Years ago I read an essay entitled “Manners Matter.” It was written by a social psychologist whose name I have forgotten, but the basic premise of the essay has stayed with me all these years. The author essentially argued that manners (politeness, courtesy, respectful dialogue, protocol, and rituals for social interaction) are what distinguishes a “civilized” society from an uncivilized one. Without attention to manners, a society devolves into chaos and brutality. What is interesting is manners are not rules or laws, so they are completely voluntary rather than mandatory. Manners must be taught at home first, and then hopefully, carried into adulthood as relatively automatic behaviors in all social contexts.
There is another social behavior that goes beyond manners–kindness. Recently I have seen the slogan “Make America Kind Again.” This seems to be in reaction to the erosion of respectful public discourse and the rise of inflammatory, disrespectful, divisive rhetoric and behavior on social media, television, and in politics. Rudeness and self-centeredness seem to have replaced courtesy and benevolence.
Why is kindness beyond manners? Because in order for kindness to be expressed, a psychological state of benevolence must preexist. That is, to be kind, a person must have genuine respect and appreciation for at least the person toward whom a kind act is directed. So kindness has the cognitive component of a state of mind of benevolence coupled with the behavioral component of taking action primarily for the safety and/or well-being of the recipient. With manners, there is no prerequisite for any particular state of mind. A person can be polite while still holding an intense dislike toward someone. So, showing kindness goes beyond superficial behavior and stems from an inner state of mind or a character trait.
The Origins of Kindness
Oddly enough, psychologists only seriously began to study kindness in the last 10 years or so, but since then there is a burgeoning of studies of kindness in children and adults. At the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Richard Davidson and his team have been conducting several dozen projects at the intersection of neuroscience, education, and human development. From his and his colleagues’ extensive research, Davidson offers some good news–from their earliest years, children are prosocial, that is they are hardwired for kindness and altruism. Of course, this “hardwiring” can be dampened or facilitated depending on the family, social, cultural, educational, and religious circumstances the child experiences. Nevertheless, I find Davidson’s conclusions very encouraging, because, with the right atmosphere, education, and encouragement, humanity’s natural inclination toward prosocial behavior can be magnified and spread.
Random Acts of Kindness
There is also a great deal of research on “random acts of kindness.” The Honey Foundation has a website that tracks and summarizes the latest research on this aspect of kindness and can be accessed at honeyfoundation.org. However, the idea that acts of kindness are labeled as “random” dilutes the power of kindness. I believe every act of kindness is intentional and deliberate. For example, a few years ago while I was away traveling, my partner, who was at home alone, was stung on her finger by a scorpion while she was reaching into a lower kitchen cupboard. She had an immediate allergic reaction of extreme numbness in her stung hand, throat constriction, and excruciating pain. We were new to the neighborhood, so she had only two telephone numbers to call for help. The first neighbor blew her off, saying she was in her pajamas and could not come over. So she called the second neighbor. He immediately rushed over, escorted her to his car, and sped to the only nearby clinic where she received an antidote.
What distinguishes these two neighbors’ responses? Why was one too busy or just plain disinterested while the other responded to her call immediately? I propose the neighbor who showed kindness was one whose inherent prosocial tendencies had been encouraged by his upbringing and circumstances, whereas the second neighbor’s had not. The helping neighbor was a retired veterinarian who had devoted his professional life to ministering to animals in need. The non-helping neighbor was an artist and someone accustomed to pursuing her own interests. The point is not that all artists are self-serving and all veterinarians are self-sacrificing. The point is some people have a deeper sense of the value of others and a stronger willingness to be of service to others. These are the people who are far more likely to demonstrate acts of kindness.
One of the biggest deterrents to showing kindness is holding onto grievances. Nursing past insults, hurts, betrayals, transgressions, and rejections build a wall of insulation to being able to respond to the present moment. (See “Float Like a Butterfly” ) A Course in MIracles contains a marvelous and psychologically sound way of eliminating this obstacle to showing kindness. In Chapter 27, Section VII, paragraph 15, 3-6 and paragraph 16, 3-4, it says,
Dream of your brother’s kindnesses instead of dwelling in your dreams on his mistakes. Select his thoughtfulness to dream about instead of counting up the hurts he gave. Forgive him his illusions, and give thanks to him for all the helpfulness he gave. And do not brush aside his many gifts because he is not perfect in your dreams. . . . Let all your brother’s gifts be seen in light of charity and kindness offered you. And let no pain disturb your dream of deep appreciation for his gifts to you.
To that effect, I suggest you consider keeping a kindness journal. At the end of each day make two types of entries. First, record all the kindnesses you gave. On the opposite page, write down all the kindnesses you received that day. Do this for a minimum of 6 months and see whether you become more aware of how often the Universe extends kindness to you and how often you do the same for the Universe. Set your intention to become a kinder person and be steadfast. You and the Universe are in great need of kindness. As Jewel wrote in one of her songs on her Spirit cd, “In the end, only kindness matters.”