“We are born to be at worst brutal, at least single-mindedly hardwired to survive at all costs. Concern for fellow creatures, sympathy, good deeds: These are all extras, luxuries we learn—with luck.”
We aren’t born kind.
The world would be much nicer if we were, but no.
We are born to be at worst brutal, at least single-mindedly hardwired to survive at all costs.
Concern for fellow creatures, sympathy, good deeds: These are all extras, luxuries we learn—with luck.
Kindness in principle could only seem counterintuitive and odd after an infancy spent being fed, changed and soothed on demand by others, with no reciprocity expected or required. Having just gained the strength and freedom to walk unaided and recognize themselves in mirrors, toddlers might well wonder: Why ever do anything for anyone that requires effort on my part without material or even physical reward? Why give anyone anything which is, or could be, mine?
Imagine how flimsy the logic sounds to children, at least at first, when we say: It matters to make others glad instead of sad. Cozy, not cold. Safe, not scared. Loved, not lonely.
But what a hard and seemingly thankless lesson. Kindness seems wrong from a sheer survival standpoint. Harder yet to fathom is kindness for the right reasons: such as being kind neither to control those we help nor shame them. Being kind for its own sake, expecting neither now-or-later recompense nor praise. Being kind not to elevate our self-esteem but simply for the greater good, not for us but for them.
Wait, what?! This requires caring about someone, something, anything beyond ourselves. People and animals, but also places and ideas: world hunger, say, or art or London or clean seas. Kindness can extend beyond individuals.
Such generosity of spirit does not spring fully formed into every human heart. Given our inborn instincts, childhood can be a selfishness superhighway.
I know this because I was raised with mixed messages: Be nice, or everyone will hate you. But also: Trust no one. Lie, cheat, win.
Also: Give gifts. Which no one will ever appreciate, much less deserve.
My situation—attempting to decode human interaction based on whiplashy opposite instructions—made me kind but cold, giving yet greedy, present yet absent. In other words: confused.
Teaching ourselves or others to be sincerely kind—to care—is an intervention. How to start?
• Determine what you love. Or whom. We cannot become instant saints, so isolate a few people, places, or things that you think merit your affection, sacrifice, effort or time. Making this focused and specific list turns kindness into a doable practice rather than some vague virtue, ponderously vast.
• Start small. Do this by making the just-mentioned list. Or start small in another way: by sprinkling tiny random acts of kindness here and there, from thanking a clerk to not littering to praising a passersby hat. You’ll be amazed at how much difference two steps or two words can make.
• Discover what they want. Or need. This can be fun: part diagnosis, part detection, part party. Cultivate empathy. Imagine being your dad or your dog or Lake Superior. What can you do/give/say to make them happier or healthier or even just a little readier to face another day?
• If you can’t decide, ask. The tricky bit is how often the answer is a polite, shy or scared I’m fine—or total silence. Ask anyway: Sift clues from what is and is not said. Maybe they need exactly, even only, that: your curiosity, your presence, your concern. Sometimes questions themselves are kind.
• Explore kindness in spiritual texts. For instance, Judaism’s mitzvot are good deeds, performed not in hopes of entering heaven but to make this world a better place. They include Bikkur Cholim: visiting the sick. Practiced often in meditation, the Buddhist concept of metta cultivates compassion and goodwill.
• Remember kind acts you received. A stranger smiled. Hands lifted you. The school nurse said It’s OK, everyone has accidents. That cat gazed right into your eyes. Imagine kindness as a current sparking forwards and backwards through history, alleviating suffering. Connect to that.
Read more from S. Rufus: “3 Amazing Gifts That Are Too Huge to Wrap.”