“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
[Dear friends, at a time when despair and hope alternately pervade my days—and possibly yours, too—I find I am writing to understand, to connect, and to seek solutions. I wrote this article in the hope that it might help those of us who believe fervently in kindness, yet also fear the bleak days ahead. As my anxiety grows, my attention span seems to shrink, so rather than one long blog post, I’m going to be offering three short ones over the next week. Here’s part one.]
A Call for Radical Kindness and Fierce Civility
Another election looms. For months, we’ve been seeing the same distressing behaviors we saw in 2016 and 2018. In the remaining days before November 3, it will only get worse. And after November 3, the divide will remain—deep, rancorous, and corroding—there is no magic outcome that will heal our nation. It’s going to be up to each of us to commit to healing.
Despite all, I still believe that kindness is how we will take back our political and social discourse and counter rampant incivility. Not a meek kindness, or a complacent acquiescence, but a bold insistence on courtesy, consideration, and respect. The more of us who recognize the power of kindness and exercise both the courage to use it and the commitment that we will not settle for less, the sooner we will turn the tide.
As I’ve said before, we’re in the midst of an epidemic of incivility. We see it in political rallies, on our streets and highways, throughout social media . . . and we see it in the ways we talk to one another and about one another. It isn’t pretty . . . and it’s disheartening to even a once-fervent optimist.
I don’t use the word epidemic lightly—certainly not today. Research has shown that incivility and rudeness are as contagious as a cold or the flu. They pass from one person to the next like a virus. If we experience it—or even witness it—we are likely to act more rudely. Pretty soon, everybody’s got the incivility bug.
But the good news from science is that kindness is equally contagious. If we experience it—whether we extend a kindness, receive a kindness, or merely witness an act of kindness—it’s a catalyst for us to behave more kindly and considerately toward others.
So, every day, in every action, each of us chooses which contagion we want to spread. Do we want ever-increasing bad behavior, name-calling, finger-pointing, and outshouting the other guy? Or do we want cooperation, respect, and courtesy? You wouldn’t think this would be a tough choice, but, like many things, what may seem simple isn’t always easy.
Why is it so hard?
So many of our actions are reflex responses. Someone says “hello,” we say “hello” back. Someone smiles, we smile back. And if someone is rude to us, our first inclination is to be rude in return. Controlling that reflexive reaction isn’t easy.
Very often, fear and anxiety get in the way of our kindness. We fear our kind action or words will be misunderstood or rejected and we will be embarrassed. We’re afraid of appearing awkward or clumsy. We’re anxious about calling unwanted attention to ourselves and being vulnerable. We fear appearing weak. This may be the biggest misconception about kindness—that’s it’s weak or insubstantial. In fact, it takes a lot of courage to be a kind person. Anybody who tells you otherwise doesn’t understand the true nature of kindness.
Other factors that get in the way of our kindness include being oblivious—so wrapped up in our devices or our own internal drama that we don’t notice the pedestrian at the crosswalk, or the mother struggling to maneuver her stroller through a doorway. Sometimes we hesitate to extend a kindness because we think we don’t have time, or we’re simply lazy.
How do we get past that?
The first step is to pay attention. Look around and ask if this is the world you want to perpetuate, or if you want to cultivate a better world. We need to be clear on our values—these are decisions we make in advance. If we know we value compassion and empathy, and we believe we have a responsibility to help and support one another, then we have our answer: we choose kindness. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.
Once we’re clear on what we value and believe, we need to seek the kind alternative in any situation. We may not always get it right, and that’s OK. Perfection is not our aim. Sometimes it’s easy, sometime not. With attention and a little effort, we can begin to make kindness our default setting.
There are going to be times when it’s incredibly difficult. When offering genuine kindness to someone who speaks rudely to us, cuts us off on the highway, or claims an unearned privilege feels like rewarding someone for bad behavior. We’d rather give them a taste of their own medicine. Maybe we settle for tolerance—a sort of faux kindness that conveys our disapproval.
We can do better.
“Look into your own heart, discover what it is that gives you pain and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.” (Karen Armstrong)
[Part 2 will talk about how to respond with kindness—even when dealing with those who challenge us most, or push all our buttons.]