Models of Kindness

There’s a saying I’m quite fond of: “Never compare your insides to anyone else’s outsides.” There are a million variations on the theme, but the message is always the same: your internal experience and the outward behaviors you notice and find notable in others aren’t really the same process or a reasonable basis for comparison. They are the proverbial apples and oranges.

This is undeniable to anyone who stops and thinks about it for a second, but it’s one of those hard-to-appreciate banal truths that form the most sound basis for understanding reality.

Even when we know about this, and have some understanding of it, we’re still apt to get it wrong. Apt to look to exemplars of kindness like the Dalai Lama or Desmond Tutu and think “well it all comes so easy for them.” Even the less famous people you notice as exceptionally kind in your everyday life may have you thinking similar thoughts. “Well she just likes people a lot.” “He’s just really outgoing.”

It’s easy to get frustrated when seeing someone else demonstrate the kind of kindness you don’t have the strength to offer. To feel like you’re just not cut out for that whole kindness thing and let yourself off the hook. (It’s a bit off topic, but “that whole kindness thing” can be changed to many other variants: the running a business thing, the reading big important books thing, the being devoutly religious thing.)

We let ourselves mistake people doing things for them being easy for them to our collective peril. When we leave the responsibility to try to be kind or generous or and wise to others, we leave society a poorer place.

The path to a kind an generous world is not to elevate to sainthood — no offense to Catholicism — those few people who achieve some heroic standard of morally exemplary behavior. Rather a world permeated by kindness comes about from everyone making an effort everyday to be just a little kinder than they would otherwise be. For some, that means giving away the clothes off their back to the poor homeless woman they meet. For others that means only spitting on the homeless man rather than physically assaulting him. But both shifts are commendable and essential to moral progress in the world.

We must be our own moral idols and exemplars. We must learn to act kindly for its own sake, not so that others will look up to us as models of kindness. “There is nothing noble in being superior to some other person; true nobility is found in being superior to your former self.”