My neighbor likes to take early morning walks. During the recent cold weather, he has been stopping to pick the newspaper up off the driveway and place it on our back step—a small gesture of kindness that warms my heart.
What he doesn’t know is that my dog’s most important task each morning is to run out and fetch the paper; if it’s not in the driveway, he sulks. So, whenever I find the paper on the back step, I have to go outside and toss it back into the driveway. I haven’t told my neighbor yet, and I’m not sure I want to.
One of the great tragedies of the pandemic is the extent to which social distancing reduces the occasions for daily interactions among friends and strangers, which in turn reduces our opportunities for practicing kindness. Those everyday interactions we normally take for granted provide much of the warmth that assures us of our shared humanity. Without them our relations become gradually colder and more brittle; our public discourse more likely to be characterized by distrust and suspicion.
The great thing about acts of kindness is that it doesn’t matter much whether they are actually helpful. Think how often we get in one another’s way while holding open a door. Yet the exchange provides an opportunity to acknowledge one another’s presence, to nod the head, to murmur “thanks.” It is just one of many ways to show that we notice and care for one another, even if that care is awkwardly expressed.
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Kindness feels just as good on the giving end as on the receiving end. Even if we were all so self-sufficient that we never needed assistance, we would have to invent excuses for helping and being helped. Kindness is just that important to our well-being.
It is surprising, then, that kindness does not appear in many of the classical lists of moral virtues. There are the cardinal virtues: justice, courage, wisdom and temperance. Aristotle added liberality, magnanimity, pride and patience. Benjamin Franklin included 13 virtues in his list: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility.
Kindness does not appear much on contemporary lists of core values either.
Proctor & Gamble Co. has a list of values that is fairly typical of large, well-established companies: integrity, leadership, ownership, passion for winning and trust.
What about the company that wants to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony? Surely, Coca-Cola values kindness above all. Nope. Its values consist of the usual suspects: leadership, collaboration, integrity, accountability, passion, diversity and quality.
Nike has some imaginative core values, like “simplify and go” and “be a sponge,” but, sadly, “be kind” is not among them. I think I would rather be kind than be a sponge.
You might think Facebook would value kindness, especially because they are all about “liking” and “friends,” but you would be wrong. Here is what Facebook considers most important: focus on impact, move fast, be bold, be open and build social value. They do pretty well on the first four but struggle with that last one. Perhaps they would be more successful at building social value if its algorithms promoted kindness instead of polarization.
Moral philosophers, for the most part, have not thought highly of kindness. Immanuel Kant regarded kindness as superfluous to ethics. “An action, to have moral worth,” he noted, “must be done from duty.” Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill focused not on the motivation of an action but on whether its outcome would generate greater overall happiness.
And there’s the rub. Sometimes an action motivated by kindness turns out to have undesirable effects on its recipients, while a selfish action turns out to be beneficial. Thus, Adam Smith observed, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”
All that may be true, yet a world without kindness is not one I would like to inhabit, no matter how efficient that society is at satisfying our needs.
I have never met a kind person I disliked, even if I disagreed with their politics or we had no interests in common. A single act of kindness is sufficient to light the spark of potential friendship. The word “kind,” after all, comes from the same root as the word “kin.” To be kind is to treat someone as family.
I believe Americans have always valued kindness, but we tend to overlook it. And the danger of overlooking something is that we will gradually lose it without noticing its loss. To genuinely value something one has to name it, to hold it up as something worth emulating and passing on.
If there is one lesson I have learned more than all others during this pandemic, it is to value and celebrate each little act of everyday kindness.
And if that means I have to go out in the morning and toss my newspaper back into the driveway, so be it. It’s the least I can do to make my neighbor (and my dog) happy.