I was very struck lately by Susan Cain’s observation that Darwin has been readily misinterpreted. She notes that perhaps his view is better understood, not as survival of the fittest, but as survival of the kindest. Very shortly before her death, writer June Callwood stated simply: “I believe in kindness.” She says it can be shown in very simple things, such as holding the door open for someone. The Dalai Lama has also said: “My religion is simple. My religion is kindness.” This view also calls to mind Einstein’s words to his daughter that the underlying energy of the universe and the source of its meaning, is love.
Two notable books on kindness have appeared in recent years. One is simply titled On Kindness, by Barbara Taylor and Adam Phillips. The other, yet to appear, is The Keys to Kindness by Claudia Hammond. I heard an interview with her on this book. She says that kindness is at the heart of human relationships, and there is more kindness in the world than we realize. Receiving kindness contributes to the well-being of others and even more to our own well-being.“Behaving compassionately improves the lives of others. It also improves our own lives. There are measurable boosts to health, both mental and physical. Behaving kindly can act as a buffer against burnout and stress,and improve our well being. It can bring us happiness. It can even help us to live longer.”
The root of the word kindness is kin, which expresses a connection to another person or persons. It is also cognate with the word kind, as in kindergarten, and it means child. And of course children most obviously depend upon others, and are among the most vulnerable members of our society. In fact, Taylor and Phillips define kindness as the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself. They add that the pleasure of kindness is that it connects us with others, but it also makes us aware of our own and other people’s vulnerability.
Awareness both of our connection to others and our vulnerability is something that is often denied in our culture. Our society stresses being independent, antagonistic to, and in competition with one another. It suggests that we need to asset ourselves at the expense of one another. Yet the loneliness, occasioned more visibly by the pandemic, reminds us of our need for connection, as does the threat posed by climate change. If we have some degree of awareness, we are certainly aware of our interdependence upon one another and upon the earth itself. The isolation caused by Covid also reminds us of the importance for our overall well-being of the casual contacts that have occurred in the once normal routine of everyday life.
As a colleague once said, we need only to look at our navel to realize that we are not self created. If we wish to assert total independence we may stop eating, drinking, and breathing. These are all activities that are not private but are relations with the world around us, upon which our very life depends.
A wonderful example is offered in the folk tale written by Oscar Wilde, The Selfish Giant. After returning home, the giant finds many children playing in his garden. He becomes enraged, chases them away, and builds a wall around the garden to keep everyone out. The result is that no flowers grow, no birds sing, and it is always winter, with icy winds. Some time later, the giant hears a bird singing and notices some flowers growing. He sees that children have crept back in to play in the garden through cracks that have appeared in the wall. He then realizes what has happened. He has a complete change of heart, and welcomes and plays with the children for the rest of his life.
As the children re-enter the garden through crack in its wall, it is once again springtime. The change in weather from winter to spring indicates that the children bring new life to the giant. This story suggests that unless we have cracks in the walls of defensiveness, cracks of vulnerability, so that children can come through–that is, new life, new thoughts, new images–then we shall remain bleak and cold and dark and desolate inside. We tear down rather than build our walls through creative, life-giving, generous, even sacrificial compassion, caring, and love. And a key ingredient is simple acts of kindness to ourselves and others.
It is striking that Taylor and Phillips define kindness as the ability to bear our own and others vulnerability. Perhaps acts of kindness, however small, require us to open our heart, both to flow outwards and to receive within. It may well be that kindness implies the recognition that we are incomplete, that we need one another, that we are invariably connected. Such openness always implies the possibility of being hurt. Yet to be closed always ensures the our lives are ever in winter, ever in a season of lovelessness, even of fear and anger. Possibly turning to kindness, aside from its assistance to well-being, is a step towards openness to deeper connection, to learning the greater openness of love. And beyond intimacy, it is a step in extending that caring in wider and wider circles.
Along these lines, Erich Fromm, in The Art of Loving, writes that the love implies a character development of the whole person that is then brought into bear in any relationship. He adds that only in the love of those who do not serve a purpose does love begin to unfold. He cites the ancient categories of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. In today’s world, we might add all those who are marginalized in any way. It may well be that kindness, extended in simple acts, to those near and far, including ourselves, may be the path to the wisdom and compassion that sees the universe as a community of subjects to respect–and sees ourselves as part of and responsible to and for that community. Educator, John Holt, holds that integral to this process is a sense of connection with and therefore kindness to ourselves. We have enough kindness and compassion for others, he says, only if we have enough kindness for ourselves.
May you more and more have enough kindness for yourself, and extend it gradually to those near and far. And may you make whatever contribution you can to creating a world where interdependence and connectedness are recognized, and where kindness and compassion are honoured.