Kindness and Compassion: the Real Revolutionary Qualities

We have most recently spoken of vulnerability and of healing. Vulnerability involves an awareness of the possibility of being hurt, yet reveals the paralysis of building protective walls around ourselves. A gradually growing trust allows us to share something of who we are with one another and, in humanist psychologist, Erich Fromm’s words, to “escape the prison of our aloneness.”

A key ingredient in this process is listening with openness. Such listening, as we mentioned last week, is, according to physician, Rachel Remen, is “the most powerful tool of healing.” In attentive listening out of our silence, and with care, we provide a safe place for one another, a place of acceptance of who we are. To repeat her words: “Our listening creates a sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person, places where they have been denied, unloved, devalued by themselves and others.”

Behind such listening lies caring, compassion and kindness, which we might explore this week. Spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, observes that the Greek word for compassion means to feel in your guts, and the Hebrew word means to feel in your womb, to tremble in the centre of your being. The Latin word, from cum and passio, means to suffer with, to enter into the pain or hurt of another with caring. Along similar lines, a key element in dialogue between persons, often with different worldviews, is to be open to be changed by what we hear. Compassion also implies allowing ourselves to be moved by what we hear. It means to have an empty but caring space within us, clear of our own clutter and agendas, so as to receive another as they are.

Closely related to compassion is kindness. A few days before she died, writer June Caullwood was asked about her beliefs. She answered simply, “ I believe in kindness.” she gave the example of opening the door for another who was perhaps struggling with carrying groceries or who was weakened by age. The Dalai Lana has also expressed a corresponding conviction. “My religion is simple,” he said, “my religion is kindness.”

The word kindness and the word kin have similar roots. It means to sense a family tie with someone or something. It means essentially to feel a connection with someone in a caring way. Political scientist, Michael Ignatieff, whom we have quoted before, has written about the extension of this kinship and caring in a gradually expanding way. He expresses the conviction: “Believing fiercely in the value of those we love is the very condition of believing in the value of those farthest away.” He adds: “Human rights derive their force in our conscience from this sense that we belong to one species, and that we recognize ourselves in every single human being we meet.” We would add that what is foundational to this process is a conviction of our own sacred worth, as well as an extension of that worth beyond the human level to the whole community of beings with whom we share our planetary home, earth, and with whom we form part of the immense universe.

In their book, On Kindness, Barbara Taylor and Adam Philips stress that kindness, rather than competitive individualism, is essential to our fulfillment as human beings. They describe kindness as the ability to bear the vulnerability of others and therefore of ourselves. They also use the term, “open-heartedness, the sympathetic expansiveness linking self to others.” They note that while resilience and resourcefulness are possible, still everybody is vulnerable at every stage in their lives, subject to illness, accident, personal tragedy, political and economic reality. They observe further,: “Bearing other people’s vulnerability–which means sharing in it imaginatively and practically without needing to get rid of it, …entails being able to bear one’s own.” Their thought is reminiscent of that of Henri Nouwen, that simply being with people in a caring way when there is no solution is valuable in itself.

In thoughts similar to those we have expressed, Taylor and Phillips so on to observe that people need each other not just for companionship and support in hard times but to fulfill their humanity, to become more fully human. The Dalai Lama has expressed that the purpose of good religion and spirituality is to produce a good human being, which is someone who is kind. The two authors also stress that an individuals’s capacity for kindness depends upon their health self-love. “Caring about others is what makes us fully human.”

There is a practice called the lovingkindness meditation. It begins by expressing the wish that I myself may be safe and well and happy and without enmity, or something similar. It then extends that wish to persons close to me, to those we occasionally meet, to those with whom we have difficult feelings, and finally to all beings.

Fear, anxiety, stress, busyness, and even wealth tend to work against compassion and kindness, as does a politics of cruelty Yet a recent article in Maclean’s magazine cites James Doty of Stanford University, who says: “Compassion is what is going to save our species. … The reality is that for our species to survive, we have to recognize that we are all one and everyone deserves the right to dignity, the right to food, the right to security, to shelter, and to health care.”

May each of you experience in the next while more kindness at the hands of others and may you also have more occasions to express kindness to others. And in this process may you experience and enjoy your own humanity on this earth.

Norman King, June 20, 2022