“That is very kind of you” I said to the man on the train who offered up his seat so I could sit next to my mother. I’m not sure why I used that somewhat antiquated phrase. Perhaps it is because I have been thinking of kindness a lot lately.
It began last month when my wife and I took our three daughters to see Little Women. In previous readings of the book and versions of the movie, I – like most – was primarily invested in the success of the independently-minded Jo March. But in this latest version, it is her kindly sister Beth who shines most brightly. And while her generosity of spirit is most notable, the movie is replete with acts of kindness. In fact, one cannot think of a significant character in the movie who does not commit an act of kindness for another.
I began wondering why this wasn’t clearer in my previous viewings and readings of the same basic material. Why are we so drawn to rooting for the success of one while missing a chief characteristic of them all?
Part of the answer was revealed in a recent Atlantic article, titled: Stop Trying to Raise Successful Kids: And start raising kind ones. The authors write “Kindness and concern for others are held as moral virtues in nearly every society and every major religion. But when you ask children what their parents want for them, 81 percent say their parents value achievement and happiness over caring.”
If even our children see us prioritizing success over caring, it is little wonder why we ourselves see it more plainly in acts of fiction and life.
Like many parents, we spend so much of our “free time” involved in organized sports and other activities which have some type of defined success built into them. You win a game, learn a new skill, have a successful performance. All valuable experiences, but are there other ways to organize their time – not for success but for others?
Last week, my wife and another family took the children shopping to buy hats, gloves and then baked cookies for the homeless. Later that afternoon, through Sunshine Snail Mail, they huddled around a coffee table and wrote postcards sending kind thoughts to strangers who signed up saying they could use a little support. One of my favorites was “Imagine I’m sending you a warm hug right now” sent to an elderly woman who had just gone through three surgeries. Is it possible that this one day could be more important for the development of their character than a season of soccer?
Our culture is more individualistic than most. Our chief narrative, the American Dream, teaches us that if YOU work hard enough you can become anything. That “anything” is implicitly understood to be some type of personal achievement.
Yet what if we aspired to a different definition. One captured in this quote by Jennifer Dukes Lee:
“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”
Recognizing and naming the kindness around us, whether delivered in a movie, on a postcard from a child or by a stranger on a train, very simply perpetuates more of it.
And who could argue that the world could use a little more kindness.
I hope you see and spread some today.