Kindness is a word with a cozy feel, related etymologically to being “kin” or family. It’s related in meaning to compassion, but that’s a heavier word that asks for more than I can usually deliver. It asks us to love unconditionally, and while I don’t come close to achieving this I’ve found that I can do one of the steps leading up to it — I can be kind. This is not about following the Golden Rule. Truth to tell, I’ve never liked “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” as it can be a fairly selfish way to act. More to my liking is “do unto others as they would like.” To pay close attention to what others like or need, and help them in that way, is true kindness. There are no formulas to follow: we behave kindly to an orange tree differently than to a crying child or an angry police officer. We discover, in the moment, what’s called for and try to act from the highest part of our being.
Two of the kindest, most reassuring words I’ve ever heard are “me too.” No matter what terrible situation we find ourselves in, no matter the level of upset, when someone else confesses they too have shared that exact trouble, felt the same way, we are relieved, refreshed, restored. It reminds us we’re not alone. And that’s one of the magic keys of kindness: it helps reorient us from feeling like an outsider — misunderstood, embarrassed, and alone — to feeling a valuable part of the group again. It frees us to feel close instead of distant.
We so easily lose sight of who we are. Psychotherapist Piero Ferrucci in his recent book points to a modern “epidemic of depression and panic attacks” and links them to the “lack of warmth and of a reassuring and protective community, and to a weakened sense of belonging” (The Power of Kindness, p. 8). Such epidemics can be traced directly to the materialistic belief that permeates our culture — that things are inherently valuable, while people have to “earn” their value. I find it curious that most Americans reject the fundamental premise of materialism that “things” randomly collided and accidentally created life — “things” that philosopher Ken Wilber has dryly labeled “frisky dirt.” Popularly it seems that most of us believe that divinity or consciousness must have played a part in the birth (or rebirth) of the universe. Nonetheless, it appears as though we’ve bought into the results of materialistic thinking because we generally live as if materialists are correct, as if there is no inner purpose or meaning to life. We look outside ourselves into the material world to identify the source of our problems and their solutions, rather than looking within to the source of our own (and all) being. We emphasize material quantity rather than the quality that derives from a top-down or spiritual view of life. We want the steak without the cow, to enjoy the taste while not being affected by the food.
One of the prices we pay for living a materialistic life while rejecting its philosophical basis is a lack of integrity. To the extent that we reject the assumption that life is a happy accident of random events, yet act as if that were the case by valuing outside over inside, we establish a foundation for feeling separate, depressed, anxious, and isolated. If we believe divinity to be at the core of the universe, at the root of life, then let’s live lives that value being over having, beings over things.
To those who have the interest and discipline to search it out and study it, the ancient wisdom tradition offers a powerful antidote to the hollow promise of materialism. But the number of people willing to put forth the effort isn’t very large, and so I offer a condensed version: let us be kind. Not because we think we should, but because it reflects who we are in our deepest nature. Let us transport kindness from the realm of social etiquette and consider its occult basis: Theosophical, Sufi, and Buddhist traditions teach that the foundation of the universe is loving kindness. The Sufis say that “Everything is the Beloved” and Christians teach that God is love. Theosophists say that what we call our inner or divine nature is the expression of compassion. I can’t personally vouch for this but it feels right to me, and people whose opinions I value have written of it over and over again. H. P. Blavatsky put it this way: “Compassion is no attribute. It is the LAW of Laws — eternal Harmony . . . a shoreless universal essence, . . . the law of love eternal” (The Voice of the Silence, pp. 69-70). Compassion as a universal essence must then be part of us, part of our essence.
When we look at the world through the eyes of love, we behave kindly. Buddhist D. T. Suzuki tells this story: A man heard noise coming from his yard and, looking out, he saw neighborhood boys climbing up one of his trees to steal some fruit. So he set a ladder under the tree and quietly returned to his house. He feared that when the children came down the tree, “nervous about being caught, they might slip, fall, and hurt themselves. His impulse was to prevent them from being injured, not to save his property.” Waking up to the unity and interconnectedness of all life, we can’t help but act in a kindly way.
Countless sages have told us that one person’s suffering affects us all, that if one person is enslaved none of us is free. No matter how we may justify and rationalize it, indifference to the welfare of others comes from being ignorant, not smart. Can we be relaxed and happy when we are in excruciating pain? Can we be happy while others suffer? Our lives depend heavily on each other: we begin our earthly journey in our mother’s body and every minute thereafter we’re dependent on others for some part of our well-being, though we often forget about it till there’s a strike or product shortage. What is our responsibility to this web of interconnections? Albert Einstein wrote, “A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend upon the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.” And nearly 2,000 years earlier Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius entreated us to
Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web. — Meditations 4.40
If we regard the universe as having one soul and see it as one living being, it can’t help but change how we relate to each other and every being on the planet. I’m reminded of a saying that was popular many years ago: “We all live downstream.” It’s humbling to realize how thoughts, words, and actions stream out from us, contributing either to the pollution or purification of our world.
Often we dismiss how important we are, but the need for warmth and kindness is indispensable for the well-being of everyone. Shelley E. Taylor tells a story about postwar Germany, where food rations were scarce. Yet scientists in charge of monitoring the nutrition of war orphans were able to increase the rations at one group home, hoping that with extra rations over a six-month period the children would begin to catch up to their peers in height and weight. Astonishingly, the extra food made no difference. However, at another group home where rations were still at wartime levels, children began growing nicely. Additional investigations concluded that the difference in the physical growth of the children had to do with the kindness of the woman in charge of one orphanage, as compared to the cruelty demonstrated by the woman in charge of the other. The share of love and affection “that each child got from a warm and loving caregiver did more for that child’s growth than expensive food supplements.” Such is the awesome power of kindness. “And when you see that cruelty overrode even the effects of food supplements on physical growth, you begin to understand just how powerful a force fear can be as well” (The Tending Instinct, p. 3). This is the power of unkindness: anger has energy, hate has intensity, and fear can paralyze us on every level. Kindness, though, has the potential to face all these conditions and neutralize them. It brings a generosity of spirit which helps quicken, animate, and bless us. Kindness opens up a space that allows us more inner freedom.
It begins with intention, a commitment to be kind. When we decide to practice kindness, we begin to notice more opportunities. We also notice where we retreat: where the suffering is too great for us and we can’t bear to look, let alone help. The more we practice kindness, even towards those whose misery repels us, the stronger we grow and the more able to stay in the presence of great suffering without blinking — to embody kindness itself.
We can, however, also be tempted to act kindly for the wrong reasons. We don’t need to allow people to take advantage of us — true kindness embraces not only others, but ourselves. Are we really being kind when we conceal what we mean, pay meaningless compliments, act as though we’re pleased when we aren’t? When we pretend to like something in order to be “kind” we are being false to ourselves while disrespecting the other person — and that’s not kind. Doubting their maturity and ability to hear dissenting views is patronizing. We can learn how to disagree gently, we can find ways to say No kindly. And we can learn to say Yes, even when it’s inconvenient.
A Jewish story tells us that once upon a time a king sent his son to travel the world, and as the time approached when the prince was needed back home, the king sent word to him to return. But the prince just couldn’t bring himself to go home and stayed away. The king again sent word and again the prince’s reply was “I can’t.” So the king, being a wise and loving man, sent another message: “Then come as far as you can, son, and I shall come the rest of the way, to you.”
This is loving kindness in action. Besides saying yes or no, behind what supports all the words and outer actions, there is our inner attitude, the one that recognizes the other as part of ourselves, that sees when others have forgotten their own value and helps with a generous offer, or sometimes with only a touch or a look. Galway Kinnell, in “Saint Francis and the Sow,” highlights this:
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow . . .
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing; . . .
(From Sunrise magazine, Fall 2007; copyright © 2007 Theosophical University Press)