James H. Kroeger, MM
Poets and philosophers, sages and saints, proverbs and parables, literature and life—they all teach us the true meaning of kindness. Sophocles, ancient Greek dramatist, notes: “Kindness gives birth to kindness”; he also holds: “One who knows how to show and to accept kindness will be a better friend than any possession.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher, asserts: “What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” Greek writer Aesop affirms: “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” Mark Twain, American author, says: “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
Proverbs from around the world offer insights. “A kind word can warm three months of winter” (Japan). “A kind word is like a spring day” (Russia). “A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives roses” (China). Ancient religious teachers provide additional wisdom. “Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love” (Lao Tzu). “Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity” (Buddha).
Contemporary religious leaders also speak insightfully. “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile” (Mother Teresa). “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness” (Dalai Lama). “To act lovingly is to begin to feel loving, and certainly to act joyfully brings joy to others which in turn makes one feel joyful. I believe we are called to the duty of delight” (Dorothy Day). “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).
Kindness: A Description
Kindness encompasses a range of habits and acts that admits to a wide variety of descriptions. Kindness is a personal quality that enables an individual to be sensitive to the needs of others and to take personal action to meet those needs; it is more than just being nice and agreeable. It is both a quality of one’s being and a matter of one’s behavior; it encompasses both personal virtue and concomitant action on behalf of others.
Kind people show strength of character; they have generous feelings towards others, not wanting others to suffer; they act from concern for others. A kind person views another’s happiness as if it were one’s own, treating others as one would like to be treated. Like everything else in life, kindness has to be learned. As Eric Hoffer, American social philosopher, wrote: “We are made kind by being kind.”
Other descriptions of kindness (Greek, chrèstotès) include a sense of the ethical, encompassing such traits as honesty, friendliness, generosity, compassion, goodness, justice, and caring. Kindness is described as “an overflow of a thoughtful and selfless love into a realm of speech and action. It is indeed a God-like quality…. It is a stable disposition of one’s heart that should be carefully cultivated and constantly practiced” (K. McGowan). Try as one might, kindness is more difficult to define succinctly in words than it is to recognize in action!
Kindness: A Virtue
Any exploration of kindness soon leads one to discover that, more than a simple emotion, a spontaneous action, an abstract concept or philosophical idea, kindness is at heart a virtue. Albeit brief, a discussion of “virtue” is necessary to reach to the core of kindness.
Virtue (Latin, virtus, “strength of character”) is a quality of intellect and character that enables a person to live an honorable and ethically good life. Within the Catholic tradition, the most influential theory of virtue is that of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), which in turn is deeply indebted to both Augustine (d. 430) and to Aristotle (d. 322 BC).
They thought that virtue was not simply a single act of bravery or an isolated praiseworthy action; rather, virtue is a habit (Latin, habitus, “customary mode of behavior”). It is a stable quality of intellect, will, and emotions whereby a person can encounter concrete situations in life and respond in an ethically appropriate manner. In brief, both the intellect and will have to be in play. The actual practice of the virtues needs to be grounded in a rational apprehension of what it means to live a morally upright life. Thus, the virtuous individual must be able to apply one’s knowledge of the good to specific life circumstances through prudential judgment and discernment.
Thomas Aquinas asserted that the practice of virtue was not simply to avoid sins or wrong acts; rather, authentic virtue demands getting into the practice of healthy habits. Such regular activity, in turn, shapes an individual in such a way that one develops dispositions to act in a particular way. Practices form habits. Exercising a virtue helps predispose the person to respond in the same virtuous way in the future. Regular practices become habits, which in turn become deeply ingrained and shape our identity. Our actions determine us as much as we determine our actions. Indeed, kindness begets kindness. We are made kind by being kind.
This presentation now turns from a more theoretical discussion of the virtue of kindness and will focus on ten practical suggestions that, if interiorized, can enhance our progress in practicing the virtue of kindness. Since kindness is a growth process, one does not just get up in the morning and say, “Beginning today, I’m going to be kind.” Virtue grows slowly and only through constant exercise. We need to plan our actions so as to become the people we are called by God to be. If we wish to grow in kindness, then we must adopt “kindness exercises”; we seek concrete opportunities to manifest kindness. In addition to these efforts, we realize that even our best intentions will fail if we rely only on our own strength. Growth in virtue needs constant openness to God’s assistance.
This very practical approach (following what I call the “ten commandments” to foster kindness) draws its inspiration from the way “kindness” is frequently used in the Bible. Often the word “show” accompanies the word “kindness.” A classic example is Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:29-37). The final verses contain the dialogue between the man and Jesus: “Which of these three, do you think, proved himself neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” “The one who showed pity on him,” the man replied. Jesus said to him, “Go, and do the same yourself.” Authentic virtue is always put into concrete actions that “show” compassion to the neighbor.
Friends, as you continue reading, please note that in the subsequent ten sections, you will always find a brief suggestion stated in the form of a command. This will be followed by a short discussion of how this “commandment” can be concretized to promote personal growth in the virtue of kindness.
I. Meditate on God’s kindness
All world religions promote a variety of virtues, including kindness, by which the adherents of that faith guide their lives. The Judaeo-Christian tradition is rich in its assertions of God’s kindness toward his people and the concomitant duty to manifest kindness to one’s neighbor. The Psalmist writes: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his loving kindness endures forever” (Ps 106:1). Isaiah notes: “With everlasting love I have taken pity on you, says Yahweh, your redeemer” (Is. 54:8). Joel proclaims: “Turn to Yahweh, your God, again, for he is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness” (Joel 2:13).
Jesus himself, sent from the Father, is described as the revelation of “the kindness and love of God our savior for humanity” (Titus 3:4). The Father reveals “the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:7). Jesus is God’s kindness in person; his is a ministry of compassion to the little, lonely, least, lost, and last of society, e.g., widow of Naim (cf. Lk 7:11-17), woman with hemorrhage and Jairus’ daughter (cf. Lk 8:40-56), epileptic demoniac (cf. Lk 9:37-43), woman caught in adultery (cf. Jn 8:1-11), etc. Indeed, Jesus invites all the burdened to come to him for rest (cf. Mt 11:28-30).
Other faith traditions assert the importance of kindness; Christians can also glean insights from them. Confucius urged his followers to “recompense kindness with kindness.” Buddhism holds that one of the ten perfections (pāramitās) is mettā, which is usually translated into English as “loving-kindness.” The Talmud claims that “deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments.” Muhammad was known for the virtue of Al-Rifq, which in Arabic means: kindness, gentleness, and mildness; his followers are exhorted to imitate his virtues. Religions can mutually promote virtuous living, so the great gift of peace will prosper.
II. Cultivate an “attitude of gratitude.”
All life is gift. We are gifted again and again. All people and events are gifts. Each day is a new gift. Thus, gratitude can never be a single, one-time expression. We do not earn life’s gifts; God is the source of our richness. Many of these blessings often arrive in and through other persons. This reminds us that gifts are meant for sharing, not for hiding or hoarding. Kindnesses, whatever their form, are concrete ways of expressing our gratitude for the copious—often undeserved—gifts we have received.
Developing our “attitude of gratitude” requires continuous remembering; in this way our past graced moments, big and small, become present and alive in our lives. Like Israel, we must never forget the Lord’s deeds (cf. Ps 78:7; 103:2). This gratitude is not only a fair-weather virtue; prosperous times and difficult moments are equally opportunities to give thanks through deeds of kindness. We are to express and manifest gratitude regularly; then it becomes a habit ingrained in our person. Each act of gratitude makes the next act easier.
Grateful people are at peace with themselves, with others, and with what they have. Gratitude is a sign of a mature and integrated personality. It is reflected in all our activities—especially in our prayer. For Christians, the Eucharist means thanksgiving; its celebration can transform us into loving, grateful, serving persons, permeated with an “attitude of gratitude.” We follow Matthew’s dictum: “What you have received as a gift, give as a gift” (Mt 10:8).
III. Appreciate your own goodness
Kindness to those around you is important, but it only flows out of your own person. Thus, “low self-esteem” can become a hindrance to the practice of kindness. Ask yourself: Are you happy with yourself to the point that you look forward to meeting the day and those persons you will encounter? Or, do you frequently tend to be down on yourself and life? How do we go about finding our true worth, the genuine goodness in ourselves?
We begin with a special effort to examine our own lives and experiences to see what they contain that is of genuine value to help us and others to uplift our existence. We stop putting ourselves and others down. If we take an unbiased look, we will find several basically good things about our person, even in spite of all our problems and confusions. We can begin with the basic goodness of being alive. God has personally created and loved us—individually and by name. God has created us good; and, I like to say, “God does not make junk”! We are precious!
John the Evangelist writes: “Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us, by letting us be called God’s children; and that is what we are” (1 Jn 3:1). We are truly lovable, not because of our great personal accomplishments, but because God has loved us. John continues: “Since God has loved us so much, we too should love one another” (1 Jn 4:11). Here is a formula for overcoming some personal blocks to the practice of kindness: pray frequently, “I am your gift, O loving God. In gratitude, let me share my giftedness.”
IV. Empathize with others
Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand another person’s feelings or difficulties. André Gide, French writer, holds that empathy underpins kindness; for him: “True kindness presupposes the faculty of imagining as one’s own the suffering and joys of others.” Empathy is the ability to walk in the shoes of the other, to see life from his or her perspective. Plato said: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Many of us have heard accounts of kind people who empathized with prisoners of war and chose to act with deliberate kindness toward the prisoners. During World War II several Maryknoll priests who were unable to return to their mission in Japan because of the Pacific War, went to serve the Japanese interred in POW camps in California; the priests used their ability to speak Japanese to bring comfort, consolation, and guidance to these innocent Japanese who had been interred as a security precaution. The Japanese never forgot the empathetic kindness. Although they remained Buddhists, they regularly sent donations to Maryknoll to support its mission works.
Recently, I experienced the loving concern of a Muslim fisherman named Utol. He regularly supplied fish to the seminary where I was teaching. When he learned that my younger sister was involved in a serious automobile accident and that her life was in danger, he, at great personal inconvenience, searched me out to express his concern. I was deeply moved by the words of faith that he uttered: “I am so sorry to hear the sad news…. I want to tell you that I will pray to Allah for your sister’s recovery. Allah will help her, I am sure.” Indeed, Utol’s empathy and kindness brought tears to my eyes. I treasure that experience in my heart!
V. Practice deliberate kindness
Our discussions on kindness may sound good in theory, but do “acts of genuine kindness” happen in practice? Unequivocally, the answer is “yes.” Myriad acts of “living kindness” are performed each day. We may tend to doubt that altruism is alive when we witness insensitivity and read in the newspapers about how people constantly “use other people.” Thus, each of us needs to consciously and purposely decide to practice deliberate kindness, with, of course, the help of the Holy Spirit’s grace to prompt us into action. We often underestimate the power of a smile, a touch, a listening ear, a kind word, or even the smallest act of caring to positively impact the life of others.
Acts of deliberate or random kindness often involve the most mundane aspects of daily life. They may be demonstrated by opening the door for an elderly lady, helping a blind person get off the bus, making a personal visit to a friend suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, thanking the grocery clerk for her kind service, offering a cold drink to the garbage collector on a hot day. We all could multiply such simple—yet significant—examples drawn from everyday life.
Recently, when I was riding the metro train in Manila, a young man saw me (I’m a senior citizen—though able-bodied) and surrendered his seat. At the next stop he was able to sit again after several people alighted from the train. Then, at the next station a mother and child boarded the train; the young man quickly offered his seat. Before arriving at the next stop which was my destination, I got up and approached the man; I praised and thanked him effusively. I wanted to encourage him and strengthen him to continue his laudatory behavior. In short, practice kindness yourself; praise others who perform kind deeds.
VI. Employ “kind speech” always
The tongue and its force for good or evil is graphically described in the New Testament in the Letter of James. “Nobody must imagine that he is religious while … not keeping control over his tongue” (1:26). “The tongue is only a tiny part of the body…. Think how a small flame can set fire to a huge forest; the tongue is like that. Among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a whole wicked world in itself…. We use it to bless the Lord and Father, but we also use it to curse men who are made in God’s image: the blessing and the curse come out of the same mouth” (3:5-10).
The tongue can be an instrument of great kindness—as long as it is properly controlled. Kind, sincere words can soothe pain and sorrow, inspire hope in faint hearts, lighten life’s burdens, uplift the unfortunate, lessen the bitterness of failure, speak good intentions, express sincere forgiveness, promise love and life-long commitment. Well-chosen speech is one common way of showing kindness, while the opposite use is, unfortunately, also often apparent. Perhaps, this is the reason that James, whose letter lays particular emphasis on the practical good works expected of Christians, wrote so emphatically on the proper use of the tongue.
One could make a long list of practical tips for “kind speech”: Think before you speak, considering the effect of your words. Avoid gossipmongers and change the subject when gossip begins. Talk about ideas and events, rather than the faults of others. Use your words and smile to uplift others. Share bad news about people carefully and only if you must. Avoid smart remarks that devastate the ego of others. In conversation, apply the criteria of genuine love found in Paul’s “ode to love” in I Corinthians 13. Remember the admonition of Blaise Pascal: “Kind words do not cost much; yet, they accomplish much.”
VII. Judge others compassionately
Situations inevitably arise when a judgment is necessary. These often require the wisdom of experience and maturity; frequently there are no easy answers. William O’Malley, high school teacher at Fordham Preparatory School in New York, de scribes such a situation and some possible responses.
“Parents could react in various ways to the shock of hearing their daughter is pregnant: (a) rail and curse, threaten, abuse; (b) offer ‘the’ answer: ‘This is what we’re going to do, young lady; (c) collapse into a swamp of self-recrimination: ‘How have I failed’; or (d) put their arms around her and grieve with her. That is the test of genuine love: ‘For the moment, your shame is more important than the shame you’ve brought on me.’ Too many parents routinely resort to ‘grounding’ … instead of sitting down with the kid and saying, ‘Okay. Help me understand’” [America 178: 4, 16].
Seeking to sympathetically understand a complicated and difficult situation is the “first kindness step” needed in many situations, be they in the family, office, neighborhood or school. Then, in an atmosphere of trust and openness, devoid of rash judgment, the best course of action can be found.
VIII. Forgive from the heart
Christian life is lived one kindness at a time—every time we meet another human being. Every day offers dozens of opportunities to be a witness of God’s love, even if those ways seem ordinary and unimportant. However, frequently enough, there are situations that call for an element of forgiveness. Whether an offense is minor or serious, the words of Jesus to Peter’s question definitely apply: “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?” Then Jesus answers: “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times” (Mt 18: 21-22).
Some may think that showing kindness and forgiveness is a sign of weakness or immaturity. However, the exact opposite is true. A person with a reconciling attitude is actually showing deep strength of character. Such a one is a person of principle, one who follows core values—often based on his or her faith.
Compassionate forgiveness figures high in Jesus’ list of values: “If you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours; but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either” (Mt 6:14-15). “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; grant pardon, and you will be pardoned” (Lk 6:36-37). Share kindness and you will receive kindness.
IX. Admit your narcissism
This next “kindness commandment” is actually a “corollary” to number three mentioned above. Practicing the virtue of kindness demands awareness of both one’s strengths and weaknesses. Humanly, we are always in danger of succumbing to the downward pull of pride rather than the upward push of grace. Narcissistic tendencies, which focus on my feelings and my needs, are not erased by the waters of baptism. We are very well aware that the leap from self-concern to concern for others is no easy task. Our own needs and pain are real and often feel overwhelming. Yet, Jesus challenges us to loving kindness even when we are not inclined to do so, to care for others in spite of our own afflictions. In the words of Henri Nouwen, we are to be “wounded healers.”
Just as all virtues have their opposing side, known as vices, there is an opposite side to kindness. Its three main adversaries are our propensity to be domineering (we want to control the situation), resentful (we begrudge others credit or recognition), and envious (we are jealous of others’ gain, seeing it as our loss). We need to recognize and balance two key facets of our persons: our own negative tendencies (they are real) and the call of Jesus to loving kindness—right in the midst of joy or sorrow, gain or loss. The path of virtue is often a narrow, steep road!
X. Pray, meditate, seek inner peace
There is an underlying quality of kindness that is implicit in everything that has been said so far: enormous strength is needed to practice this virtue. This is especially true when dealing with difficult persons or complex situations. Sometimes, we are simply at a loss on how to proceed or what path to take. We might even question if anything we could do would actually better the situation we are in. Where can we find our strength and inner peace?
Personally, I have drawn insight from the concrete approaches of several fellow missioners. Father Bob who serves in Bangladesh says that he humbly goes about each day doing whatever small tasks he can for the sick poor—all in imitation of Jesus whom he receives daily in the eucharist. Father Frank who works with the garbage pickers and mental patients in southern Philippines follows the same approach. Fathers Bob and Frank, and countless other ordinary people, embody the same faith vision enunciated by Mother Teresa: “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” “Do not think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.” “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.” “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.” “Many people mistake our work for our vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus.” “We are all pencils in the hand of God.” Friends, we all need to pray and meditate frequently, using the words of Jesus in the gospels and the insights of holy persons like Mother Teresa.
One final quotation can bring this essay to a challenging finale. It is drawn from William Penn (1644-1718); he was an English-born American Quaker reformer. “I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.” I believe Jesus would agree and probably repeat words from his Good Samaritan parable: “Go and do likewise.”