Kindness: Not Without Risk

A commonly accepted myth holds that kindness costs nothing and benefits all. This myth persists in the face of everyday reality and counter-myths demonstrating the costs and risks of being kind.

What about a simple smile? Surely that’s a kindness everyone can give, even to strangers. Where there isn’t an expectation or a power dynamic, friendly and approachable body language can lighten a stranger’s step and improve our own wellbeing.

Our cities and workplaces throw us into close proximity with our fellow humans and we put up barriers to preserve our own personal space, increase our comfort, and reduce the risk of an interaction turning out badly. Not every instance of someone setting off our “creep radar” is a tragedy in the making, but the possible outcome of that small risk encourages us to be wary. It takes deliberate effort to overcome our depersonalization of The Other to open ourselves to others enough to be kind, whether it’s to the panhandler or to the man in the hand tailored suit.

Surely we can safely exercise kindness in intimate relationships on an ongoing basis? No, we can’t. With our close family and dearest friends, forming and entrenching expectations that we’re not always prepared to meet can be unhealthy. In the places and with the people we can most be ourselves, it is good to be as kind as we can while remembering the subtle difference between holding a hand and chaining a soul.

We may not even notice the kindnesses we share until they evaporate and we feel their lack. I recently heard a friend tell me that I did not like them any more. I’d not been aware of anything I might have done to distress them. Then I realized that my preoccupation with difficulties in my life and plans for the immediate future had made me more taciturn than usual the last few times we’d met. I’d formed an expectation of sharing a kind word and fallen short of my commitment. The fault was my own, I explained. It was challenging to apologize with the right tone and context to avoid burdening my friend with troubles or a sense of blame.

Despite the risks to ourselves (not even touching on the effects of well-intentioned kindness on the recipient, which is another essay), I believe making the effort to be as kind as we can is worthwhile. I’m not as skilled at it as some great souls, but that’s no reason for me to give up and turn into an irascible hermit.

The lightness of spirit in giving or receiving a heartfelt kindness carries me like a boat across waters I might otherwise have to swim. Like the Hip Woman in Dr. Steiner’s story, I will continue to try being as loving and as healthy as I can.

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