Wednesday, July 05, 2017


Sometimes a word or a concept jumps out when I see or hear it repeatedly over a short time.  So if I were still a popular culture journalist, I'd be all over "kindness."  Is "kindness"a thing?

Maybe, but in any case I've noticed it more recently, as the formulation of a virtue that is newly prominent.  For me it probably started with President Obama's last talk with his last group of young White House interns when he counselled them: "Be kind, be useful, be fearless."  Such a homely word as "kind" was striking, especially as advice for ambitious young people.

Maybe it's because kindness is not usually on the list of attributes for those who want to be successful.  Ruthless or (more gently) "focused" is more likely.  It seems weak or at least too idealistic and spiritual, as in the "loving-kindness" that the Dalai Lama talks about.

But it seems to be getting better press lately.  A research project found that the key to actual lasting relationships is in fact kindness and generosity.   Last year it was revealed that Harvard considers evidence of kindness as important in prospective students.

Bill Nighy says in an interview somewhere that in theatre and on movie sets, nothing is more important for a project's success than kindness.  And for absolute cosmic affirmation there's the recent speech by a Time Lord, the Doctor: in the season finale which was also the last regular episode for Peter Capaldi as the Doctor:

“Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone … or because I hate someone or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right. Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind." 

Clearly a lot of recent emphasis on kindness, including the Doctor's, is in reaction to the current regime in the White House and our apprentice dictator's policies as well as his words.  In an Independence Day Maris/PBS/NPR poll, about the only thing that the bisected American electorate could agree on is that civility in public discourse has fallen into a black hole since he took office.  And when Make American Kind Again makes it onto demonstration posters, it qualifies as a thing.

In an era of grandiosity, kindness is the most modest of virtues.  It's not as lofty as love, nor as searing as compassion.  It's not as abstract as altruism or as thoughtful and emotive as empathy.  It's not as formulaic as courtesy or fairness.

Although kindness can be reflected in public policy and social norms, it's an attribute for any individual under any circumstances.  Anybody can be kind, in any given moment.  An act of kindness may pass unnoticed. Yet it can make such a difference.  You see this in Dickens---his characters can be evil or weak or mean or dishonest in a dozen ways, but his good characters are good most often because they are kind.  Dickens' central characters survive the forms of evil because they cross paths with people who are kind.

What Dickens knew and our social "scientists" are learning is that kindness is just as much a part of human nature--with a vital role to play in our evolution--as the usual characteristics associated with survival of the fittest, and even the phrase "that's human nature."

But as the Doctor said, each act of kindness is not about winning.  It's just where you stand in life, who you are.  It is above all the act and commitment of an individual.  When it operates socially, in concert with others, it becomes the basis for civilization, which I maintain is all in the phrase "you'd do the same for me."

The present chaos is a preview of the future if as a society we can't deal with new dangers and conditions without hiding in denial and acting out helplessly and violently.  But even if as a society we don't straighten out--and we might--everything, including survival of anything we'd care to call human, will depend on virtues as large as courage, but also as simple as kindness.

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