The New York Times recently had two popular blog posts with very different thinking about kindness.
The first was a transcript of novelist George Saunders’ Syracuse University commencement speech, which included a eloquent and heartfelt endorsement of the virtues of kindness.
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly. Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet. It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.
The other one was a post by Catherine Newman on the Motherlode about why she didn’t want her daughter to ever feel burdened by the expectations for young girls to be nice, which Newman sees as distinct from kindness.
My 10-year-old daughter, Birdy, is not nice, not exactly. She is deeply kind, profoundly compassionate and, probably, the most ethical person I know — but she will not smile at you unless either she is genuinely glad to see you or you’re telling her a joke that has something scatological for a punch line. …Birdy is polite in a “Can you please help me find my rain boots?” and “Thank you, I’d love another deviled egg” kind of way. But when strangers talk to her, she is like, “Whatever.” She looks away, scowling. She does not smile or encourage.… I want my daughter to be tough, to say no, to waste exactly zero of her God-given energy on the sexual, emotional and psychological demands of lame men — of lame anybodies. I don’t want her to accommodate and please. I don’t want her to wear her good nature like a gemstone, her body like an ornament.
Newman calls herself a “card-carrying feminist” and views her encouragement of Birdy’s scowling through this lens. Girls, more than boys, are taught that being likeable is paramount and that this people-pleasing should come before self-expression or even self-defense. This is true for women of all ages. Still, I am not sure that the best weapon to fight the patriarchy, or any social order, is with a scowl.
There is surely a large middle-ground between rudeness and obsequiousness, and perhaps we would all be better off if we helped our sons and daughters navigate that territory instead of empowering them to dismiss others at will. We should push them to understand why a smile is important, and how it can be a symbol of empowerment instead of disempowerment by way of incessant people-pleasing.
Newman says her daughter, at her core, is kind, and I am sure she is. But if only a few people witness this kindness, what good is it?
Much like Saunders, Jewish tradition sees kindness as a primary virtue, one to organize our lives around. The Talmud tells us that world rests upon three things, Torah, avodah and chesed which translates to loving-kindness, compassion, or grace. Medieval commenter Rashi sees chesed is seen as the highest act, because it does not require money or power, but just a full-heart and intention.
As Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow put it, “acts of chesed are the active representation of a covenant among people, a social contract.” She believes that, according to Jewish tradition, acts of kindness are the glue that binds us to one another, and are an irreplaceable source of power in the construction of communal life.
I hope my son, and maybe one day, my daughter, understand this. I want them to not just be kind, but also share their kindness. I want them to construct families, communities, and more with their kindness. I want this to be their radical act, the one that people like Saunders will remember them for.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.