Sometimes I am asked, which sermon do I like best in my book, Preaching Happiness: Creating a Just and Joyful World. That’s like asking a mother to choose her favorite child. Not possible! But I will say, one of the chapters for which I have a particular fondness is the one on kindness.
That is not only because kindness warms my heart and seems ever more necessary in our tumultuous, pandemic world. I also enjoy the fact that the kindness sermon sneaks up on people with some unexpected observations.
For starters, I emphasize that kindness is not a fluffy extra – it is fundamentally important to human life. The Dalai Lama has said, “If we stop to think, it is clear that our very survival … depends on the acts and kindness of so many people.” Beyond survival, without kindness, what kind of quality of life would we have? Every day the news brings dreadful stories of humans behaving in ways that are wrenching and horrifying. The bleakness of a world without kindness to balance the scales is beyond imagining.
Yet kindness can not to be taken for granted. Buddhist meditation teacher Katy Brennan sees kindness needs as a moral discipline. “Although human kindness is deeply natural and instinctive,” she writes, “it can also be shaky and unstable. In our present mode of existence, selfishness and mindlessness compete and often trump kindness and mindfulness.”
I know what she’s talking about. I have saved a piece of turtle shell, a turtle I could have been kind to, but wasn’t. It was trying to cross a quiet country road. When I saw it, I thought the turtle might not make it, that I should maybe carry it to the other side. But … I kept driving. Selfish? Mindless? I don’t know. The next day, I came upon the flattened turtle. Pieces of shell were strewn over the pavement. Of course, I felt terrible. If I had stopped to help, that turtle presumably would not have died. The shell fragment is a reminder to heed my kindness instincts.
I immediately understood Brenan’s concern, but Psychology Today blogger Karyn Hall’s observation took me by surprise. She wrote, “kindness has a connotation of meaning someone is naive or weak,” though she hastens to assure, “that is not the case. Being kind often requires courage and strength. Kindness is an interpersonal skill.”
Courage and strength, yes. But Hall’s statement that kindness is seen as naïve or weak definitely shook me up.
Even worse news awaited me in the book On Kindness by Adam Phillips and BarbaraTaylor. Their dispiriting history of kindness eventually arrived in today’s “outrage culture” where “kindness …has become a sign of weakness (except of course among saintly people, in whom it is a sign of their exceptionality).” They write that contemporary society believes “kindness requires a dangerous crack in the armor of the independent self, an exploitable outward vulnerability – too high a cost to pay for the warm inward balm of the benevolence for which we long in the deepest parts of ourselves.”
This is heartbreaking. We must do better.
But not all the unexpected pieces in the sermon are upsetting. Some just take on cliches, like rejecting the old truism that it’s better to give than to receive. Both are important. Afterall, if we’re all intent on giving, who will receive our kindness?
Indeed, both giving and receiving kindness can generate happiness, for giver and receiver. Positive psychology is clear that when we give, we receive many happiness benefits ourselves. Whereas, receiving, done well, benefits the giver. It’s almost like a riddle my 8 year old granddaughter might tell: “What can you give that you will receive back immediately? Or, what can you receive that you will return immediately?”
The answer, of course, is kindness, when given and received in a heartfelt manner. Condescending giving or grudging thanks are far less psychically rewarding.
Here’s a quick story to illustrate: a couple of winters ago, a passing stranger saw me struggling to get my car out of an iced-over driveway. After my car was unstuck, and I offered heartfelt thanks, he replied, “No, thank you for giving me the chance to do something nice today.” My receiving was actually also giving to him. And apparently, his giving to me also allowed him to receive. Not a riddle at all – rather, a reality.
Understanding this equation shines a new light on the idea that anonymous giving is somehow more valuable. I question that. One memorable morning, when I was walking on the same road where the turtle died, I saw five one hundred dollar bills in the grass. There was also some mail that presumably identified the owner. This was just down the street from a middle school, so I went there and learned that, yes, the name on the mail was one of their parents. When I handed over the money, the secretary asked for my name. I demurred, saying my identity wasn’t important.
But maybe it was. I didn’t need to be thanked, but maybe they needed to thank me. That is, I needed to receive their thanks, for their greater happiness.
Receiving what others have to give can be challenging. For example, with compliments, we’re taught to modestly say something like, “oh it’s nothing.” Or with all kinds of presents, from a home cooked meal to a bouquet of roses, we might say, “oh you shouldn’t have!” But such responses diminish the gift, and, by extension, the giver. Better to say, and mean, “thank you.”
Like most happiness practices, this is an area where I’m still trying to improve. One of my friends has thanked me repeatedly but also genuinely for getting her involved in our church choir. I finally said, “please don’t thank me anymore!” But she has thanked me again, just a few days ago. Fortunately, I’m learning to be kinder. This time, I simply said, “you are welcome.”