“You’re very kind,” I was told recently. And while it’s nice to be viewed that way and I was happy to hear it, my point in telling you is not to brag about that compliment. I don’t think I’m kinder than anyone else. To be honest, when I heard this description I was a little let down at its “catch-all” nature. Isn’t everyone kind? It’s part of being a civilized human, isn’t it? Kindness is just a tool in the “decency skillset,” I thought, and therefore to be singled out for it seemed somehow lacking in originality. Was that the only thing that came to mind when a positive adjective was required to describe me? What made MY kindness unique enough to mention?
Well, good question. What does it take to be kind? Or more specifically, what is kindness, anyway? Is it the same as compassion or empathy, or are those things different? And how to even figure this out? Of course, because it’s the 21st century, we figure things out on the internet, which is where I found the website differencebetween.net. It does as it suggests, so I made it tell me the difference between, and this is what it came up with:
Kindness: performing actions of help or assistance, without reflecting the feelings of the individual in need. Throwing some spare change in a busker’s case as you pass by, for example. No stopping, just dropping.
Empathy: trying to understand how the particular individual may be feeling. Although you feel the same emotions, you do not take actions on your feelings. Maybe pausing to listen to a song or two, because you think that means more than just throwing a loonie in a guitar case. Which it probably does.
Compassion: taking action. If a person is distressed you want to provide the individual with comfort; you want to do things to actively help them. This time you wait until the busker takes a break, and you engage him in conversation–maybe find out if he has a CD for sale, or if he has a gig that night. Then you go to that gig, or you buy that CD, or you take him for lunch.
So it would appear that compassion is the way to go for maximum interpersonal impact. Kindness is just going through the motions, without getting invested. But this is just semantics, of course–any of these labels could be interchanged depending on your own personal definition. It did make me think about the multiple levels of whatever this thing is we’re talking about, though. It’s about feeling AND doing; about wanting to reach out…and then actually doing that. Easier said than done, that last part. We don’t want to intrude, we don’t understand the whole situation, we don’t know what we could do. We don’t want to get our hands dirty, essentially. Being kind or compassionate or whatever you want to call it means making ourselves vulnerable, and that’s not so attractive, really, is it? What if WE get hurt? Who will be kind to US?
Reaching out in compassion I think means starting from a place of personal strength. If we know who we are with conviction, we won’t lose any of ourselves by giving to others. There’ll still be lots of “us” left. Kindness, then (because I’m using these terms interchangeably now) begins with selfishness. If we’ve fed ourselves we can feed our neighbour, literally or metaphorically, the same way we can only help our children in the plane crash if we’ve put on our own air-masks first. Ayn Rand wrote about this idea in The Virtue of Selfishness, wherein she redefined the word to mean “concern with one’s own interests” rather than something evil. Rand was a controversial figure–especially for our purposes, since she pretty much rejected altruism as “incompatible with the requirements of human life and happiness”–and I’m definitely not endorsing her or telling you to go out and read her books. Go ahead if you want to, though–I am a librarian, after all.
But the idea of kindness originating from a core of self-interest has some validity, I think. Perhaps a more palatable example of it can be found in a song by the Canadian band Stars–a song I love so much I’ve had letters from its title tattooed on my body. It’s the sentiment of the lyrics I really love, though, and what I wanted to carry as a constant reminder, sunk into my skin: Hold On When You Get Love So You Can Let Go When You Give It. What that little exhortation means to me is this: know that you yourself are worthy of love, of kindness, of compassion. Because you are, you know. We all are. When people offer those things to you, grab them and hold on, selfishly even. Let them feed and strengthen you, and when are you strong, let go–no strings attached. Let your selfishness make you truly, selflessly kind, because really that’s the only way it works–Ayn Rand be damned.
Here’s that band singing that song. Hold onto it, and then let it go: