“The best portion of a good man’s life – his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.“ ~William Wordsworth
When I think of kindness, I remember when my first child was diagnosed with a range of developmental delays and the children and parents that I met in the years that she attended preschool for special needs children. Special needs kids make up in heart what they lack in other areas and I remember realizing then how infrequently parents would remark about how kind their kids were, focusing instead on how bright they were. Ever since, I have thought about kindness as one of the truest and deepest capacities of what it means to be deeply human.
And yet kindness is not a virtue that is held in high esteem except for people like the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa, the idea of kindness is often held in contempt, as if kindness is a virtue for losers. The checkered history of kindness and the alternate image of the modern human as utterly lacking in natural generosity is explored by Barbara Taylor and Adam Phillips in their new book “On Kindness.” Their thesis looks at how fear of our naturally occurring kindness makes us suppress this instinct, which may support our survival as much as the long held belief in being the fittest.
They write because, “real kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can. . . . By involving us with strangers . . . as well as with intimates, it is potentially far more promiscuous than sexuality. .” When we separate ourselves from our inner kindness, we lose not only the innocence and goodness that so characterizes our childhood, we become terrified that our hatred is stronger than our love.
I get to watch this struggle about the veracity and reality of kindness play out every day at home with my teenagers who are slowly losing touch with this innocence and belief in the goodness of other people. It is the one fight that I can’t give up with them although I know that my words will not be the factor that helps them choose whether to keep faith with the small voice of goodness inside them. In the day to day, the best I can do is practice Kipling’s advice: “I always prefer to believe the best of everybody, it saves so much trouble.”