Kindness is arguably one of the most important—if not the most important—characteristics of a good person, says Laurel Hermanson.
When my daughter was younger, I frequently asked other parents, “If you had to choose, would you rather your child grow up to be a happy person or a good person?” I realize the two are not mutually exclusive, and I suspect this false dichotomy resulted in answers as varied as the logic behind each person’s choice.
Plenty of happy people are also good people. One could argue that being a good person brings happiness, or even vice versa. Still, I was surprised by how many people chose happy over good, because it’s impossible to deny that there are many happy people who bring very little good into the world.
My impractical query has been tugging at me recently, as Gigi grows into her big and often difficult personality. Will she learn to control her words and actions when she is overwhelmed by emotion? Will she learn empathy and integrity and respect? Will she be pretty, will she be rich? Wait, that’s not right. Really, what I most often wonder is: Will she be kind?
Kindness is arguably one of the most important—if not the most important—characteristics of a good person. Kindness is a canopy under which reside warmth, generosity, compassion, sympathy, honesty, forgiveness. Kindness is not dependent upon love or respect for others. According to Aristotle, kindness is defined as “helpfulness toward someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped.”
This summer, George Saunders’ convocation speech to Syracuse University’s class of 2013 was impossible to avoid on the Internet, but I resisted reading it because I assumed it would be like other cautionary but mildly uplifting commencement addresses I’d heard. I wasn’t in the mood to be cautioned or uplifted. But around the 20th time I saw it in my Facebook news feed, I relented. Once I read it, I sat for a while, chilled. And then I read it again, and again.
I saw myself in his words, and not in a happy, self-congratulatory way. I was having a difficult year. By early August when I read Saunders’ speech, I was fighting the cumulative effects of months of stress. I was upset over strained relationships with friends and family, mourning the death of my dog, dealing with a bout of depression, and worrying about financial crises.
I handled few of these stressors gracefully. Instead, I lashed out when hurt or scared or angry, sometimes with snarky blog posts or passive-aggressive Facebook updates, and other times with direct attacks on people I cared about. So when I read that lovely piece about kindness, it sort of wrecked me. I was not proud of any of my recent (or past) blunders into unkindness.
I vowed to revisit that speech, to study Saunders’ advice, to be mindful of controlling my words and actions when overwhelmed by emotion—just as I have been trying to teach my daughter. Although I didn’t reread the piece, I strove to be kinder, softer, more vulnerable. And until recently, I was being kind with a vengeance.
Saunders posits that our unkind tendencies result from a “series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian.” Specifically, we subconsciously believe our personal story is the only story, that we’re separate from the universe and other people, and that we’re immortal. He goes on to explain:
“Now, we don’t really believe these things—intellectually we know better—but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.”
My recent fall from kindness came after a brief hospitalization. While I was still sick and emotionally drained, a close friend decided to extricate herself from our relationship. I was hurt and angry, not just because the timing felt so cold, but because I had been a good friend. I was surprised by her decision to end our relationship, and by her clumsy explanation. In that moment, I felt justified in prioritizing my needs over hers, and I retaliated by uttering the first unkind words I had ever spoken to her.
Were her actions unkind? Maybe. I can speculate (and I have), but I can’t know what was really going on in her head. Still, I could have sat with my own bad feelings, maybe even given the situation time and space. Instead, my unkindness showed that I could be hurtful, and validated whatever concerns she had that I wasn’t worth the effort. I did that to myself. I later apologized. I wasn’t trying to save the friendship. I was acknowledging that I had made a mistake, and I was sorry for deliberately hurting her.
I would like to believe that we all try every day to be kind to both loved ones and people we don’t know. I can count on one hand friends I have who seem incapable of unkindness. Most of my friends, like me, do the best they can to remain kind. When they fall, they get back up again and keep trying. As Saunders says, “Because kindness, it turns out, is hard—it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.”
Everything. Be kind when no one is watching. Be kind to strangers, even if you’re frustrated or in a hurry. Be kind to casual acquaintances, because you don’t know their struggles. Be kind to people who have nothing to offer you in return. Be kind to those you love, because you never know when it will be your last chance. But be kind from the heart, not just with pretty, hollow words that belie indifference or animosity.
Kindness is indeed hard, and much easier talked about than practiced. People who present a convincing “rainbows and puppy dogs” façade of kindness, but make no effort to live by those principles, embody the kind of hypocrisy that sets the wings twitching on the better angels of my nature.
Yet these people deserve kindness, too, because who knows what pain or fear or sadness they carry? Maybe they enjoy a brief sense of superiority or control when personally attacking others, but I doubt they are happier beyond that moment. Or maybe they are happy and unbothered by the damage they inflict. As Saunders said, “…to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.”
I’ve had friends who publicly preach kindness, yet privately tear down others—mutual friends, mutual enemies, people I barely know. I am guilty of both participating in this and criticizing others for behaving the same way. After reading Saunders’ speech and vowing to be a kinder person, I couldn’t ignore the absurdity and hypocrisy of my own behavior. I was tired of the trash-talking. I was beginning to dislike the person I had become.
Around that time, I was clinging to one of these friendships, one that had been troubled for months. My desire to save the relationship came from fear of rejection or abandonment, which was as unhealthy as it was unoriginal. But at a certain point I accepted that she would continue talking unkindly about mutual friends, regardless of whether or not I participated.
It took me too long to see that I had been focusing on what she wanted rather than asking myself what I wanted. I wanted to be done. She made it official, but because I had already let go, I felt less regret than I felt more recently.
Is it unkind of me to write about that? Maybe. But I hope it illustrates the difference between the person I might have become and the person I want to become, the friends I am better off without and those I want to keep in my life.
My daughter sometimes struggles with friendships at school, because that third grade playground is a scary place, man. When we talk about this stuff, I repeat the same thing: “Please, Gigi, be kind. Just be yourself, and be kind.” Like me, she was struggling to repair a friendship that waned just before summer. When I climbed into bed with her the other night, she told me the boy had decided they could be friends again. She was happy, so I didn’t ask what she wanted.
Sometimes the kindest words are those left unsaid, especially to an 8-year-old who tries every day to be a good person. And when she falters, she gets back up and keeps trying. My wish for her is to grow up to be kind, and good, and happy. It’s not my job to choose which is “better” for her, because she can be all of that. It’s my job to be a good role model, to teach her as much as I can, and eventually, to get out of the way and let her find her place.
Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. She blogs about almost everything at Grace Under Pressure. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.