Much to my chagrin, I cannot find the exact quotation,but I believe that it was Aldous Huxely, the British writer, who noted near the end of his life that the one piece of advice he could offer, was to “try and be a little kinder.” We think that this would make an excellent New Years resolution for all of us, particularly if we apply it to ourselves as well as to others.
Be Kinder to Yourself
America has been home to the belief that any boy (now updated to any person), can grow up to be President. The theme of the self-made man (again updated to person) pervades our society. The countless self-help books, now complemented by podcasts, offering guidance on how to make one’s self happier, wealthier, thinner, more confident, and so forth are just some examples of this pattern. This same ethos pervades our culture: whether it be a focus on staying youthful (an impossibility), our apparent fixation on appearance and the myriad of creams, treatments and strategies designed to help us “look better” to the pressure many teens (and adults) feel to excel, achieve, and look a certain way.
The problem with this unrelenting focus on self-improvement, striving, and ever rising expectations is that most of us cannot fully (and at times even partially) achieve many, if any of these things. We can be successful, but there is always someone more accomplished. We can be fit, but most of us are not Olympians. We can lose weight, inject botox, smear on creams, diet, and workout but there we are all growing older and face the normal deterioration that comes with aging. As a result, we are all at risk for feeling badly about ourselves, being critical of our efforts and accomplishments, and feeling like failures. The antidote to all of this: be a little kinder, to yourself.
Kindness to self is not a call for giving up on our goals and strivings. Rather it is an argument for tempering our potentially never ending desires to better ourselves with a greater appreciation of the risks as well as the rewards of over-focusing on achievements, with the recognition that we are human and will not always succeed, and the awareness that self-criticalness typically fails to be an effective motivator. If we are overly critical of ourselves we run the risk of feeling worse, thinking more negatively about ourselves. This is likely to result in our being less effective in our efforts. If we set more realistic goals, and tolerate our imperfect efforts, we are more likely to appreciate our successes and feel better about ourselves. Moreover, a greater focus on appreciating what we have, accompanied with a sense of gratitude, is likely a good tonic for what currently ails us.
Be Kinder to Others
Prior to the Pandemic I cannot recall stories about flight attendants being assaulted. Unfortunately, this is only one glaring example of the increased intolerance and hostility that seems to be permeating our society. In addition, Cancel Culture, while a cliche, also reflects a growing intolerance of differences of opinions and an in tolerance of the all too human tendency to misspeak, and to err. While calls for kindness and grace are not uncommon, these often do not seem to be applied to others whose opinions (particularly political opinions/beliefs and values) differ from our own. Greater kindness entails greater empathy, not sympathy,as the latter implies that others are mistaken in their beliefs.
An additional factor that may be leading to a decline in kindness is the proliferation of social media. News stories have highlighted the vitriol that is all too pervasive on many social media sites. In addition, social media fosters self-promotion, materialism, and comparison/competition. Postings of glamorous outfits, meals, homes, and the like are unlikely to bring out the best in us.
Kindness towards others mostly likely requires a recognition that one does not always have an exclusive understanding of the truth. The following maxim, “the sign of a first rate [or true] intelligence is to hold two contradictory ideas to mind” has been attributed to Fitzgerald, Twain and Auden, to name a few. At the heart of this quotation is the recognition that life is complicated, that there are often no simple answers, and that the acknowledgement and tolerance of differences and contradictions is essential. This principle is foundational to the concept of kindness to others, and implies an awareness that there are alternative ideas, beliefs, and views, and we would benefit from a greater willingness to consider other views. Common phrases such as “I am speaking my truth” or the assertion that something is my “lived experience” unfortunately have the consequence of elevating what is a matter of opinion and belief to a higher status, and over-valuing one’s personal experience (in fact, all of our experiences are lived to the best of my understanding).
Kindness towards others is clearly connected to the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Thomas Friedman (1) has written eloquently about the Golden Rule as a foundational ethical stance. In many ways the concept of the Golden Rule is synonymous with the notion of kindness.
Finally, kindness towards others is often difficult, when others are not kind to us. Kindness to others does not imply that one should not have clear boundaries, assert one’s self, and object to bad behavior. Rather, it argues for a greater tolerance of differences and a greater willingness to recognize others as human and treat them as we would like to be treated. In our humble opinion, this would be an excellent resolution for all of us to make and strive to keep.
- Friedman, Thomas. Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. Picador publishers, 2017.