How To Be More Kind And Why, Sometimes, We’re Not
My all-time favourite quote about kindness is attributed to Henry James. On his deathbed, he is said to have told his nephew that there are three important things in the human life: ‘the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind and the third is to be kind.’
I love kindness. I love seeing its effects, and being told I’m kind is one of my most treasured compliments. So why, when I value kindness so highly, do I sometimes fail so spectacularly at it?
The Man on the Mat
There’s a story in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus is teaching the Pharisees in a crowded room. The narrator notes that the power of God to heal was with him. A paralysed man needs to get in there to receive his healing, but his friends can’t find a way to carry him on his mat through the crowd. So they go up to the roof, take off the tiles and lower him into the room.
It’s easy to read this story and identify with the friends. Of course we’ll help carry your mat, open up the roof, listen to you, babysit, pray with you, pick something up from the shop, make a cup of tea, encourage you or whatever it is that you need. Someone’s life is made a bit easier, and it makes us feel good. It’s a win-win situation.
But the truth is, we’re not only one of the friends carrying the mat. We’re often the paralysed man, unable to get where we need to be by ourselves and that can be much harder. It’s hard to admit that we need help because we haven’t got it all together and we can’t do it all on our own. To be utterly dependent on the kindness of other people is a vulnerable place to be.
When Kindness Fails
Phillips and Taylor define kindness as ‘the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself.’ They explain how ‘bearing other people’s vulnerability — which means sharing in it imaginatively and practically without needing to get rid of it… — entails being able to bear one’s own.’ (On Kindness)
When I fail to be kind to others, it is most often rooted in the failure to be kind to myself. When I don’t speak kindly to myself, or I’m not gentle with my own imperfections, I become defensive. I assume other people think the worst of me because I think the worst of myself. I assume I will be rejected because I can’t accept myself. I get wrapped up in the need for self-protection and become snappy, selfish and ungenerous. I over-react and hurt people. When I don’t want to recognise my own vulnerability, I can’t recognise anyone else’s either. I become neither the friend nor the paralysed man, but a Pharisee, unable to see beyond my own need for self-justification.
There are so many reasons why we’re not kind to ourselves.We get stuck in perfectionism, or worry about being too selfish. Perhaps we look at the circumstances of our lives and conclude that we’re not worth it. We feel like we should be able to cope, we should be fine on our own. But in reality, we will all spend our days being both the friends carrying the mat and the paralysed man at some points.
How to be more kind
Thankfully, Jesus is still in the room with us, still with the power to heal us in all the different ways we are broken. His kindness towards us reminds us that we are worth it, even on the days we can’t believe it for ourselves. When we take our cues from him, from how he speaks to us and treats us, we can respond ‘imaginatively and practically’ to our own vulnerability, without trying to erase it.
If I’m honest, I find being kind to myself very hard sometimes. But I very badly want kindness to flourish in my life, and I’m gradually realising that that means it has to extend to me too. So here are some of the ways I’m trying to be more kind to myself:
1. Accept my emotions
It’s easy to add guilt about how we feel to all our other emotions. I’m learning to give myself permission and say “I feel sad/angry/disappointed/happy about this and that’s ok,” when I’m processing my feelings, rather than giving myself a hard time.
2. Speak kindly to myself
This is a challenge, especially when I’ve made a mistake! Instead of telling myself I’m stupid and no good, I’m trying to think about what I might say that’s kind — it’s ok, everyone makes mistakes, you’ll know what to do next time. It’s a work in progress.
3. Take care of myself
Sarah Bessey talks about learning the difference between self-care and self-comfort. Self-comfort is about numbing, whereas self-care is about coming alive. While there’s a time and place for self-comfort — eating all the cake, watching Netflix in your pj’s for two days straight — self-care is the best way we can be kind to ourselves. For me, that means things like reading, journalling, playing music, going for a walk or spending time with people to help me get out of my own head.
Being kind to yourself isn’t about being selfish. It’s about including your own soul in the kindness you hope to offer the world, helping you stay present to the vulnerability of others and soothing those broken, ragged places whenever you meet them— even the ones you find in yourself.
Some questions for reflection…
- How easy or hard to you find it to be kind to yourself? Why do you think that is? How has it impacted your relationships?
- You’ve read my list of how I’m trying to be kinder to myself. What might be on your list?
- Often, we want to fix people’s problems because we want to make things better for them and we can find it painful to witness their vulnerability. Phillips and Taylor suggest that being kind is to share in other people’s vulnerability ‘imaginatively and practically without trying to get rid of it.’ What might it look like if you did this for some of the people in your life?