Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington
Have you noticed that kindness seems to be absent from our world today? It hasn’t always been like this. When I was growing up the world moved at a slower pace. We didn’t have computers or smartphones but we knew all the neighbors on our street. TVs were small, black and white models with no remote control, no cable, no dish. We wrote letters instead of texts. Most out-of-town trips were made by car.
But in our modern, fast-paced society speed is considered essential in practically every aspect of life. We demand instant communication, whether it’s with someone across town or on the other side of the world. And if you’re going somewhere, chances are you’re looking to get there in a hurry. All these technological advancements that we take for granted have made our lives easier. But in privileging speed and comfort we have sacrificed some of the basic elements of human interaction, one of which is kindness (goodness, in some translations of Scripture), the fifth Fruit of the Spirit.
When I think of this virtue, I’m reminded of one of my cousins, a multi-talented artist who passed away a couple of months ago after struggling for many years with a debilitating disease. He was a wise and compassionate soul who inspired family and friends with his art and the way he lived his life. The phrase “be kind” was sort of a motto of his.
We ought to be kind to everyone, including those unable to do anything for us and especially to those we view as unworthy of our benevolence. Why? Because that’s the way God treats us. He looks on us and sees our unworthiness and showers us with all sorts of blessings and favors anyway. That’s the pattern we’re supposed to follow. It’s easy to say, “Yes, that’s right. I believe that.” The difficulty comes in putting it into practice.
Harold S. Kushner, best known for his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, speaks succinctly to this point: “Do things for people not because of who they are or what they do in return, but because of who you are.” This means I should treat others with kindness for the sake of kindness, not in order to call attention to my good deed. We’ve all been beneficiaries of someone’s charity, and even if we’re unable to pay it back we can always pay it forward. If those we help pass it on, then goodness will never go away. As Sirach 40:17 tells us, “Kindness is like a garden of blessings and charity endures forever.”
The word “kindness” comes from a Middle English word meaning “noble deeds” or “courtesy.” My wife once told me one reason she married me was because she thought I was courteous and a gentleman. If I am those things, it’s because of my mother, who taught me good manners when I was young.
One particular lesson stands out in my mind. I was about five. I was playing outside with one of the neighborhood kids, a little girl. When we got thirsty, she and I dashed up the steps to my house to get some water. I remember forging ahead, but when I got to the door my mother blocked the entrance, telling me I should let the girl go first. That made no sense to me because I got there first. So, I plowed ahead, but my mother pushed back, and when she did, my friend slipped inside ahead of me. That little incident may have been my initial exposure to the commandment “love thy neighbor as thyself.” As a side note, I think I actually crossed the threshold first by “breaking the plane” of the doorway, to use the football term, but what I learned that day was much more important than football.
In our culture of expediency, fueled by self-interest, love of neighbor often gets shoved out of the way, like when I tried to push past my friend to get inside the house. According to the prevailing philosophy of our time, we should simply “let everyone fend for himself.” But what we need instead is a culture in which we prioritize the needs of others rather than just taking care of ourselves. In that ideal society everybody looks out for his neighbor, especially the poor, the sick, and the lonely. That’s what good neighbors do. That’s what Christians do.
Do I exhibit kindness in the way I conduct my life? I hope so. I hope goodness and common courtesy have been instilled in me to the extent that they’ve become second nature, like saying “hello” or some other simple greeting in passing another person on the street.
Several years ago, I was in the Newark, New Jersey airport waiting to catch another flight. As I was walking along the sidewalk headed toward the next terminal, I passed a police officer and, without thinking, nodded my head and said “Hello.” I’ll never forget his reaction. His facial expression darkened, and he gave me a look that said, “What do you want?” He obviously was not used to having kind words spoken to him. In Learning the Virtues that Lead You to God Romano Guardini wrote that kindness requires patience and a sense of humor. That’s something I discovered on my own that day in Newark.
Do we really want to recapture the mutual understanding, cooperation, love, and goodwill that have all but disappeared from modern society? If so, we’re going to have to slow down, be considerate and attend to the needs of the other person, and perform “noble deeds,” all in a spirit of self-sacrifice. We’ve all got a role to play in building the Kingdom of Heaven, and it really doesn’t matter who goes first.
(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of Oxford St. John Parish.)