In a rush to forge ahead? A small effort to be kind can go a long way.
Facebook does have its uses, despite the fact that it swallows up huge amounts of time that could be spent on other (some would say more important) things. Last week one of the posts that I followed up on was a report on a convocation speech delivered at Syracuse University by American writer George Saunders where he spoke of the value of kindness. Although we’ve all had our share of moral science and value education, we tend to put those lessons away somewhere on a backburner while we pursue what we have been told are the more immediate goals of our lives: well-paying jobs, a good life in material terms, insurance against a variety of threats, security for ourselves and our families. As Saunders says, all these are legitimate goals, and we should strive for them. But as you do these “ambitious things,” he says, you should also, “to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.”
Unfortunately, we are so caught up with not making mistakes in our path to realising those other material goals that we do not want to even consider the possibility of “erring” on the side of kindness. Getting into the course of our dreams can be a tough struggle, coming after many months of hard work, competitive examinations and anxious waiting and looking at lists on which every decimal point makes a difference in terms of rank and placement. In this race, those early lessons on courtesy and consideration for others don’t make much sense, and it is easy enough to forget to make room for them again as we move ahead. Sometimes, we need to go to schools of a different sort in order to pick them up again — hence the mushrooming of personality development and soft skills courses!
But what exactly is this thing called kindness? One can get overly literal or Biblical or philosophical about it, of course, but in real terms, how do we understand and practise it? Clearly, it includes the idea of thoughtfulness, as well as empathy, a willingness to go beyond yourself and do something for someone, and that may not be strictly in your own interests (defined in very narrow terms). We often understand kindness through experience or example, making it the sort of quality we can’t define, but we know when we see it. And what does it have to do with the everyday world of the college and the corporate?
Let’s take that first month at college or university, that awkward time when we’re forging new friendships and experiencing new ideas/places/routines. For the most part we are caught up in our individual anxieties and excitement, and it is sometimes hard for us to see beyond our own needs. The diversity of the student body implies that there are going to be many for whom the experience is even more “new”. An act of random kindness might be to keep an eye out for those in your class who feel alienated, and try and reach out, consciously including them in your group or activities. Because of the innate “groupism” that young people are used to, such conscious acts of inclusion are more the exception than the norm. So some students remain on the margins for longer, waiting for some external force to help integrate them with the mainstream of the class. Fortunately, there are usually one or two who are naturally kind, and they help bring the others inside the fold.
Being kind also means we consider other people when we react to situations or make decisions, even simple ones such as being on time (a courtesy to the rest of the class). In the workplace, an attitude of kindness would go a long way to neutralising the impersonal climate. Seeing people as fellow human beings rather than competitors for that foothold on the corporate ladder might be a radical idea, but one worth trying out. Of course, kindnesses that only take simple gestures (opening doors for people, sharing food, giving up a seat on the bus) are easier to adopt than those that call for giving up or putting aside your own interests, however temporarily.
Saunders talked about how certain memories of people and events stick with us longer and more vividly than others. We usually remember acts of kindness. But we also remember even more clearly (however much we try to block it) the times when we have been unkind or have faced unkindness.
Last month, as I stood in a long line waiting to listen to the Dalai Lama, some young people came around handing out cards that exhorted us to perform a random act of kindness — anonymously. Now the cynics among us might think none of this makes a difference, but while it may not stop climate change or eliminate global poverty or even stop wars from happening, it can certainly make at least two people feel good.
And again, what does this have to do with college life?
The writer teaches in the department of communication, University of Hyderabad, and is editor of Teacher Plus. www.teacherplus.org. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org