The other day I was walking along the street behind a young boy wearing a brown hoodie. He held his mother’s hand, and they were chatting away to one another as they walked. On the back of his top, in large cream-coloured letters it said, “Be Strong, Be Courageous, Always Be Kind and have Fun.” They were walking quite slowly and as I overtook them, I said to the boy, “I like the words on your top, that’s a good way to live your life.” He was too shy to reply, but his mother beamed at me and said, “Thank you so much. He chose it himself.” She was right to be proud of him.
When so much in the world seems bleak and unpromising, it is a sign of hope that children can recognise the importance of kindness. His hoodie has continued to make me think more widely about what kindness means and how we can try to build it into our lives (along with strength, courage and fun!).
According to one dictionary definition, kindness is the quality of being generous, helpful and caring about other people. It’s more than just being nice, there is an element of intentionality – another person has thought through what might help us and perhaps even gone out of their way or inconvenienced themselves by their act of kindness. They’ve put us before themselves.
What is so interesting about kindness is that when we are the recipients of a kind act, it doesn’t just help us in our predicament or at least make us feel valued, it can stir something within us which makes us want to be kind too. It is not about pay-back or settling a debt, some new good thing has been ignited at a deeper spiritual level. We want to pass it on to someone else by being kind to them in turn, the first ripple of a new movement or flow of kindness. It’s not just about doing acts of kindness either, we need to speak about acts of kindness we witness too, rippling the effects more widely afield. As Amelia Earhart puts it, rather more poetically “A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.”
Kindness is the outworking of loving our neighbour as ourselves, which Jesus spoke of as the second great commandment. Jesus is constantly referred to as showing compassion to people he meets and to all those with great need whom he healed, taught and fed. His stories too were often about the importance of showing kindness, compassion and generosity to others – the good Samaritan, the parable of the sheep and goats, the lost sheep, and when he received an act of great kindness from a repentant woman who poured expensive perfume on him, he predicted that her story would be told for ever.
Kindness is central to all twelve-step recovery. In meetings newcomers are welcomed and shown complete acceptance, the primary purpose according to the fifth tradition of AA being to carry their message to the alcoholic who still suffers. This requires kindness, which becomes an important way of helping us to stop being so self-absorbed, to look beyond ourselves. That’s how our own healing and recovery come about. If we are thinking about other people, which requires some imagination, empathy and most important of all, action, then we are taking time out from just thinking about ourselves. There is always the need for balance though. As addicts we tend to do everything to excess, so being kind and gentle with ourselves is also important.
Acts of kindness are unilateral and radical. In a world where so much isn’t in our control, we have complete license to do acts of kindness, to pretty much whoever we want, whenever we want to do them. It doesn’t require anything in the way of resources either apart from a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable and put the needs of others before our own wants. The author Og Mandino’s words inspire us to action. “Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward. Your life will never be the same again.”