During New Zealand’s first Covid lockdown, I lost track of the number of journalists, DJs, Mayors and other commentators and public figures urging us all to be kind to each other. In the current resurgence, we are again being urged by all and sundry to be kind – just kind – and the cry is now echoed elsewhere such as along Australia’s eastern seaboard.
Apart from obeying the Covid rules, it seems that kindness is considered by some to be the only behaviour needed to get us through the pandemic (and, I suppose, through whatever else the future may hold).
We all know how good and important kindness is. Its value is especially apparent to people who routinely experience its opposite (malice) or even just its absence (indifference).
Receiving a little kindness can make an enormous difference to a day that is otherwise bleak (or worse). People who are acutely aware of this include people whose work involves frequent interaction with members of the public – such as workers on the retail frontline, who serve a hundred or more people a day, many of whom don’t bestow a civil word or even eye-contact and some of whom are overtly rude. Even a little kindness can give colour and sweetness to a person’s day.
So, I have nothing to say against kindness: I’m all for it. However, I do object to urgings that speak of kindness as though it is all we need – because it isn’t, it’s not even close.
Kindness and love
“Kindness” is the short form of “lovingkindness”, which is how it used to be referred to. This is presumably because kindness is an element of love. This is an old association that runs deep in our culture: we are all familiar with a passage from the New Testament that begins with “Love is patient and kind” and is commonly used at both church and secular weddings. The passage reads as follows:
Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited, it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage, it does not take offence or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth. It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes. Love never comes to an end. (1 Cor. 13: 4-8a)
While most familiar at weddings, this passage was not written for married couples. It was part of a letter written to the early Christian community of Corinth and is concerned with behaviour in the community context. It fills out “love” in “Love your neighbour …”.
The passage reveals that there is a great deal more to loving your neighbour (and your spouse, of course) than just being kind to them.
For this reason, a narrow focus on kindness will not really help us.
Nurture is not enough
Returning to the above passage, I would say that kindness – and, I suggest, patience and being “ready to make allowances” – represent what might be called the nurturing side of love. Along with qualities like empathy, compassion, inclusiveness – which the proponents of kindness have also been urging on us for some time as though these qualities were the sum total of morality.
However, nurture is only a part of a viable ethos.
In fact, some of the other ingredients of love are quite unlike kindness and nurture: for example, endurance (plain hard work) and valuing the truth (which can sometimes seem unkind). All just as necessary as kindness – all just as loving.
These nurturing virtues are the sweets of morality – lovely but not a balanced meal, and certainly not a balanced diet that sustains life or a community.
Those moral moderns (known as the “woke”, for the time being) who urge only kindness and other sweets don’t appear to have heard of “tough love”; nor the constraint of doing right (eg telling the truth) without always deferring to feelings; nor endurance, which is critical because, after all, serious love is for the long haul. They seem to prefer the path of least resistance – saying “Yes”, which might seem kind to the person you’re talking to.
In fact, nurture on its own can actually be dangerous. Our cultural wisdom about “moderation in all things” exists because all good things can be done badly: a person can “have too much of a good thing”. Our wisdom even warns us that you can “kill with kindness”. Consider parents who can only say Yes to their child and the disastrous impact this has on the child. Recall that teachers are increasingly required to indulge students in the same way. This pampering and indulgence create narcissistic entitlement and unrealistic expectations: today, we see its dysfunctional product all around us.
Too much nurture is bad for you. Being held too tight can stunt growth. Some embraces smother. Love and morality are an adult subject, not an occasion for handing out lollies and putting everyone on a sugar high.
So, while kindness (or nurture generally) is necessary and wonderfully good, it is nowhere near enough. Love is for all seasons, kindness is for use when kindness is what love requires. In fact, when love requires something different, kindness can be dangerous.
Advocating kindness as a complete ethos is such extreme soft-sell that it should make the buyer wary.