What is kindness anyway?

At the beginning of this year, I started joined a small nature hike group led by a therapist. For the most part, this has been great for me. Sure, I could gather together my own group and go hiking for free, but putting money down and having it scheduled in my calendar makes it easier for me to commit and follow-through. Doing something just for me and having regularly scheduled breaks from the demands of two small children, the requests of my husband, and the expectations I place on myself in the roles of mother and wife is a baseline for self-care I never before recognized I needed.

A few days before each hike, the therapist sent an email to the group with a theme for the hike with an article to read and a concept to consider prior to and during the hike. One of the last weeks was a reflection of personal values and the email suggested we think about our top three values and how we live (or perhaps don’t) by those values.

During the hike, I was the first to share my values. I had had a hard time choosing three, but kindness quickly jumped out as my first. To my surprise, one member of the group scoffed kindness as a top value, saying it was important but they would choose so many things ahead of kindness. I think they held themselves back, stopping just short of openly criticizing my top value, but their distaste for kindness was apparent.

As a group, we then had a bit of a discussion on kindness, and I think what I came to realize is that it’s not a very clear-cut term. So I reflected on what kindness means to me and as a result.. I’m doubling down on having it be my top value.

To some, kindness means being charitable to others, and if that’s all it meant, then perhaps I would agree that it’s not quite worthy of a top 3 spot, but I see it as so much more.

Merriam-Webster defines “kind” as “of a sympathetic or helpful nature” or “of a kind to give pleasure or relief” and I do think this is reflected in the way I think of kindness.

Kindness is not just something you can show to others, but it is and must be something you show to yourself. Sometimes it may seem like those two conflict and maybe that’s where the sticking point is.

Kindness is not only something you do but may also be something you choose not to do. It could even be the more passive choice. If someone cuts us off on the road, we could let our anger guide our response–ride their bumper, flip them the bird, roll down our window and yell insults–or we could breathe, recognize it’s about that person and not us and let them be. And really, isn’t that second option kinder to us both?

I believe kindness is not retaliating when we feel slighted, choosing not to put others at risk for the sake of our convenience or profit, not taking things personally, being aware of how what we do or say affects others, keeping an open mind, believing everyone is doing the best they can with what they have, showing appreciation when we feel it, lending a hand for those in need when we can spare it, being in tune with and prioritizing our own needs. Kindness shows there is value in your existence and also in mine.

Especially behind the screens of our computers, people seem to feel safe to judge, criticize, and hurl insults with reckless abandon at people whose stories they know next to nothing about. And you could say that not doing those things is neutral and doesn’t count as being kind, but I don’t think that gives enough credit to how much resources it sometimes takes to do nothing instead of something harmful. When we’re stressed and overwhelmed, when our childhood wounds are poked, when we are at the wrong end of someone else’s big feelings, when no one taught us healthy coping mechanisms, lashing out can often be so much easier and instantaneously satisfying than walking away.

I believe we have the power to cause little ripples of influence and we can choose whether those ripples will add or relieve stress. I believe our world’s greatest sickness is a lack of kindness. So yes, kindness is one of my top 3 values and I am far from perfect at it, but I will never stop trying.

Do you agree? What does kindness mean to you?

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