“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and third is to be kind.” – Henry James
I’ve been doing a lot of reflection on the subject of kindness.
Especially so with the grief brought on by the pandemic and political recrimination that has pushed our well-being into partisan questioning and retaliation.
I’ve been considering the words of Thomas Merton who said, "We must all proceed together carefully … or suffer soul death alone.” Which I understand as a call to move beyond kindness to my immediate family, friends and political affiliation — to kindness to all.
It’s not easy. I have to question myself — and admit, like Merton does in one of his prayers, that the fact that I think that I am following God’s will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been slowly reading “The Socrates Express,” by Eric Weiner. In the chapter on kindness and human nature, he says that the philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed humans are naturally selfish and that society tempers our ruthless nature; while thinkers like Rosseau believed man is born good but society corrupts.
I fall into the people-are-good side. I also believe it can be called up in others by behaving kindly toward them — even when they’ve been unkind toward me.
It’s a choice. In the words of the Buddhist spiritual leader, Dalai Lama, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
Some of the kindest men I’ve met are the monks at Assumption Abbey monastery in the Ozarks where they work, pray, and observe the rule of St. Benedict (which calls them to treat everyone as if they were Christ).
I strive to live in Christ consciousness (practice love, compassion, forgiveness, and kindness) — albeit from a more symbolic and metaphorical position than most Christian teaching — but I find the practice more tangible if I can relate it to a person in my life.
In the case of kindness, it’s my grandma Mary. So Benedict’s rule translates to, “Treat everyone as if they were grandma.” Or “Treat everyone as if you were grandma.”
“Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” is a quote attributed to Plato. Every time I come across it, it gives me reason to pause, something I’ve been trying to remember to do more of. Pause ... take a deep breath … and listen before speaking. Especially when I’m on the brink of self-justified, unkind behavior. Like when interrupted halfway through a thought or opinion and am inclined get insolent — or go full-tilt smartass.
Naomi Shihab Nye looks at kindness in a poem that opens with these lines: “Before you know kindness / As the deepest thing inside, / You must know sorrow / As the other deepest thing.”
Indeed, sorrow abounds. As I write this, 221 thousand people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. alone and our local hospital is overwhelmed with cases. Countless people are jobless and food lines stretch for miles. The incidence of anxiety and depression in the populace has risen five fold. Nursing homes are in full lock down. Health care workers are traumatized. Teachers, students and parents are stressed to the breaking point. The list goes on and on.
Last week on TV I saw teachers talking about the overwhelming stress and sadness of their jobs, as well as the pain of seeing how it’s affecting their beloved students. At the end, a counselor offered suggestions on ways to cope, one of which was, “Go ahead and cry.”
Good advice. Crying is the universal way of relieving stress and expressing sorrow, which, Nye asserts, leads us directly to kindness. Once we know sorrow, she writes, it is only kindness that makes sense anymore; that it goes with us, everywhere, “like a shadow or a friend.”
J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or firstname.lastname@example.org