‘Being kinder’ while a worthy ambition is in many ways a vague goal to set ourselves. By trying to be more kind what exactly are we advocating? Smiling at strangers and holding the door open for our colleagues? Greater empathy towards those suffering? Generosity in our time and money for good causes? And where does selfless kindness end and our own feelings, whether that be a sense of duty or a self-satisfaction in doing good deeds, begin, and cloud the moral purity of the original action?
I think many would agree that kindness is at its essence a selfless act; something positive we do for others with no conscious ulterior motive of hoping to gain for ourselves. There’s an episode of Friends that comes to mind in which Phoebe tries to do something completely selfless. Ultimately she feels that she fails to do so because every act she attempts either backfires, or gives her the unintended benefit of feeling good about herself for having done a kind thing.
As much as I love her, and Smelly Cat will always be my pre-teen anthem, I would disagree with Phoebe on this one. Kind acts don’t have to be selfless; it’s okay to feel good about being a nice person, to take a measure of satisfaction in knowing you’ve done something kind. In fact, I’d argue it’s better than okay; recognition of that glow of warmth of “I did something decent today, and I’m glad I did” should be encouraged. Not to be held above the value of the act itself of course, but as a motivator for further kind deeds. And let’s be honest, in a world of polarising political dialogue, ongoing civil war and humans generally continuing to prove how awful we can be, the world could always do with a few more kind deeds, regardless of the motivation.
A good place I think we could all try to work on being a little more kind is online. Studies into the rise of trolling and cyberbullying have shown that anyone is capable of being embroiled in the practice. Safely hidden behind screens and anonymising IP addresses, trolls are protected from seeing the impact of their comments face to face. Without bearing witness to the impact of our words, our capacity for cruelty grows. There’s a reason Instagram introduced a feature for disallowing comments. There’s a reason Stephen Fry, Daisy Ridley, and Justin Bieber are just a few in a long list of celebrities who have taken extended periods away from social media platforms or quit altogether. Even though celebrities deal with thousands of comments, from the die-hard fans to the haters, some will make it through to them personally. People’s words stick with us, and it tends to be the extremes, the shockingly cruel and the incredibly kind, that have the longest staying power.
I say this from personal experience; almost two years ago I received a horrible and unwarrantedly cruel email from a previous flatmate. The opening sentence of said-email I can still quote from memory, word for word. But then again, the good things I hold fondly onto as well, and revisit on days I might feel low. I actually have a little notebook to keep track of some of the lovely occasions people have offered me a compliment that has felt really meaningful. These vary from lecturers’ feedback on essays I did well on, to friends personal notes in birthday cards, to rare moments of praise from my basketball coach.
So on this World Kindness Day, I would like to bring attention to two points I hope will be food for thought. The first is to sing the praises of Doing Good and Feeling Good about it. There is no shame, I don’t think, in donating to a worthwhile cause, and feeling like you’ve done your bit for the day. There is nothing wrong in taking the time to go out of your way to help a friend or colleague in need, and feeling gratified in their thanks. And I would encourage everyone to recognise the power of such a simple thing as kind words, especially online. ; it’s kindness of the digital age, it’s backfire done, and it stays with people, immortalised online.
Kindness, the cynics note, and perhaps fairly, won’t solve all of life’s problems. But it sure makes things a little more bearable. Working for a mental health charity I’ve come to appreciate how much a genuine show of kindness can lift someone up if they’re struggling behind closed doors. Kindness doesn’t have to be grand gestures, hundreds of pounds or hours of your time; it can just be words, but words are powerful too.
Blog post by current Chartiyworks trainee Tessa Boyd, Media Volunteer Assistant at Mind.