Mark Twain reportedly said, "Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can read." His remark is a testament to the power of kindness which we all admire in people and would like to practice more consistently. But as universally appreciated as this trait is, it's not easy to define. Kindness is a general term that refers to a cluster of more specific moral skills, each of which essentially involves a special thoughtfulness displayed toward someone. In discussing what it means to be kind, then, this chapter explores some of these particular moral skills. In addition, ways to develop one's own capacity for acting kindly will be proposed.
Examples of Kindness
What sorts of acts are typically regarded as kind? A person who tenderly cares for children or animals would be described as kind. So would the person who warmly greets a stranger or who shows genuine interest during casual conversation. The person who opens doors for others or who is careful not to interrupt while others are talking also is kind. These are all rather ordinary, but no less commendable, instances of kindness observable in daily life. The characteristic these instances all have in common is that they involve thoughtfulness or considerate behavior. Kindness, then, is a demonstration of concern for others. To be kind is to be considerate, mindful of another's well-being. But exactly why is kindness a virtue?
The great American theologian and philosopher Jonathan Edwards conceived of virtue as moral beauty, a kind of symmetry or proportion displayed in one's life. For Edwards, to be morally beautiful, or virtuous, is to maintain a benevolent regard for all beings, because everything that exists is created and owned by God. It is only morally proper, then, that we think, speak, and behave in ways that show respect toward everything around us. And the more excellent a thing is, the greater respect it is due.
Edwards' analysis seems sound. Virtue is, as he puts it, "Benevolence to being."1 So to be kind is virtuous because kindness displays benevolence toward being, most importantly beings made in the image of God. This is, however, a general answer to a general question, and it leads to the further question, "What forms does kindness take?"
While an exhaustive list of the categories of kindness will not be offered here, three principle forms will be discussed: gentleness, friendliness, and courteousness. Each of these traits is typically regarded as a distinct virtue, but they are united under the general heading of kindness because they all demonstrate thoughtful regard for the well-being of others.
Gentleness is a disposition to behave tenderly toward others. The gentle person strikes the middle ground between obsequiousness and gruffness.2 He is neither spineless nor insensitive to the needs of others. Jesus exhibits (and testifies to his having) this virtue when he says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:28-30).3 These remarks are especially impressive considering the power at Jesus' disposal. His gentleness—like all gentleness—is not the result of impotence or servility. It is power in restraint. In the words of Andre Comte-Sponville, "Gentleness is strength in a state of peace, serene and … full of patience and leniency."4
Although we greatly appreciate gentleness in others, most of us do not work hard to develop the trait ourselves. Consequently, we fall into patterns of harshness, the antithesis of gentleness, which are subtle enough to escape detection by us when doing moral inventory. We're harsh in our attitude when, for example, we display pessimism. To be pessimistic is to look on the dark side first, to expect the worst of people and situations, and to dismiss redemptive possibilities. The cynic is also harsh. He eagerly attributes selfish or sinister motive to others and in doing so reveals his own bitter spirit.
Patterns of harshness also emerge in conversation, particularly in the form of sarcasm and destructive criticism. Sarcasm is an indirect verbal attack used by those who would rather not be forthright. This is a convenient offensive weapon because usually it's not recognized as such. When someone is praised for some good quality, one can simply snicker and say, "Yeah, right," registering disagreement but not so as to invite a reply. The sarcastic joker appears to play peacefully when actually he makes war. The critical person, too, speaks harshly, openly tearing down others in the attempt to make himself look better. But the payoff is brief and ultimately counterproductive. Although he feels a temporary sense of superiority, his critical spirit displays his weakness. He looks worse, not better, than his target of attack.
Open violence is the clearest form of harshness. Although Christians usually don't consider themselves to be participants in violence, this might be due more to a narrowness of moral vision than to a truly peace-seeking life. One need not directly injure other persons or damage their property to be guilty of violence. Unnecessary violence toward animals or other parts of nature are also instances of this vice. Since all of creation is God's and therefore owned and valued by him, we affront God when we unnecessarily harm an animal, destroy vegetation, or pollute the environment. Such acts sometimes are justifiable, of course, but they do need strong justification. The burden of proof is upon us to show that taking this animal's life or damaging that ecosystem is justified. When we destroy parts of nature, we must note that it's God's creation we're acting upon. As the Lord says, "Every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine" (Ps. 50:10-11).
So the gentle person avoids harshness, cynicism, or violence, and is instead hopeful, forthright, and peaceful. To be hopeful is not necessarily to expect the best possible outcome in any given situation, but it is to think and behave in a way that maximizes the chances for a good outcome. Hope envisions and works for a worthy end, recognizing whatever obstacles may emerge and developing strategies to overcome them. Hope is the gentle, rather than the harsh, approach to life.
To be forthright is to be direct and honest. When disagreeing with someone or disapproving another's behavior, the gentle person either says nothing or speaks directly to that person about the matter. He doesn't take the halfway approach of sarcasm or resort to gossipy complaints, but addresses the matter in an honest and straightforward way. Such is the gentle approach to conflict.
The peaceful person promotes life and harmony among people and between humans, animals, and the rest of creation. Although not necessarily a pacifist, he opposes violence even in its subtler forms and eagerly seeks ways to bring about harmonious resolutions to conflicts. Such is the gentle way of life.
Another form of kindness is friendliness, the attribute of being favorably disposed toward others, particularly strangers. We are exhorted to be friendly by the writer of Hebrews when he says, "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it" (Heb.13:2). Friendliness is also commended by Jesus, when he says to one of the Pharisees, "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed" (Luke 14:12-14).
Like gentleness, friendliness is a quality we admire in others but which we do not always make a point of displaying ourselves. In our culture, it sometimes really takes work to be friendly. Suspicion toward strangers seems increasingly common. This suspicion derives from at least three cultural tendencies that militate against friendliness. One of these is growing violence in public places. We regularly hear reports of some random shooting or gross injustice, then we follow the stories of the sad aftermath for the victims or family members as they grieve their loss. We know that we could be the next victim, and this makes us wary Public trust has been displaced by fear and suspicion. Such a mindset naturally leads to a presumption of distrust of our neighbors, making a favorable disposition toward strangers difficult.
Second, our culture's mobility contributes to increasing public alienation. We are a transient society, always on the move, whether it be our long commutes to work or in our jobs themselves, as we relocate every few years to take new positions on the corporate ladder. But even as we improve ourselves professionally, we damage ourselves socially and culturally. We lose our sense of public connectedness, the feeling—or even the fact—of belonging to a particular community with a distinct and stable identity. Consequently, our sense of community responsibility is also forfeited. People are naturally more inclined to reach out to those with whom they have common history or some other bond of unity, the most significant of these being religious, political, ethnic, and even geographic. We are less inclined to be favorably disposed to our neighbors, because we are less sure of who our neighbors are.
Thirdly, and more insidiously, those who would be friendly are handicapped by the culture-wars mindset. Because of rampant media attention to sharply divergent segments of society and the disproportional attention to the extremes within different social groups (e.g., liberals vs. conservatives, the religious vs. the secularists) we feel less identity with others. This exacerbates our sense of public alienation and disconnectedness. It might even foster a sense of enmity and defensiveness, feeding the warrior mentality as the "culture wars" metaphor suggests. Mass media encourage us to focus on our differences because stories about conflict, especially between those on the extremes, are more dramatic and interesting (and therefore more profitable). Consequently, we forget that we have unity simply because we're fellow human beings. We allow ourselves to see our differences as primary, rather than as secondary. Yes, we differ over religion and politics, even over very fundamental moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage. But even these differences do not justify the public animosity that is so prevalent today in our culture. Our shared humanity should be enough to favorably dispose us toward our neighbors, however different from us they might be.
Another form of kindness is courteousness—a trait often equated with politeness—which is the exercise of good manners. A polite person observes codes of public conduct that are not intrinsically moral (such as table manners and theater etiquette). Politeness is important because it makes us agreeable to others and helps to preserve social order by functioning as an endorsement of virtue.5 Even when someone is "faking it" in displaying good manners, he pays respect to these standards, and this itself has moral and social value. It's true, as Judith Martin says, that "manners involve the appearance of things, rather than the total reality,"6 but appearances can have significant social impact.
It's reasonable to expect people to maintain good manners. It could be said that politeness is minimally decent behavior, a kind of social respect that we owe to one another. Some forms of courtesy, of course, go beyond the obligatory into the realm of the supererogatory (i.e., above and beyond the call of duty). We might distinguish between "common" courtesy, which all of us are expected to display, and "special" courtesy, which is desirable but not expected. A person at the front of a long line who gives up his spot to someone else shows special courtesy, as does the person who stops along the roadside to help a motorist change a tire.
An excellent New Testament example of special courteousness is found in Matthew 27, subsequent to Jesus' death on the cross. Matthew records how Joseph of Arimathea approached Pilate for the body of Jesus. Pilate consented, after which "Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock" (vv. 59-60). This was an act of supererogatory kindness on Joseph's part. He didn't have to provide his own tomb for the storage of Jesus' body, but Joseph did so. Special acts of courtesy are properly so-called because they require an extra measure of consideration for, and attention to, someone's needs. The especially courteous person does not merely respond affirmatively to a request made by a needy person. On the contrary, such gestures are usually significant enough that the person in need would not have made such a request in the first place. So special courtesy may be described as "a preemptive response to a bold request." Certainly it's a bold request to ask someone to give up his spot at the front of a long line. The especially courteous person does so without being asked. For this reason, special courtesy crosses over into the virtue of generosity, the moral skill of freely giving to others.
As with the other forms of kindness, courteousness seems less common these days. Often one hears elderly people bemoan the fact that people are not as polite or well-mannered as they used to be. These complaints can be seen as quaint, but if kindness is a bona fide virtue, then its decline in public life is a serious concern. As one seeks to explain why our culture is less courteous, several social trends come to mind. One such trend is our busyness. Courtesy takes time and is inefficient, at least as far as the discourteous person is concerned. And in a culture that stresses the bottom line and the achievement of tangible goals, polite gestures are bound to go by the wayside.
Another factor in the decline of courtesy is the informalization of public life. The past few decades have seen a slow erosion of the sense of what is personal and private. Whether on television talk shows or in other public forums, people now willingly share aspects of their lives that previous generations would have called unseemly. Even the most sordid of personal habits are now, in fact, paraded as matters of casual entertainment. What once was shamefully private is now gleefully public. A predictable consequence of this is a corresponding drop in public behavioral expectations. The shame parade has eroded our sense of decency, and without a clear sense of what is publicly decent, courtesy cannot thrive. Even worse, individual acts of courteousness will seem pointless or idiotic.
A third contributing factor to the demise of courtesy is the social alienation of our transient culture described earlier. Where once Americans lived their whole lives within a community, we now move from place to place, severing social connections almost as soon as they're made. The Internet compounds the problem of alienation, as we carry on commerce, conduct business "meetings," and even participate in worship without actually coming into direct contact with another human being. Such capacities might increase efficiency, but they foster anonymity and social alienation. Consequently, what is lost is a sense of who one's neighbors are, not to mention the loss of a sense of interest in, and moral accountability to, one's neighbors, all of which are necessary for basic courtesy to remain "common."
Finally, the narcissism of our culture naturally discourages courtesy. America's consumer mentality encourages us to satisfy our desires in the most impressive ways, without concern for our neighbor. We are, in fact, taught by advertisers that we are competing with others for attention and appeal, so we'd better work to get the upper hand (by purchasing their products, of course). In short, ours is a culture that encourages selfishness. From Wall Street to Hollywood, the centers of American public influence teach the same thing: "me first." This moral narcissism is obviously at odds with the virtue of courtesy, which causes the courteous person to experience some discomfort and forfeit the upper hand in order to help someone.
What It Takes to Be Kind
These different types of kindness all involve a special regard for the wellbeing of others. Displaying these virtues, though, can be very demanding. To treat others tenderly, to be favorably disposed toward strangers, and to be well-mannered requires that one live against the cultural grain of contemporary American life. It's all too easy to act unkindly without realizing it. The motorist does so when he cuts others off in traffic because, "After all, I'm in a big hurry, and I don't even know these people." The cashier is unkind when he sneers or rolls his eyes when asked a question he's been asked many times before. And the couple who ignore their neighbors because they are preoccupied with their own lives are also unkind. Such cases as these give us a clue as to what is required of us if we are to be kind. Kindness involves at least three prerequisites, and they in turn involve other virtues.
First, kindness demands a sense of public responsibility, what is sometimes referred to as civility. We're all members of a community, a collection of persons who are interdependent in diverse ways. This interdependence brings privileges as well as duties. The more fully we recognize that we have natural obligations to everyone around us and every stranger we meet, the better we will fulfill our duties of kindness toward them. Second, kindness requires a willingness to go slowly and wait without complaint, that is, to be patient. This is, of course, antithetical to the rapid pace of our culture. But therein lies good news: We have ample opportunity to practice patience, to intentionally slow down, to forestall the satisfaction of our own desires and thereby improve our ability to be patient. Third, in order to be kind one must take the focus away from oneself and one's own needs and desires and place others before oneself. To do so is to practice humility, which is, as has been already noted, central to the virtues.
So nurturing in yourself these virtues of civility, patience, and humility will also make you more kind. But it will help to focus on the particulars of kindness. Aim to be more gentle in various ways, to maintain a spirit that relaxes and disarms people. Strive to be less critical of others, less uptight and persnickety, less abrasive even when disagreeing with others. And resolve to show greater care and attention toward children, animals, and the rest of God's creation.
Strive to be more friendly. Initiate conversations with strangers and look for ways to make others, especially the less fortunate, feel more welcome in your life. Be willing to forsake time that you'd like to spend on your own interests. Consciously fight the emotional barriers to friendliness, such as bad moods and the fear of strangers. Sow peace and trust where others cause dissension and mistrust. And be critical of the forces of division in our culture.
Finally, commit yourself to courtesy. Act politely and be good mannered in public and in private, as is your obligation. But resolve to perform occasional supererogatory acts as well, going out of your way to help someone without expecting anything in return. Go above and beyond the call of duty, then in your kindness you will, in the words of Twain, use a language that even "the deaf can hear and the blind can read."
1. Jonathan Edwards, A Dissertation on the Nature of True Virtue, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 1:122. Edwards' more complete definition is as follows: "True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to being in general. Or perhaps, to speak more accurately, it is that consent, propensity, and union of heart to being in general, which is immediately exercised in a general good will."
2. Aristotle's discussion of the virtue of "good temper" falls along these lines. See Nicomachean Ethics 4.5, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random, 1941), 95-96.
4. Andre Comte-Sponville, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, trans. Catherine Temerson (New York: Henry Holt, 1996), 186.
5. On these points, see Sarah Buss, "Appearing Respectful: The Moral Significance of Manners," Ethics 109 (July 1999): 795-826.
6. Judith Martin, Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (New York: Warner, 1983), 13.
—Adapted from How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad by James S. Spiegel © 2004. Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved."