Kindness


If kindness is the act of being kind as defined by the  dictionary, it means "caring about others; gentle, friendly and generous". However, I believe that the definition can be extended and better encompassed by the Australian Kindness Movement which states "an act of kindness is a message from one heart to another, an act of love, an unspoken "I care" statement". Kindness, when allowed to flourish, is an all pervasive, all transcending, flowing current which sustains mankind and which is absolutely fundamental within our society and world. 

If we are to establish the value of kindness, then we must find a scale on which to measure it. In the most logical way to deduct the value of something, then let us use the scale which is most commonly called upon in our society, cost. Kindness can cost a pound put towards helping a homeless person to stay in a shelter for the night, a fifty pound donation towards the aid of the distressed and displaced flood victims in some countries, or the sum of a cheque written to help a friend in need. However, a kind word is free, as is sharing your umbrella in the rain, or stopping to ask someone if they are lost and need help. What's more, to try and put kindness on a monetary scale would be to say that the �20 given to charity from the pocket of someone on minimum wage is less valuable than the �10 000 donation from a large multinational corporation, which simply is not true, as the means available to people are so different. The relative value of an act of kindness carried out by any person or group has no direct correspondence with the importance of the act.

The value of kindness can also be discussed in terms of time; the two minutes that it takes to help somebody carry their pushchair up the stairs at the train station, the thirty minutes a month where you volunteer to visit a residential care home and chat to an elderly person who is lonely, or the month spent sharing your flat with a distant cousin who is down on their luck. But this scale is also insufficient, as the time taken to carry out a kind act is only a small part of the overall duration of its effect. For example, a smile takes only a moment, but could change somebody's mood for the whole day. A few words of encouragement or reassurance can stay with a person and continue to help them to overcome difficulties for many years after they were spoken. Indeed it could be argued that the effects of certain kind acts can continue indefinitely. 

So although kindness can not be given a concrete and tangible value, this in no ways means that kindness is without value- in fact kindness can be viewed as quite invaluable. It is necessary to us, so much so that Goethe described kindness as ..."the golden chain by which society is bound together". Kindness within a society is essential and absolutely necessary in order for humans to coexist and live even relatively harmoniously in such large groups. More so, it is safe to presume that the more kindness existing in any society, the more harmony there is likely to be. 

In this way we can begin to perceive the beautiful flow of kindness. Not only does kindness have a domino effect but also a reverse domino effect; if a stranger were to pick up the newspaper that you dropped on the tube, then not only would your mood and the possibilities of you carrying out an act of kindness be improved, the stranger would also feel good about themselves and be more likely to repeat the experience. Indeed "When you give yourself, you receive more than you give" (Antoine de Saint-Exupery), so being kind to somebody else is in fact a very effective way to ensure that you are kind to yourself. When acts of kindness are carried out, the giver and the recipient (be it another person, a group of people, a living organism or the environment) both benefit and are all likely to be happier and more effective in their purpose, existence or function. 

At this point it is essential to establish that a true act of kindness is something that is done without expectation of something in return- lest it be confused for something else. For example, at a glance, it seems that kindness is practiced throughout the animal kingdom widely and regularly. Take the chimpanzee that spends hours of its day grooming others around it, something which seems like a kind and selfless act. However, this is done not fully out of kindness, but rather in the expectation that it will be groomed in turn and also to affirm its position in the hierarchy of the troupe. Therefore, from the purely evolutionary perspective kind acts in the animal kingdom can more realistically be viewed as reciprocity, a phenomenon found in all social animals whereby individuals perform altruistic acts borne of the selfish calculation that these will come to benefit themselves in some way in the future. This is what differentiates their societies, and their ability to be kind from ours, because it is we who have the ability to carry out truly pure and generous acts of kindness.

Not only paramount to society, kindness is a uniquely human attribute. The fact that we as human beings are capable of kind acts which have no clear material benefit to ourselves means we can try to create something beyond simply survival. We can elevate ourselves as a species both morally and spiritually, and attempt to transcend purely selfish motivation, unlike all other groups that social animals form. Perhaps alongside language and cooking, kindness defines us and sets us apart from all other life on Earth, it separates the nature of human society from that of a pack of dogs.

It seems then, that the ability to really demonstrate kindness is the responsibility of each and every single human who wishes to be part of a society. And we do not only have a responsibility to be kind to each other. As inhabitants of this earth we also inherit a huge responsibility to respect and care for the environment and its creatures (now more than ever), and even small acts of kindness can have a definite result.

For example, UN figures suggest that meat production puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than transport, so simply taking part in the international campaign 'Meat free Monday' and making a small sacrifice could have a huge impact. By abstaining from eating meat just one day a week, you would perform an act of kindness and a mark of respect towards the environment by helping to combat climate change, not to mention it being good for your health. 

'Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness' (Seneca), and we have established that this opportunity is in fact a privilege and the reason as to why we as humans can live as we do. So perhaps we should ask ourselves if we are exercising our privilege and responsibility enough. It is one of the most valuable gifts, bound by no scale and which we can all afford at all times. In our ability to carry out kind acts we are all equal and there lies the immediate value. We feel good, and we see ourselves making other people feel good. It is impossible for any of us to be perfect, but by carrying out more kind acts we can all be better people, making up a better world.
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