David Robson is an award-winning playwright whose work has been performed across the country and abroad. His new dark comedy, Playing Leni (written with John Stanton) will have its world premiere in May 2011 in Philadelphia. Another play, A Few Small Repairs, based on the women of Grey Gardens, was recently published.
I don’t know about you, but my record of kindness is—at best—shaky, inconsistent, and poorly thought out. Sure, I try not to hurt people or appear callous, but I’ve acted insensitively from time to time. There’s no doubt about it. A snub here or a snide quip there may not mean much when taken by itself, but as the years pile up, so do the tiny injustices we all do to one another.
The truth is I never gave much thought to kindness until my daughter was born in 2000. Before that I figured life was too short to be so introspective. The change came not as a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion. Instead, in the months after the birth of my child I gradually realized that I didn’t want her growing up to be a thoughtless shithead. That meant I had to buck up—become a teensy bit more aware of how I walked through the world and touched other people. Thus, in the last ten years or so, I’ve narrowed my thoughts on kindness to five basic principles:
Principle #1: Small kindnesses count. There’s the Korean lady at the dry cleaners who hands my kid a lollipop, or the good-natured woman at the lunch counter who tells me to grab two soft pretzels for the price of one. These people practice their own modest brand of benevolence. I do too. Sometimes it’s as simple mowing a part of my neighbors’ shaggy lawn just because I feel like it, or holding the door for the little old lady walking behind me. Taken individually, such tiny moments don’t amount to much. But they might just ease someone else’s passage through life a tiny bit, and that ain’t a bad thing.
Principle #2: Kindness is contagious. I teach college students, and when I bring a sense of empathy and concern for my young charges into the classroom they feed on it. It takes little effort on my part to offer a student a grin rather than a curmudgeonly frown, or a compliment instead of a put down. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no Pollyanna. I give constructive criticism often and—I hope—well. But I don’t look for what’s wrong in a person; I try and look at what’s right. And when I blow a ring of kindness smoke, others are often willing to breathe it in.
Principle #3: Kindness requires no payback. You know them; we all know them: people in our lives that do for others only so they can move that little red bead on their mental abacus. “They owe me one,” they think. These mental scorekeepers will rarely admit the practice. But when their kindness isn’t immediately returned, they will tell you that the ingrates have no manners; that we as a culture have lost our sense of respect for one another; or that society’s moral compass has been smashed to smithereens. I recognize this tendency in myself and work to root it out. I know in my heart that thinking this way will only drive me to drink, or yell, or punch the wall. See, kindness is its own reward—a tiny joy to revel in when you make someone’s day a little brighter, or, as we pessimists say, a little less dark.
Principle #4: Kindness has its limits. I am likely, when first insulted or slapped in the face, to extend my hand for a good-natured shake. I give the offender the benefit of the doubt and chalk up the injury to his loudmouth boss or traumatic childhood. But eventually, when my quest for kindness results in a second or third black eye, I draw that proverbial line in the sand. I’m convinced that by always turning the other cheek your pain—mental, physical, emotional—is only doubled, tripled, and quadrupled. And I refuse to give in to martyrdom and just take it. If you kick me long enough my compassion wears thin and hardens into something like self-preservation. That’s just how I roll.
Principle #5: Kindness comes naturally. We all like to imagine that kindness is a completely selfless act—that the better angels of our nature occasionally spread their wings to sprinkle sympathy and joy to the unwashed masses. Fat chance! Biologist Richard Dawkins says that kindness is in our DNA, and that helping others is natural selection’s way of preserving our own deepest needs and wants. In other words, I scratch your back, so you scratch mine from time to time. (Although, as principle #3 suggests, you’re under no obligation to scratch any part of me.) There is something in all of us that understands our mutual co-dependence and interrelationships; kindness is our way of living these genetically-encoded connections. So why try to fight it? Therefore, be fruitful and multiply but be kind, and may the blessings of a grateful universe fall upon you and yours when you least expect it.
Next week, an essay by Alia Yunis that is sure to get us all in the holiday spirit. Please submit your questions and / or Q4K essays (no longer than 1,000 words, and no attachments please) to questforkindness[at]gmail.com