Updated: Feb 11
Defining things is rarely ever straight-forward. When we try, we should aim to make things as simple as we can, so as to convey meaning clearly. But not all words are easy to pin down. When we look to find meaning, much of our work relies upon using words synonymous with the ones we are trying to describe. So, we employ the word ‘noisy’ to explain the word ‘loud’ and then later we use the word ‘loud’ to describe the word ‘noisy’, unwittingly bolting ourselves into a circular loop of description.
What might it mean to be kind? What sort of virtue – if we can agree that kindness is a virtue – might we be describing? Kindness might be an act of goodness or compassion; it might be one of charity or generosity. But again, these are all words which spiral us into one long overlap of synonymity.
It’s possible to explain something by detailing what it is not. What might unkindness look like? In today’s fast-paced and often anonymous digital world, we can find unkindness so easily in a tweet, post or comment on social platforms. We can find it in the hyperbole of a newspaper column and in the grandstanding of a television pundit – there to bolster a critique, to reinforce an opinion or to challenge a rival. And yet we also know that people can sometimes be cruel in order to be kind, which tells us that well-meaning honesty can have a long-term value which justifies the short-term upset it might cause.
What is kindness?
Kindness, first and foremost, is something that happens between two or more people: it requires another. Even self-kindness requires two sides of the same person, in that ‘I’ might give something to ‘myself’.
Kindness has betterment as its end goal: to enhance a state of happiness, trust, knowledge, empathy or wellbeing.
Kindness is more than simple niceness. It requires you to invest more of yourself. Once acknowledged, kindness, as the saying goes, can indeed be its own reward, which is to say that it can create happiness in the person who gives equivalent to that of the person who receives.
But kindness is also vulnerability. To throw a coin into a beggar’s cup might be a charitable act, but it is not a kind one. Kindness requires more. Crouch down, meet that person at eye level, ask their name and offer yours, and place that same coin into their palm and talk for a few minutes. Kindness here is two people allowing themselves to be vulnerable. One cannot know the genuine need of the other; that other cannot know the intentions of the former. The strength of this act, this connection, has everything to do with this shared vulnerability. One person identifies sympathetically with the needs of another. That other drops their guard and allows part of their self to open to this gesture.
An open heart allows one the opportunity to receive so many wonderful things from others in the world, but it also leaves us vulnerable to being hurt and damaged by those whose intentions we are unsure of. So be careful not to underestimate the difficulty in receiving kindness.
But vulnerability is not all bad.
Don’t pass too often on the opportunity to accept kindness, because it has the ability to enrich two people. And don’t let too many opportunities to practice kindness pass you by – again, it will enrich two people.
Don’t fail to be kinder when you can. It will reward you more than good manners and a naturally reserved disposition. It will exceed niceness. It will produce that sparkle in the eyes which only a genuine smile can produce.
So perhaps ‘open-heartedness’ is as worthy a definition as any to finish on. Kindness is to expose that most vital of organs and to make it vulnerable; that organ that works so hard to keep us alive; the one that pushes something of value to every other part of our bodies.
Kindness is a good thing. Kindness can be a wonderful thing.
Originally written for and published by Feasts & Fables as part of their 'Encouragement Manifesto' project.