Reimagining Kindness in an Unkind World
I have long believed in the principle that individual acts of kindness close to home help foster peace and kindness in the world at large, a tenet articulated by many throughout history.
Kindness is the only non-delusional response to the human condition.
– George Saunders
Jon Kabat-Zinn succinctly elucidates this premise and its underpinnings:
We resonate with another’s sorrows because we are interconnected. Being whole and simultaneously part of a larger whole, we can change the world simply by changing ourselves. If I become a centre of love and kindness in this moment, then in a perhaps small but hardly insignificant way, the world now has a nucleus of love and kindness it lacked the moment before. This benefits me and it benefits others.
Of course, this hopeful belief that our personal attitudes and acts of kindness can have a meaningful impact in this often-unkind world is not universally held. And whatever we may believe, kindness is clearly not universally practiced, especially in stressful situations when being kind is not easy and may even be seen as ill-advised.
The perceived shortcomings and pitfalls of kindness readily become apparent in times of pervasive brutality, as we are currently living through. As I write these words in June 2022, we are four months into the shocking invasion of Ukraine and just weeks after the unthinkable mass-shooting horrors in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas.
In the face of such overwhelming tragedy and cruelty, practicing kindness might seem a naive and ineffective response. That’s why I found the recently spoken words below to be potent and stirring.
Inspiration from the Frontlines
U.S. Navy veteran David Callaway is the chief medical officer of Team Rubicon, a disaster-response and humanitarian-aid organization delivering battlefield trauma care in Ukraine. Asked in an interview what he might suggest to those who want to help alleviate the tragic conditions in Ukraine, Dr. Callaway concluded his remarks with this unexpected advice (emphasis added):
There’s this conflict going on between two states that are supposed to believe in the world order, and one thing you can do right now or in five minutes is go be nice to your neighbor. Go be nice to the people in your town…. Just be kind to people. Be patient. Help embody the type of world that we want to live in that is counter to this world of conflict and attacking women and children. Make it strong, make that the world we want to be in, and that’s what’s going to prevent things like this from happening in the future.
Callaway’s words really hit home. His illuminating counsel made the possibility of achieving peace through everyday acts of kindness feel realistic and plausible, sparking a visceral sense of hope in me. It even prompted a vivid mental image of how our individual acts of kindness could coalesce to create a more peaceful world:
We intentionally extend our personal and communal acts of kindness – even in difficult circumstances – in a widening circle of more and more people until our aggregated, interlinked acts of kindness surround and engulf malevolence and cruelty on enough fronts in the world, absorbing and containing it, to prevent it from further metastasizing.
The envisioned dynamic is akin to the butterfly effect in chaos theory, which “rests on the notion that the world is deeply interconnected, such that one small occurrence can influence a much larger complex system.” Kabat-Zinn’s quote above also evokes this image. If “one small occurrence can influence a much larger complex system” imagine what performing millions of acts of kindness every day can do.
What It Will Take
I believe the following exhortation from Callaway regarding kindness holds the key to pursuing and ultimately realizing this vision:
Make it strong.
Performing acts of kindness in ever-widening circles, as envisioned above, is essential to making kindness go viral. Integrally related, we also need a coordinated public campaign to vigorously promote the preeminent value of kindness. In other words, we need strength in numbers to spread the practice of kindness. And to accomplish this feat we need another kind of strength as well: making kindness itself strong.
Human kindness as commonly understood and practiced is essential. It is the mother’s milk of civilization. But to defend and protect the light of common kindness against the dark forces that are currently on the ascendancy, we need to forge kindness into a counterforce that is battle-tested and indestructible.
Obviously this is an enormous challenge. But I believe this heightened potential is intrinsic to the pure awareness, love, and strength that emanates from the spacious depths of our being and that constitutes the substrate of all human engagement. When we fully realize its innate potency, the power of fortified kindness becomes a genuine superpower that can defeat the forces of greed, divisiveness, and fearmongering that have wreaked havoc from time immemorial.
We can do it.