruelty. Never too much of the former, always too much of the latter. As a writer I instinctively pay close attention to the world I live in. One component of that world is the interaction between people, their patterns of thought and emotion, the multitude of ways in which they interact with and treat each other, as well as the ways in which they interact with and treat themselves. It is not possible to have a healthy relationship with life absent a healthy relationship with self.  It is not possible to have a healthy relationship with self without an allegiance to honesty.

Now, if I told you I’ve always had a healthy relationship with my life my nose would respond with a vigorous Pinocchio response and make a sizeable hole in the monitor’s screen. So, I won’t lie to you. I won’t lie to you because, one, I am committed to living an honest life, and, two, I’m rather fond of my monitor.

It would be understandable if you’re wondering how an essay that starts off talking about kindness has somehow meandered its way to honesty and dishonesty. It’s done so because I believe when dishonesty is one of life’s underpinnings, acts of kindness are often self-serving, designed to make an impression or illicit a particular response. There are times apparent acts of kindness are rooted in unhealthy antecedents which, by their nature, are destructive. To the person offering the “kindness” and to the person receiving it.

This brings me back to allegiance. Is it healthy or misplaced? That’s the question.  For years dishonesty was an underpinning of my life because my allegiance was to alcohol and drugs. In short, to addiction. When anyone is caught in the addiction web – a web that can include addiction to food, work, sex, shopping, etc. – life becomes about protecting the addiction rather than protecting the life. A lifestyle like this leaves nothing  in its wake but carnage.  A carnage that includes the destruction of relationships, friendships, families, children, jobs, careers, education, hopes, dreams, and, life. I could name many – some of whom I loved and love still – who are dead because of  addiction. I know some today who will no doubt add to these numbers unless they shift allegiance from addiction to self.

Stepping out from behind the dishonesty mask is a scary. It is also the first step in reclaiming – or for the first time claiming – the right to one’s self. For me, the thought of reaching the end of my life still entrenched in the addiction web and hidden behind the dishonesty mask was far scarier – it also made me blisteringly angry. First, I would die without ever  fully living life as myself, and, second, those that wounded me would’ve had control of my choices right up to the moment of my death.  They don’t deserve that kind of power.

And then there is this: I know no kindness greater than saving a life, including one’s own. As I said, there is little I value more in someone than kindness and few things move me more than witnessing or learning about real acts of kindness, including those that are self-inflicted.

Kindness & compassion

The Dalai Lama is right when he tells us,“Be kind whenever possible” and “if you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” 

There is no doubt in my mind that  kindness and compassion  are the healthiest (and strongest) choices on the table. But being kind and compassionate is not always easy; nor is it always pain free. I would be surrendering my allegiance to honesty if I were to say I am kind and compassionate whenever possible, but that allegiance is under no threat when I say I try to be. And when I am not, and, on occasion, strike back in kind at someone who’s wounded me, I try as soon as possible to own it, apologize, and mean it.

There a few things I appreciate and value more in someone than their capacity for kindness and compassion. It takes no particular skill and little, if any, courage, to be cruel and nasty. It would also be unjust to universally define someone who’s been cruel and nasty as bad.

The online Webster Dictionary defines kindness as “the quality or state of being kind” and compassion as a “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”    Kindness does not mean you don’t hold others (including yourself) accountable for their choices. The goal is to do so with kindness and compassion. Not easy. Very hard, when responding to someone who’s just wounded you in a moment of anger (it is helpful to remember that anger often has sadness as its underpinning) and blisteringly hard when that someone is a person you love and care about.

There is a perfectly understandable question that deserves an answer. What makes responding with kindness and compassion the healthier  choice when I’m the one who’s just been hurt? There is, I believe, a good answer. I don’t believe someone is having a healthy respectful relationship with self when they are lashing out someone in a hurtful way. In fact, I believe it is just the opposite. I think their internal experience of self  is in fairly rough shape.  In most cases their damaged self-image was not their doing. I know many (including me) who’ve lived through various forms of abuse, who’ve had acts of physical and emotional violence perpetrated against them. The struggle to rediscover and, in some cases, discover for the first time, that their truth is as valuable and good and beautiful as anyone on the planet is a steep climb to be sure.

Now, if you respond in kind, and wound them back, you are reaffirming their damaged self-image and strengthening its role in their life.  If that’s what you really want to do, then perhaps you’ve got some work to do on yourself; there’s no shame in that. If it isn’t, please consider this. During the time you are responding with kindness and compassion you are sending the following message to the person. You see their value and worth and you are not  defining them by their behavior.

While we are not responsible for the abuse and violence perpetrated against us in life, we are responsible for healing from it, and we are responsible for the choices we make as a result of it.

As for the few who think it is an act of weakness to respond with kindness and compassion, let me pose the following question. If it is an act of weakness to respond with kindness and compassion, then why is it so hard to do?