Being kind is something I hold dear, but it’s not always straightforward. It’s been hard this year to think kindly of those with deeply opposed views to mine – those who voted for Brexit for example, or those who swept Trump into the most powerful position in the world. It’s easy to say “be kind” while placing yourself up on a virtuous pedestal and criticising others – calling them horrible and demonising them. Perhaps being kind is about accepting that other people might have valid points of view; valid reasons for acting in ways that seem inconceivable to us. Perhaps. Listening and trying to understand is important, and of course no-one can take seriously calls for respect and kindness from those who simultaneously treat others with contempt.
But then there’s the point at which kindness becomes apathetic and passive. Where staying silent and still is not about respecting others, but is about retreat and self protection. Where it is no longer kind – it is neglectful. And at the other end there is the “kindness” masked as compliance – where our expectations are that others will carry out our commands and obey us in the name of kindness, when all our actions suggest that it is not kindness at all that we value, but obedience. We say one thing; we model another. Perhaps if we want a truly kind world (and God knows we need it), we need to think about what it actually is and not use it as an excuse to coerce something entirely different from others.
Kindness looks for the best in people and organisations, but it doesn’t look away from challenge and injustice. It is compassionate and critical – it has to be, for in order to be kind or to be fair, we have to tackle injustice. That might mean challenging those who are not kind. Kindness accepts that people act in all sorts of ways for all sorts of reasons. It seeks not to judge the person, but to manage the behaviour of a person. It demands humility and thoughtfulness. In order to be effective it needs to be selfless – not to seek attention and affirmation, but to simply seek to make as simple a difference in its own realm as it can. Then we may hope that kindness is contagious.
Kindness is easy but not simple. We know what it looks like – it’s not always easy to enact it; to separate it from the veneer of wanting to appear to be more virtuous than others. It’s as slippery as soap. But it’s vital to our happiness and to that of others. So where do we start?
I intend to start here. I will start with the assumption that people mean well. That it’s worth engaging with them as politely as possible. I’ll try to avoid generalisations about others in order to suit my purposes. I’ll continue to do what I can in the small ways I can -to contribute to my local and global communities, through education, through charity work (thank you Northern Rockers), through championing ideas and people who get little acclamation. I’m heartened by the New Year’s Honours award to Nicola Wetherall who has overcome all kinds of personal challenges to bring holocaust, genocide and refugee education to children. I’m heartened by the dignity and campaigning of Brendan Cox in the face of unimaginable personal grief in continuing the work and the values of his wife. I’m heartened by all the young people I meet, every day, who care about each other and the world and who are not the selfish, technologically obsessed narcissists we are led to believe they are. I believe that placing kindness at the heart of our schooling and our society is vitally important. And to do so, we need to reach out and believe that we are not the sole custodians of virtue. That others have the potential for goodness and that we can work together to build a better world, whether we voted in or out, shook it all about, did the hokey cokey and turned around. Because that’s what matters. Kindness. That’s what will make the difference. That’s what it’s all about. Happy New Year.