George Saunders has written beautifully about the importance of kindness – a topic I’ve taken up here a number of times before. His article is recommended reading.
One of the reasons kindness is so hard for many people, I think, is the harshness of our own inner lives. There’s a vast world we choose not to show others, and it’s often woven through with self-criticism, anxiety, unmet longing, fear, comparison, judgement, and a feeling of alienation from the world – of not yet being ‘at home’.
Because encountering ourselves can be so painful and difficult we learn to wait and hope and stay apart from one another, fearing what will happen if people see how we really are inside. And since kindness necessarily brings us into close contact with others, and with ourselves, it opens us and makes us feel vulnerable. And so we hold back.
It’s from here that our cynicism about kindness arises too. We confuse kindness with ‘niceness’, and rightly understand that niceness will never be sufficient to ease our suffering, or that of others, and so had best be avoided. But where niceness is inconstant, soft, and all about earning approval from others, genuine kindness is sharp and powerful and requires sincerity and courage. It comes from no longer making ourselves the centre of the universe, and it’s far more significant and necessary than anything niceness can muster.
In our holding back we imagine kindness will become possible only when our inner difficulty eases. But this is to misunderstand kindness and how it grows. The path to the inner kindness we need is paved with outer kindness to others: we have to get over ourselves, and our own self-pity, in order to extend ourselves genuinely to other human beings. And that’s exactly what supports the transformation of the inner world too.
And of course, by extending kindness to others we quickly find out that pretty much everyone is suffering as we are. And then we discover most viscerally how vital our kindness is, and that all our years of holding back were in vain.