As much as it may be hard to believe in our current political climate, humans are hardwired to be unselfish, to help others. We are programmed to be kind.
In his book, The Age of Empathy, primatologist Frans de Waal dispels the notion that species thrive by being competitive and cutthroat; instead, it is the ability to cooperate, to work together, and to empathize that has ensured the longevity of all animals that live in social groups, including humans.
Even Charles Darwin, the man most associated with the notion of “survival of the fittest,” believed that our capacity to help each other had some role in our survival. In The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, he tells the story of a monkey who came to the aid of a zookeeper:
Several years ago a keeper at the Zoological Gardens showed me some deep and scarcely healed wounds on the nape of his own neck, inflicted on him whilst kneeling on the floor, by a fierce baboon. The little American monkey who was a warm friend of this keeper, lived in the same compartment, and was dreadfully afraid of the great baboon. Nevertheless, as soon as he saw his friend in peril, he rushed to the rescue, and by screams and bites so distracted the baboon that the man was able to escape.
He goes on to say that this behavior is by no means an anomaly:
Many a civilized man who never before risked his life for another, but full of courage and sympathy, has disregarded the instinct of self-preservation and plunged at once into a torrent to save a drowning man, though a stranger. In this case man is impelled by the same instinctive motive, which made the heroic little American monkey, formerly described, save his keeper by attacking the great and dreadful baboon.
de Waal takes that story and distills it to its essence:
Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control. We can suppress it, mentally block it, or fail to act on it, but except for a tiny percentage of humans—known as psychopaths—no one is emotionally immune to another’s situation.
While it may not be part of the everyday understanding of our natures, humans, like all species who live in social groups, are wired to protect and care for each other. We survive, together, not because we are better than others around us, but because we see ourselves in them: we survive because we are kind.
Aristotle, in Rhetoric, defined kindness as “helpfulness towards some one in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped.”
The Aristotelian definition is lacking, however, due to its prescriptiveness. Kindness is not just helpfulness, but understanding: it is the ability to accept people and things as they are, to understand our virtues and failings, and to still care despite them all. Helpfulness is but one way to be kind; embracing and acknowledging those around us is another.
What does it really mean to be kind? It means to see someone, to really notice them and accept them and value them—to give a sense of belonging, whether through some act of helpfulness or a simple recognition or acknowledgement of their humanity—for who they are. Kindness is acceptance, it is forgiveness, it is sacrifice, it is catharsis. Kindness is being willing to put the other before the self, even if just for a short while.
Kindness is not entirely selfless: by being kind, we grow. We become better, we acquire strength and self-compassion. Being kind is an activity that provides extrinsic value to those to which we practice that kindness, but provides intrinsic value to ourselves.
When seen from both these sides, then, kindness is not an action, but a warmth of spirit. It is a way of being, a practice of life.
It is, as philosopher David Hume said succinctly, a “spark of friendship for humankind.”
There are a few mantras I repeat to myself every day as I wake up. They change often, depending on my stage in life and where I see my spirit at that time. One mantra that has stayed with me for decades—two words that I repeat to myself before I leave bed every single morning—and will likely remain for the rest of my life is simple:
Two words that resonate with me every day; simple words that remind me how I try to live my life.
At the end of every day, I assess how kind I have been to others. I don’t always succeed, but I work hard, every day, to show kindness to every single person, friend or stranger, I encounter. This is not a strictly unselfish pursuit, of course: by being kind to others, my heart swells with warmth, and often, I am afforded much kindness as well.
As I age, I think a lot about legacy, and often have conversations with others about what we’d like to leave behind. I am unwavering in my answer: I would like to leave a legacy of kindness, to know that I have been as kind as possible, and to hope that I have inspired kindness in others.
I am reminded of this passage by Anne Lamott from Hallelujah Anyway:
Kindness toward others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all.
I can think of no better goal than to have but a warm and generous heart, and no better way to achieve this than by being kind.
Over the past few months, I have undertaken some deep reflection about my life and how I live it, and I have realized that while I espouse kindness, that while I try to infuse kindness into my every breath, I have mostly failed at being kind in one particular instance: I am not often kind to myself.
If I can be compassionate, forgiving, and generous with others, I must be the same to myself. If I strive to recognize, acknowledge, and provide a sense of belonging to those around me, I must also include myself into this space of safety and love.
I don’t do this often enough. I am quick to anger at myself, quick to chide myself for not being perfect, or good enough. If kindness is a “spark of friendship for humankind,” I must also be a good friend to myself.
Most years, I pick a word or phrase to guide the next twelve months ahead—in the past, I have picked words such as small, breathe, and trust—with a recognition that this is not just a phrase for the year, but for a lifetime of habit.
This year, my phrase is “be kind,” a mantra I already repeat to myself every single day.
While I will continue to do my best to practice kindness for others, I will redouble my efforts to be kind to myself. I will remind myself that I can be forgiven, that I can be included, that I can be me—I will remind myself to be kind, to myself.
I will play the words of Leah Reich in my head repeatedly:
Everyone fumbles. Everyone has biases. Everyone has perspectives they can change. Even the best, smartest, kindest among us have terrible, even ignorant opinions. But that’s how to be human. At least, that’s how to be the kind of human I want to be: complicated, messy, open to change, willing to learn, ready to do better.
Innately, we are programmed to cooperate, to help others—we are programmed to be kind. When it comes to the way I treat myself, I have forgotten my programming; I will change that this year, and every year from now on.
In 2018, be kind. To others, to yourself. Have a warm and generous heart, and be a spark of friendship for humankind.
Thank you—all of you reading this—for your kindness to me so far and in the days to come.