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A New Vision of Kindness Starts with Paying Attention

Recently, a student of mine told me a story about babysitting her five-year-old cousin. They watched a children’s sitcom in which the adolescent female protagonist is characterized as a sweet, morally upstanding A-student. Her best friend, by contrast, is portrayed as the main character’s rebellious and sarcastic counterpart — leaving class before the bell rings, sticking her tongue out in dismissal of her peers, shoplifting jewelry from the neighborhood boutique.

When my student asked her cousin who her favorite character was, the little girl replied simply, “the cool one.” My student knew what her cousin meant. The show writers and producers were clearly aware of which character garnered more admiration from young girls: the one who shies away from kindness in pursuit of being “cool.”

Of course, as we grow up, the idea of “coolness” becomes more tiresome and less relevant, but I remember how I felt during my adolescence: kindness was never portrayed as a particularly sexy virtue. Instead, movie heroes and heroines were, like the best friend in the sitcom, sarcastic, powerful over others, witty.

Similarly, I was never taught to believe that kindness could coexist with adventure, risk, intelligence. Kindness was more often associated with meekness, boringness, being forgetful. After all, many of us are familiar with the commonly held assessment that calling someone “nice” is insulting. It means there aren’t any other notable qualities to point out.

To be fair, being “nice” isn’t really the same thing as being kind. Etymologically, to be “kind” is related to the word “kin” — treating others as we would our own kind, our family, ourselves. In our can-do culture that values competition, individuality, self-discipline, and other related “virtues,” kindness can definitely seem cute and old-fashioned at best, ineffective and inefficient at worst. Or perhaps we dismiss kindness and condescending and self-righteous.

But kindness is what is missing in so many of our lives, in terms of how we treat and are treated by others, and how we treat ourselves. I have been thinking a lot about kindness as a value that gives us meaning — especially in an era in which communication has become more convenient, and perhaps less mindful as a result.

Most of us recognize the ways that our lives have changed, and continue to change, as we become more reachable to our friends, family members, coworkers, and acquaintances. The question of setting boundaries in our relationships is complicated by the accessibility afforded by technology — emails going directly to our phones, text messages functioning as some people’s primary mode of communication, instant chat services interrupting our computer time at the office.

In a way, the proliferation of communication methods means that we are able to cultivate our relationships more than before. We can text with our significant others while they aren’t in our immediate presence. We can Skype with friends and family across an ocean. But the ease with which we fire off messages can detract from the sense of deliberateness, and ultimately from the meaning, in our relationships.

We need mindfulness and kindness now more than ever. And the two are related. Paradoxically, many of us feel an increased sense of fragmentation and compartmentalization in our lives given the networked world we are living in. The antidote to these feelings is mindfulness — gathering our dispersed attention again and again.

The practice of shepherding our attention back to the present — even an incalculable number of times — helps us find the power to be kind to ourselves. We can let go of our laundry list of work agenda items once we get home to be with our family members, even if our Google calendar gives us a ping. We may be compelled to ruminate or obsess, but a commitment to mindfulness, to being present, is a gesture of kindness to ourselves. We react to our compulsions with compassion. We open up, and feel a subtle movement of our hearts. This movement of the heart is like the sea moving close to the ocean floor — it is so subtle, but affects everything above.

The same power of kindness is available to us in our relationships with others. When we really tune in to our experience in each moment, the result is feeling a sense of connection between all of us — not a connection that has anything to do with iMessaging or emailing, but something deep. We can see that kindness isn’t about just being “nice” or polite, but about a sense of ethics, and a fundamentally shared experience, that need not be related to a religious belief system.

Seeing kindness as profound and powerful helps us differentiate kindness and niceness. When someone looks at us with the concern of kindness, we feel seen. There is a sense of connection that is being mutually recognized, and in that we feel our value as humans.

So perhaps the problem is not that the absence of kindness is automatically associated with “coolness” in pop-culture, but rather that we don’t have enough models of kindness in this way. It’s time to change the conversation around kindness, and it starts with paying attention.

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