Cultivating Kindness

27 Mar

There are a few posts flying around the interwebs about kindness lately (the one that first got me thinking is on the same site as was part of the notable Dickwolves Brouhaha).

I like words. Specifically, I like how words can be very precise even when we don’t really think about their meanings or use them interchangeably. For example:

Kindness vs. Niceness

Kind:

  • having or showing a tender and considerate and helpful nature; used especially of persons and their behavior; “kind to sick patients”; “a kind master”; “kind words showing understanding and sympathy”; “thanked her for her kind letter”
  • charitable: showing or motivated by sympathy, understanding, and generosity

Nice:

  • pleasant or pleasing or agreeable in nature or appearance; “what a nice fellow you are and we all thought you so nasty”- George Meredith; “nice manners”; “a nice dress”; “a nice face”; “a nice day”; “had a nice time at the party”; “the corn and tomatoes are nice today”
  • decent: socially or conventionally correct; refined or virtuous; “from a decent family”; “a nice girl”
  • courteous: exhibiting courtesy and politeness; “a nice gesture”

In relation to people, those are two very different concepts, and I think our society over stresses “niceness” to the point that “kindness” is often forgotten.

Which makes sense because niceness is about social compliance.

Someone who is socially or conventionally correct, who doesn’t “make waves”, inconvenience others, or act disagreeably, is a “nice” person. You can have nice dogs – they’re dogs that don’t impose on you, who behave appropriately and not intrusively or in an objectionable manner. It’s essentially… well… a social nicety. (Go figure on that phrase, right?)

Acting “un-nice” gets an immediate social reaction of disapproval and (sometimes) shame. We are expected to be nice – to value and serve the social structure as more important than the people in it.

Kindness, on the other hand, is more about awareness of others as well as self. It takes paying attention to others, and an active attempt to understand where they’re coming from and what’s happening. A nice response might be the same as a kind one sometimes, but ultimately niceness serves society where kindness serves people.

I’d even go so far as to say that kindness is more akin to compassion than it is to niceness. Kindness isn’t really something you can expect, and forced kindness starts to look a lot like being “nice” instead.

For example: as a child, I was told to write thank you notes to everyone who gave me gifts – to the point of not being able to use those gifts until I had written and mailed the thank you for it. That’s niceness.

As an adult, however, I know how much I love getting mail and hearing from friends in a physical way (especially the friends who live far away). I have intentionally kept up with writing thank you notes, not because I know it’s expected of me (it’s really not, at least not in this internet age) but as a way to do something unexpected and catch up with a friend. Do I gain some benefit from it? Of course. But that benefit is more from knowing that I have the ability to make a mailbox full of bills less depressing than it is from any expectation of a return note or even an acknowledgment. Writing a note has gone from socially expected niceness to a choice I make to do a little kind thing with 5 minutes of my day.

(I admit, however, that I did not particularly relish writing wedding thank you notes, because THOSE were expected social niceness. Even if I did have fun playing with stamps.)

The internet tends to value niceness over kindness – much like society as a whole. In large groups of people, those social niceties are what keep things flowing in a way that everyone is comfortable and familiar with.

Kindness stands out, where niceness is expected, and in our happy little intertube world, kindness is harder. It’s much easier to be compassionate to the friend sitting next to you than it is to think about a pixellated icon as a person to whom you might choose to be kind.

Of course, it’s easily as important to be kind to yourself as it is to be kind to others. Some would say (if you are one to believe in the golden rule) that being kind to yourself is the first step in being kind to others. To treat others as you’d like to be treated is to first value yourself and others equally and to know how you wish to be treated and what your personal and emotional state is

Sometimes the ultimate act of self-kindness is to allow yourself to look inward and rest, to step away from niceness and realize that putting others above yourself is as disproportionate as putting others below yourself. Forcing yourself to be kind to others in a way that depletes your energy and makes you miserable isn’t kind to you.

There’s a balance to be had there, and I’m the first to admit that I’m pretty bad at it. But I am trying, and slowly getting better at knowing when I need to be kind to myself and when I can choose to be kind to others (and reminding myself to apologize when I am decidedly unkind).

Niceness doesn’t really mean being good to yourself or to others, it’s simply social compliance. Not that social compliance is inherently bad (cutting in line is kind of asshatish), but it’s not the most important of our interactions with others. Niceness doesn’t improve friendships or create connections the way kindness can – and it certainly doesn’t recharge our batteries and allow us to rest and take care of ourselves. Kindness is one of the seven virtues precisely because it DOES do those things. I’d go so far as to argue that kindness (both to self and to others) can really improve the quality of our relationships.

And maybe that’s a little too kum-ba-ya for a Monday morning, but I think it’s important to think about.

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4 Responses to “Cultivating Kindness”

  1. Tami March 28, 2011 at 8:43 am #

    (I totally shared this post before I realized it was Anna and before I noticed that it was me behind that “far away” link. <3<3 *happy warmth*)

    THANK YOU.

    I've been trying to separate "nice" and "kind" in my head for about a week now, and doing a poor job of it and here you go and write the perfect post to help me!

    This. A thousand times, this.

    Have you been looking up Dalai Lama quotes, as well?

    • Anna March 28, 2011 at 11:12 am #

      I haven’t specifically, but I am in the process of reading his book ‘The Universe in a Single Atom’, as well as studying mindfulness as part of my therapy. That’s actually where all of this came from, in a convoluted sort of way.

  2. Verdus March 28, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    A very well thought out comparison, thank you. Genuine kindness is often very hard, particularly in a society so very large that forming a real connection to all the people you meet in real life is straining. The part about being kind to yourself really jumped out at me as well, as it’s something I tend to be very bad at.

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  1. Seven Deadly Diva … Disney Princesses? « Seven Deadly Divas - April 10, 2011

    […] perhaps – I probably qualify more for Diligence though I’m working on Kindess. Maybe Anna’s more appropriate for that one, […]

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