When my husband and I were first starting to share life together, he mentioned more than once his desire that we ‘be kind to each other’. I have to admit that at the time, it didn’t seem very earth-shattering to me. I kind of nodded and moved on, without realising the incredible value of those apparently simple words. Kindness seems to be one of those virtues that is almost invisible, often failing to be recognised for the world changer that it is.
Sadly, you probably don’t have to ‘imagine’ a marriage or relationship where kindness is not practiced. I’m sure you’ve seen one, perhaps you have even lived in one, as a child or as a spouse. Sometimes people can even have a genuine love for each other, being committed and faithful and working for the same goals; and yet they are just not that kind to each other. They speak harshly, they criticise, they forget the small courtesies, they don’t look for the best in the other. In this context, simple kindnesses can play a very helpful role in bringing grace and giving room to grow. When I was younger, my sister (kindly) passed on some very important advice from my late father, regarding the choice of a life-partner: “Marry a kind man”. How deeply grateful I am that I followed his advice!
In my relationship with my kids, I see how in spite of my fierce love for them, my commitment to them and my untiring efforts for their welfare – there can still be at times a lack of kindness in the way I speak to them, or in my attitude towards them. This lack of kindness saddens me; it rankles, it damages, I’m sure it could contribute to long term relational wear and tear. And then I wonder why there is strife and unkindness between the siblings! It’s like kindness is a precious oil, giving off a beautiful scent, lubricating relationships, freeing up the individuals to give freely and to work hopefully. When I actually choose to focus on the good in my kids (and the other kids in my orbit), when I speak graciously and encouragingly, when I deal with problems in a calm and consistent way, the impact of this kindness is easily observable!
Within a circle of friends or a community group, kindness strengthens, supports and gives room for healing. In times of grief, illness and injury, the kindness of those around me has been so influential and uplifting, even though it has often been very practical and humble. Meals cooked, walls painted, building projects finished, difficult tasks shared, even toilets cleaned and washing done! These simple acts of kindness have been like an ointment, or to use an old word, a balm – applied to the raw and hurting place, soothing there, and holding me through the helplessness and hurt. In more ordinary times, when life hums along with its routines and responsibilities, kindness comes like a spark, lifting the spirit, awakening gratitude, inspiring towards giving and sharing.
Within the wider context of a town or city, kindness is a great builder, a magic ingredient that can actually change the taste of life. It’s not for nothing that the idea of “practicing random acts of kindness”, or “paying it forward” has caught people’s imagination. I have actually watched simple kindness – words of encouragement, acts of generosity, even a mere smile – have a kind of mystical impact on a person’s life. This impact, by the way, flows in both directions: to the giver as well as the recipient. I’ve seen young people lifted to achieve wonderful things in life through the consistent kindness of someone who believes in them. I’ve seen kindness provide tangible hope to struggling people, that maybe life could be different, that despair and darkness is not all there is. It’s no overstatement to say that kindness can mean the difference between life and death for certain people on certain days.
There’s a final expression of kindness that can be the least valued of all, though it is possibly the most important, and that is the idea of kindness towards yourself. Many of us, for varied reasons, live under a hail of barking, harping, constant abuse – all within our own heads! We insult ourselves in ways that we would never insult another person, hammering our every mistake and fault with vile punishment and relentless vitriol. If we behaved that way towards other people, there would be drastic consequences, and yet we tolerate that kind of hatred and cruelty towards our own person. I’m not sure who it was that said that we needed to learn to be meek towards ourselves. I believe in this context, ‘kind’ could be a worthy synonym. What if you decided to take a break from cruel, cutting and abusive self-talk? I don’t mean that you never recognise your own mistakes or failings, but I do mean stopping the torrent of self-hating words that follows that recognition. Letting yourself ‘off the hook’, forgiving yourself, looking for the good, speaking graciously and encouragingly, as you would expect yourself to do for others. I know this is just one aspect of a complex situation; but I wonder how much difference it could make, to choose to be kind to yourself.
The Bible, in its famous description of love, puts kindness second in a long list of practical outworkings of love. It recognises the high value that simple kindness has in our lives; the lasting impact of that precious mix of generosity, friendliness, sensitivity, tenderness, warmth, empathy, care and concern. There’s a quote by George Elliot that has meant a lot to me over the years, that I think expresses beautifully one aspect of truly kind friendship:
Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.
I find it interesting that kindness is described here as a ‘breath’. In this post, I’ve described kindness as oil, scent, flavour, ointment, grace… These are all small, subtle things, however they have quite an influence, as well as being conspicuous by their absence. And a world without kindness is harsh, cold and stark. However, in the midst of that world, just a breath of kindness can begin the change.