An excerpt from In Defense of Kindness: Why It Matters, How It Changes Our Lives, and How It Can Save the World, by Bruce Reyes-Chow
We affectionately call our middle daughter, Abby, “Junkyard Piglet.” She’s so cute, petite, unassuming, and quiet that one could easily mistake her for being docile, weak, and yes, nice. There are many people in her life who will let you know that you should make this assessment at your own risk: siblings, classmates, soccer opponents, teachers, and yep, her parentals. While she is kind and empathetic, and she does try to see the best in others, she is not “nice” in a weak way. One should not let one’s guard down or try to take advantage of her hoping that she will not respond with strength, will, or a well-timed reminder that Junkyard Piglet is in the house!
One of my favorite pins says, “Do not mistake my kindness for weakness.” It encapsulates one of the misconceptions of kindness—that to be kind is to be weak.
Let’s get one thing straight: being kind is not about being nice. While being nice is not a bad thing in general, often being nice is an outward action that is more about not rocking the boat than about acknowledging the human dignity of others. Being nice is often about avoiding conflict, letting inappropriate actions slide, or bottling up words and actions that ought to be spoken and enacted to prevent creating an uncomfortable scene. At its worst, being nice reinforces actions and attitudes that strip away human dignity. So if that’s what you are doing, then yes, I say stop doing that.
Don’t confuse conflict-avoiding niceness with dignity-seeking kindness, for when you do, the kindness-hater will be right: you are just being nice.
A few other critiques that you may receive:
“You just want to get along.” Since when did getting along become bad? Sure, if getting along comes at the expense of the dignity of others, then no, don’t do that. But as a general rule, getting along, creating community, and seeking the common good can all be manifestations of being kind, welcoming people to the table, and seeing the humanity in one another.
“If you’re making someone mad, you’re doing something right.” Conversely, this can be read as, “If you’re not annoying people, then you’re not doing something right.” Sure, people will get mad because you are filled with righteous indignation and are standing up against injustice in the world. The danger is to start with getting people mad as the ultimate goal. Not only does this approach create strategic roadblocks to change, but it also cheapens the impact of prophetic voices that do not seek to make people mad, only to speak truth to power in ways that the world may not hear.
“You are being naive.” Do not let the cynics win! There will always be times when we are feeling overwhelmed by the news of global destruction and we become frustrated by the political tweetstorms, and we may then think that noticing human complexities seems useless. Own the feelings. They are yours, and you would not be human if you didn’t sometimes feel as if the battle will never be won. But here is the thing: giving up and deciding that being kind to other humans beings is just not worth the time and energy is precisely what the ugly of the world want us to do. When we stop seeing the goodness around us and decide that a commitment to kindness is no longer worth it, we add to the pain that has created our feelings of being overwhelmed in the first place. To give in to this belief is a bankrupt and soul-sucking decision. Please do not give in to it. By committing yourself to a life of kindness, you are not being naive about the impact of your actions; you are being courageous and bold. You believe that your actions and attitudes can make a difference.
A word about “Bless your heart.” I am not from the South, but from what my friends tell me, there is always a little passive-aggressive judgment present when someone says, “Bless your heart.” I have heard people say it about other people with a tone of affection and care. But if it were really a good term, wouldn’t people say it more often to people’s faces? Whenever I see it being spoken directly to someone, it is clearly a passive-aggressive way of noting something that is foolish. It’s like launching a veiled criticism at someone, and before the recipient can metaphorically punch the launcher in their metaphorical throat, the launcher quickly adds the disclaimer, “I’m just saying.” Maybe that is the northern equivalent to “Bless your heart”? Well, no matter where you are from, if you choose kindness, you are bound to get looks or words with these sentiments behind them. I respond in two ways: ignore it or ask with as much genuineness as possible, “Why, thank you, but what do you mean by that?” or “Clearly you are not ‘just saying.’ So what are you saying?” By responding, not only are you not letting bad behavior pass and possibly making the person think more reflectively, but you may also be saving the next person from such treatment. And if you are now thinking to yourself, Well, bless your heart, Bruce, know that I am ignoring you.
If you are still on board the kindness train, at every stop someone is going to find a reason why the lens through which you view life is the wrong one. While it may be tempting to take on the naysayer right then with some passive-aggressive social media posting—a temporarily satisfying but lazy response, not that I have ever done such a thing—resist the urge and choose to confront the culture of kindness hating. Defend kindness by choosing each and every day to commit to this way of being.
Rest assured, the kindness-hating horde is lurking around every corner, just waiting for you to preach your kindness nonsense, so when you do find yourself starting to wonder if you are just being nice, or naive, or, or, or…reframe the conversation and re-energize your spirit by remembering this:
They say, “Kindness is weakness.” I say, “Kindness is strength.”
They say, “Kindness is naivete.” I say, “Kindness is courage.”
They say, “Kindness is superficial.” I say, “Kindness has depth.”
They say, “Kindness is passive.” I say, “Kindness is active.”
They say, “Kindness is complicity.” I say, “Kindness is justice.”
They say, “Kindness is abdication.” I say, “Kindness is confrontation.”
They say, “Kindness is abstract.” I say, “Kindness is personal.”
They say, “Kindness is distraction.” I say, “Kindness is commitment.”
They say, “Kindness is dumb.” I say, “I know you are, but what am I?”
They say, “Kindness is apathy.” I say, “Kindness is engagement.”
They say, “Kindness is disingenuous.” I say, “Kindness is vulnerability.”
They say, “Kindness is futile.” I say, “Kindness is transformational.”
They say, “Kindness is convenient.” I say, “Kindness is a lifestyle.”
They say, “Kindness is a waste of time.” I say, “Kindness is an abundance of hope.”
They say, “Kindness is impossible.” I say, “Kindness is imperative.”
They say, “Kindness is dead.” I say, “Kindness is life.”
You will surely have moments in which you doubt the kindness way of life, but if you are still reading, one of two things is happening: either this is required reading for your class and you now wish you had registered for Zumba for Physics Majors, or there is a part of you that knows that kindness, in all its complexity, difficulty, and doubt, is worth living. There will always be voices of doubt screaming into your world, but I hope you will listen to that whisper from your soul that says kindness is the path for you. I hope that with each and every day with which you are gifted, from your first waking breath until your body, mind, and soul find rest at the end of your day, you will choose kindness.
How would you define the difference between being kind and being nice or polite?
Share a time when you were accused of being too nice or polite when you were simply being kind.
Survey the interactions of your last twenty-four hours and decide if you were being “kind” or just “nice.”
Excerpted from In Defense of Kindness: Why It Matters, How It Changes Our Lives, and How It Can Save the World, by Bruce Reyes-Chow, available now.