When I think about kindness, I feel sad.
I think about that time where a lady in front of me in the checkout line turned around and started judging my appearance, unprompted. She measured me, dissected my facial and bodily features while I stood rooted to the spot, unable to conjure up anything to say back. “What, I’m just being honest,” she snapped to someone behind me who told her to stop. I also think of the time where a Costco worker waited with me for twenty minutes in the middle of the store, because I was in elementary school and my parents hadn’t come back yet and I was so scared of being alone. I bring up these situations because they aren’t the “worst” or “best” possible things that have ever happened and yet they still have psychological reverberations on me. The way we treat each other matters, whether it is in the positive or the negative direction. Everyone deserves to feel valued and seen. This is basic human decency. We don’t owe each other honesty, but we do owe each other respect. We coexist alongside other people and so our actions don’t happen in a vacuum. We need to be conscious about how we affect others.
As a kid, my internalized misogyny caused me to characterize kindness as a weak-willed, feminine trait. Caring for other people didn’t register to me as cool in the way that superheroes who faced down the villains or being good at sports did. Little did I know, kindness is synonymous with courage — increasingly so in our day and age.
Growing up in an affluent suburb, I understood high school as the pathway to college, college as the pathway to a job, and a job as the pathway to fulfillment. My life’s purpose could be achieved through a linear step-by-step process. Any time spent looking out for other people was time wasted. As much as I tried to resist that kind of capitalistic thinking, it has infiltrated my subconscious to the point where I find myself being impressed and intimidated by people’s resumes, of all things. And I’m not alone. It’s all around me: in the awestruck Amherst student who mentions someone’s extensive LinkedIn profile with awe and jealousy, to the introductions of speakers that begin with a list of their impressive accomplishments, to the general lack of people who are pursuing internal goals of improving their empathy or their compassion. However, among the conventionally successful people that I’ve met in real life, I know many who lack emotional awareness and communication skills; I don’t admire those people at all. In a capitalist economy, we hear a lot about success stories — about the people who demolished the obstacles before them, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and achieved social mobility. But I know another kind of success story. This one about the person who stayed kind and made strength out of their sensitivity, despite their good deeds never being affirmed by the transactional nature of capitalism.
We talk about social justice issues in class — about the cruelty of human beings who have weaved injustice, prejudice, violence, and ignorance into the delicate fabric of our society. We talk about how some cruelties have grown so prevalent that they’ve been systemized, no longer considered singular experiences. Systems of oppression such as white supremacy and patriarchy are constructed out of hatred and prejudice towards specific groups; they emerged in the absence of empathy and compassion. Collectively, we agree that these systems are problematic, and we need to rectify them. And yet, on the individual level, I see the same people who preach social justice belittle their “friends” for being “weird”. How we contribute to the world at large is dependent on how we treat the people around us. Believing in social justice is not enough; we also need to be good people. In fact, I don’t think you can genuinely believe in social justice without practicing kindness in your daily life. Larger scale problems are the sum of our individual actions.
As a chronic pushover, I know how kind people are taken advantage of. It is so, so demoralizing. Unfortunately, some will take us for granted. We still need to stand up for ourselves in front of those people who don’t appreciate what we do for them. When I emphasize kindness, I do not mean adjusting your own boundaries to suit others. Kindness must be balanced with self-respect. You can set your own boundaries. You can tell someone when you’re not in a position to help them. You can be kind without being endlessly self-sacrificing.
So far, I have only mentioned kindness in relation to other people. However, what is perhaps more important is the kindness with which we treat ourselves (in my experience, though, the kindness you treat others with and the kindness you treat yourself with are highly correlated). Separate yourself from external judgments and appreciate yourself for how far you’ve come. Be gentle with yourself. Listen to what your emotions are telling you. Reward yourself and know that you deserve it. Of course, this is going to be harder for some people than for others; it is tremendously difficult to tell yourself something different than what the world tells you.
We have the capacity to enact so much destruction on other people. We also have so much potential to uplift. We must critically consider which one we choose to admire and employ.