My weekly column for your viewing pleasure (hopefully):
“The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given
me new courage to face life cheerfully have been kindness, truth and
beauty.” ~ Albert Einstein
Ah, truth and beauty — arguably two of the elements of a good life lived are subjects for another day. Kindness once again is raising its lofty head in recognition of its role in creating a life worth living—but does it really make a difference?
Author George Saunders thinks so. In his convocation speech in 2013 to graduates at Syracuse University he told the grads that what he regrets most in life are his “failures of kindness”. These failures were not in the guise of unkindness but he says were “moments when another human being was there, in front of me suffering and I responded….sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.” In other words, while he did not ignore the suffering, neither did he go that extra mile to alleviate it.
He admits that his advice is corny, but he delivers it anyway. He suggests that there is no greater goal in life than to “try to be kinder.” Saunders tries to answer the question as to why we are not kinder and in doing so he cites these three reasons, which intellectually make no sense but we seem to believe them “viscerally” or instinctively. The first is that we are central to the universe and that the only interesting story is our personal one. The second is in direct contrast to the first: we’re separate from the universe (there is us, and then out there is all that other junk). Number three is the real kicker, and most of us live our lives in this state of denial: we are permanent, and while we recognize that death is real, it is for other people.
So these three belief systems tend to make us put our needs before those of other people, even though Saunders claims what we really want is to be “less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, and more loving” (which translates into kindness). He says that we know we “want to be these things because from time to time we have been these things—and liked it.”
He also asks this important question: “Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?” And since he was giving the speech, he also provided the answer, which in its simplicity is complex: “Those who were kindest to you.”
So what does kindness mean? Many things it turns out. It includes compassion—an understanding of the human condition. And sympathy, thoughtfulness, helpfulness, gentleness, and benevolence, or more simply good will towards your fellow earth walkers. But a good will that you extend. Kindness is an act—it must be an action to be of any use.
Saunders believes that kindness “it turns out, is hard”. He says that as we get older, it is easier to be kinder, and if you have kids, that will be a “huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to you, as long as they benefit.” His advice to the graduates is to go ahead and accomplish things, succeed in your endeavours, but at the same time hurry up the gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving. He says “Speed it along. Start right now.” Don’t wait to become kinder and gentler. Act on it now and “seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines. Energetically, for the rest of your life.”
The other day on Facebook, someone put out the challenge to participate in a “Pay it Forward” initiative. The first five people who commented with an “I’m in” would be the recipients of a surprise from her at some point this year—and the surprise would take the form of “anything from a book, a ticket, something home-grown, a postcard, or absolutely any surprise.” She said that there would be no warning and “it will happen when the mood comes over me”. The catch, if you can call it a catch is to make the same offer to five more people, and form a “web connection of kindness.” Well, I sent her my “I’m in” and in the spirit of kindness will be posting the same initiative on my Facebook page.
Oh, and the reason for the initiative? The post said that it is being done “without any reason other than to make each other smile and to show that we think of each other.” Now that is kindness in action.