“Mean is easy. Mean is lazy. Mean is self-satisfied and slothful. You know what takes effort? Being kind. Being patient. Being respectful.” (Jake Tapper)
[In the six years I’ve been blogging about kindness I’ve sometimes strayed to other topics, but kindness remains my North Star. Usually, I feel confident that kindness will surmount the evil, greed, intolerance, and disregard that threatens the world, but sometimes I am stunned and baffled by the meanness of many of my fellow humans. As we approach the most important election America has ever faced, amidst a global pandemic, I am periodically going to revisit and reexamine some of my earliest thoughts about kindness and explore them in context of today’s circumstances.]
Since the publication of A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You, I’ve been blessed to have many opportunities to talk about kindness—at bookstores, libraries, service organizations, conferences, radio shows, and podcasts. The question I am asked most often is, “What’s the difference between kind and nice? Aren’t they the same thing?”
To some, the difference may be wholly semantic, but I believe there is a vast difference, and the times we are currently living in require that we choose kindness.
It’s fairly easy to be nice. Nice is polite. It’s doing what is expected: smiling at the cashier, holding a door, speaking courteously, not offending. Nice is safe. It doesn’t ask me to take any risk or to make a connection. I can be nice and still make judgments about people. I can be nice and still merely tolerate others, with an insincere smile on my face. I can be nice and remain indifferent, not caring if the person I’m interacting with is getting what they need.
But kind asks more of me. It asks me to suspend judgment, to make a genuine connection, to care about the other person. Kind requires that at times we put ourselves out there, we enter unknown territory and take risks. Our kindness might be misunderstood. It might be rejected. It might make us vulnerable. It might take time or be inconvenient. Kindness takes effort and intentionality—niceness doesn’t.
I’ve come to view nice as an adjective and kind as a verb.
Those who see kind and nice as pretty much the same also tend to view kindness as a weakness. They see it as inconsequential. They mistakenly assume kind people are pushovers and easily manipulated. Maybe that’s because kindness is not loud or overbearing, and kind people don’t call attention to themselves. Their kindness often works its magic through quietly spoken words and subtle actions.
But the truth is that kind people are the strongest among us. They’re willing to take the associated risks. They’re willing to stand when others stay seated or speak up when others stay silent. It’s a strength unkind people don’t have and can’t yet understand. Kindness requires courage.
Today, as we are facing challenges to our health, our freedom, our democracy, and our planet, kindness may seem a puny weapon, but it is, in fact, a superpower. And if enough of us wield it, we can overwhelm a wounded world.
Kindness and COVID
In the face of a pandemic, our kindness can ease fears, maintain connection, and offer direct help to those who are struggling. Even if we aren’t able to be out and about, we can pick up the phone, send a text, drop a note, or wave from afar. If we are in a position to do so, we can write a check to a local foodbank, donate to a homeless shelter, or help someone pay their utility bill. Being physically isolated doesn’t mean we don’t still pay attention, exercise compassion, and offer what help we can.
Kindness and Activism
We are two months away from the most critical election we are ever likely to face. Wielding kindness means that we stand up and speak up for what we believe, and that we do it in ways that don’t deepen our divide. It means we champion our values and support those who are struggling for their rights. And when others behave badly, we don’t let their bad behavior trigger our own. There are going to be people who are deliberately provocative, who want to incite conflict, incivility, and even violence. Arguing with them, engaging them, merely fuels them. They are not people who are open to reasonable discussion, nor to considering any views other than their own. Their minds are closed. To the degree possible, we need to withhold fuel from them—that means not arguing, not debating, not giving them the satisfaction of our attention—whether in person or via social media.
Kindness and Environmental Action
While the immediacy of the pandemic, the election, and the fight for racial equality and justice may be foremost in our minds right now, the threats to our planet remain dire. Kindness here requires that we think about our actions and about what we should be doing—and not doing—to protect our endangered Earth. We can vote for green candidates, we can donate to organizations focused on climate and conservation, and we can be mindful about what we purchase, and where, and how we use our existing resources.
There are so many choices in front of us now. One is simply whether or not we pay attention to what’s going on around us, and whether we act on our values. Being nice is not enough. We need to be actively and radically kind. We need to choose kindness as if our lives depend upon it. They might.
“A kind life, a life of spirit, is fundamentally a life of courage—the courage simply to bring what you have, to bring who you are.” (Wayne Muller)