Dan Lee

Dan Lee

A recent survey indicated that what young people today value most in relationships -- and what they miss in relationships -- is kindness. That’s not just true of personal relationships. It’s true of our society today in general.

In contemporary American society, there is precious little compassion and understanding. Instead, harsh words of criticism and malicious name-calling, including at the highest levels of government, seem to be the order of the day.

A number of years ago, novelist Henry James (1843-1916) observed, “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; the third is to be kind.”

That was true a century ago. It is true today as well.

But if we are to talk about kindness, we must be clear about what it entails -- and what it does not entail. Let’s start with the latter:

  • Kindness is not giving a student who has not earned an A an A on an exam or for a course simply because she or he would like to have an A.
  • Kindness is not agreeing with everything that anyone says or does, regardless of how offensive or outrageous it is.
  • Kindness is not being meek and mild.
  • Kindness is not being totally spineless.
  •  Kindness is not something that we should extend only to those whom we like.

So then what is kindness? Kindness is -- but is not limited to -- the following:

  • Treating all people with respect and dignity, including (some would say especially including) those with whom we disagree.
  • Refraining from derogatory name calling.
  • Reaching out to those with different life experiences than those we have had and who come from differing backgrounds, including racial and ethnic backgrounds.
  • Doing our best to understand and increase our awareness of the fears and anxieties that others have.
  • Rejoicing in the successes and accomplishment of others and sharing in the sorrow when all does not go well.
  • Within the limits of what we are capable of doing, responding to the needs and concerns of those whose lives intersect with our lives, including our distant and near neighbors.

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So why should we live lives of kindness? There are two compelling reasons for so doing. One reason is that the quality of life experienced by others will be improved if we treat them with kindness. The other reason is that our own lives will be enriched in the process, for as noted in that beautiful old prayer attributed to St. Francis, it is in giving that we receive.

As we are reminded by traditional Roman Catholic theology, which is rich in so many ways, we were created to live and participate in community. It is by living and participating in community that we grow and develop as persons and experience a greater measure of the fullness of life.

The third of the three traditional virtues -- faith, hope and charity -- is often misunderstood. Charity is not simply giving money to the poor, though there is something to be said for helping those in need. Rather, the true meaning of charity encompasses far more than that.

Charity involves treating others in a charitable manner, which includes putting the most charitable construction on all that they do. This doesn’t mean agreeing with everything that others do. In this very imperfect society in which we live, there are people who do some pretty terrible things.

But it does involve, as was noted in a previous column, seeing the person behind the faults, even as we in certain cases intervene to prevent misguided individuals from hurting other people. And in all cases, it involves treating others with kindness.

Don’t you want to be treated with kindness, with compassion and understanding? Don’t you want to be treated in a charitable manner, with others putting the best construction on what you say and do? Don’t we all?

A wise teacher of ethics once advised, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

Daniel E. Lee is the Marian Taft Cannon Professor in the Humanities at Augustana College; danlee@augustana.edu.


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