The concept of kindness has had many iterations throughout history, but at its core, it is staggeringly simple.
As a child I remember reading Aesop’s Fables and getting lost in a fantasy world where a powerful and dangerous lion was beholden to a tiny, vulnerable mouse. In this particular tale, a mouse accidentally wakes a lion from a nap. Enraged, the lion goes to kill the mouse, but it begs for mercy, promising to one day repay the gesture. Although doubtful that the mouse could ever be of help, the lion lets it go. A few days later, the lion becomes trapped in a hunter’s net and roars with anger. The mouse rushes towards the noise and, seeing the lion’s predicament, gnaws through the rope until the lion is freed. Now that I’m all grown up, I truly resonate with the moral of the story: no act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.
By being kind to others, we nurture ourselves and take pleasure from doing so. Humans are unique in that we can imagine being in another person’s shoes and sympathise with their plight, even if their life is nothing like ours. In Christian teachings, kindness is often exemplified by the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus tells a lawyer he must love his neighbour exactly as he loves himself in order to live well. The lawyer, being of a legal bent, asks for clarification on who counts as a neighbour.
Jesus then tells the story of the Samaritan, a man from Samaria, who helped a travelling Jew robbed and left for dead on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Despite their kin being sworn enemies, the Samaritan cleaned the traveller’s wounds, took him to an inn and paid the owner to look after him. The moral of the tale? There are no exceptions, no matter what – everyone deserves kindness.
Back then kindness was understood to arise spontaneously. Human nature, not sacred rules, made people kind. However, over time, the Church became more ecclesiastical, and focused on the physical world, material gain and hierarchy. When Martin Luther protested the excesses of the Catholic Church, heralding the start of Protestantism in 1517, moral responsibility shifted further away from individual control. According to Protestant teachings, people are fundamentally sinful, so any virtue derived from doing good is down to God’s grace.
Come the 19th century and the idea of kindness had become formalised as charity. The rich gave money to charities while wealthy industrialists channelled profits into schools, workhouses, universities, and libraries. Ostensibly it was to show they cared for their fellow humans, but it could also be undertaken as a way to gain divine approval – they got their name on a plaque down here in the hopes of getting a seat at the table up there.
These days, rewarding charitable individuals with visible proof of their good acts and donations is still popular. Just think about the physical products (such as T-shirts or pens), special offers, unique opportunities, or even dedications gifted to those who give. Vast amounts are spent on administration and advertising to convince people to part with their hard-earned cash and limited time. However, this sometimes seems far removed from those in need, making people reluctant to donate out of concern for where their money actually goes. The number of people needing help is staggering, too, making it hard to know where to start.
But this doesn’t have to mean doing nothing. While it may manifest in many forms and guises, kindness doesn’t need to be sweeping gestures or down to divine dictation. It exists in the small, everyday, and good things we do: aiding a person in a supermarket who can’t reach a product; pausing to assist a person with directions; helping to carry a stroller up a flight of stairs for a struggling parent; or even taking time out of a busy schedule to write a compliment about the customer service person who went above and beyond.
Sometimes kindness feels in short supply, but it’s more important than ever. Here in Turkey (where I live), times are particularly tough. Recently, a broken-hearted young boy wrote a message on a computer company website, saying, “I had to return my laptop 11 days after it was delivered to me because my mother lost her job”. He’d worked as a porter after school for two years to save up enough money to buy it, but returning it meant he could help his family financially. His plan was to work again once the pandemic was under control, but the Turkish public had other ideas. Seeing his post, hundreds of people messaged him, offering to buy him a computer – such was the simple but profound kindness of strangers. In the end, the tech firm tracked the boy down through their sales records and not only did they give him a new laptop, they provided one for his brother, too.
It is heartening when acts of kindness have immediate and visible results, but you don’t have to know whether what you’ve said or done has a direct impact or not. It’s not about that. Kindness costs us nothing but means everything because the little lights we shine will eventually come together and make a difference. While collective ideas of what kindness is may ebb and flow, at heart we all know that it comes down to the small and the everyday. As Aesop knew, and Desmond Tutu said, “Do your little bit of good where you are, it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world”.