Don’t be Nice, be Kind!

The Kind bar company has a series of commercials. “People think nice and kind are the same thing,” they begin by saying. Then go on to describe how kind bars are superior because they contain real ingredients. The commercial closes by saying, “Give kind a try.”

Nice and kind are words that we tend to use interchangeably. The context for nice can vary: “Be nice to your sister!” “It’s a nice day outside.” Or, As I say to my students when they master a difficult passage of music. “Nice joy!” If you think about it, the actual difference between nice and kind places them in completely different categories. They may as well be on different dimensions! Niceness, as we can see in the former examples, can be tossed about and attached to almost anything. A nice dress. A nice dinner. A nice day, a nice dog. You get the idea. Kindness, on the other hand, is much more specific.

Nice: adj; pleasant or pleasing or agreeable in nature or appearance; socially or conventionally correct; refined or virtuous

Niceness is rather superficial. It can be narcissistic and self-focused. A person who practices mere niceness only does things for others so he is viewed as a good human being. Our culture considers it gentlemanly behavior for a man to open the door for a woman. Holding open a door for a perfectly able person is an act of politeness or niceness, not necessarily kindness.

At its core, niceness is derived from a place of weakness and fear. Let me explain: In human relations, the general rule of power is that those who are weaker have an imperative to be “nice” in order to gain favor with those in power. I remember my mom talking about an orchestra conductor she had. “It’s okay as long as you don’t get on his ‘bad side,’” she said. The conductor had power over her participation in the orchestra. Not to mention, he was notorious for belittling and humiliating musicians who failed to meet professional standards. Likewise, at your job, it’s smart to be nice to your boss. He or she has power over whether you are promoted or fired. It’s basically in our best interest to stay on society’s “good side” by dressing nice, talking nicely, continually living up to expectations for etiquette.

Etiquette. Such an elegant-sounding word. I remember being in the sixth grade when my teacher, Mrs. H., decided our ill-behaved class needed to include lessons in manners alongside the general curriculum. At the start of every day, right after attendance and the pledge of allegiance, Mrs. H. Would get out her little book of etiquette and introduce a new rule of behavior. I still recall the very first lesson: it was on addressing our elders as “sir or ma’am.” Later, around Christmas Time, I was at the dollar store, buying gifts for my family. As the cashier handed me my change and receipt, I said, “Thank you, sir.” He looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Sir? I’m not that old!” Red-faced, I stammered an apology. I was a bit confused as his reaction suggested I had offended him. I’ve not addressed anyone by ma’am or sir since that incident.

It’s one thing to practice polite behavior, but true kindness is a completely different, even difficult concept. True kindness is honest, real. Someone who practices kindness is genuinely concerned for others’ welfare.

Kind: adj; having or showing a tender and considerate and helpful nature; used especially of persons and their behavior; characterized by mercy, and compassion

The word kindness…say it to yourself. It has an almost pleading quality, don’t you think? As if the word kind is imploring you to action…extending an open hand.

In my piano classroom, I have two rules. The first is to come to lessons on time and prepared. The second, and the one I believe is more important, is to “be respectful and kind to the teacher, to fellow students, and to yourself.” In introducing this rule, I ask the students what it means to be kind to yourself. Many students answer right away, “It means don’t get mad at yourself if you can’t play it right.” Exactly. You see, my studio philosophy is not to create self-condemning musicians who expect perfection from every performance. It is to celebrate music in all its beautiful imperfection.

A few students struggle to respond to that question: “What does it mean to be kind to yourself?” For others, they know the answer technically, but putting it into practice is more difficult. One nine year old boy I teach is very talented, but when he comes into lessons, he continually comments on his mistakes as he plays. This behavior doesn’t only detract from his enjoyment of the music, it distracts as his preoccupation over one wrong note ultimately leads to another wrong note and then another. By the time he finishes the song (which may take awhile if he insists on starting over several times), he is so frustrated that it’s difficult for him to be receptive to the rest of the lesson.

My heart goes out to the students who place such high value over a flawless performance. I can relate personally to them. I, myself, struggled for a long time with unrealistic expectations and a lack of self-forgiveness and self-kindness. There was a time in my musical and educational pursuits when I would literally beat myself out of frustration. I eventually chose to set aside school and escape the musical hell I was enthralled in. The next few years were dedicated to emotional healing where I gradually learned to alter my perspective on music replacing self criticism with self kindness.

Kindness is an action that stems from empathy and compassion. A few months ago, I presented a service on the topic of compassion. We discovered that compassion is something that must be practiced. Most people are able to feel empathy as a natural emotional reaction to observing a distressful situation. Compassion follows close behind, as the desire to alleviate the suffering of those in distress. Now, we could stop here. It’s all too common to experience empathy and compassion and then turn and do nothing. But to do something—to commit to an act of mercy without the expectation of something in return is kindness.

I’d like to share a story about a Latter Day Saint prophet Spencer W. Kimball. This is from a January 2007 issue of the Ensign Magazine:

Stranded in an airport because of bad weather, a young mother and her two-year-old daughter had been waiting in long lines for hours trying to get a flight home. The child was tired and fussy, but the mother, who was pregnant and at risk of miscarriage, did not pick her up. A doctor had advised the mother to avoid lifting the two-year-old unless absolutely necessary. The woman overheard disapproving comments from people around her as she used her foot to slide her crying daughter along in the line. Nobody offered to help. But then, the woman later recalled, “someone came towards us and with a kindly smile said, ‘Is there something I could do to help you?’ With a grateful sigh I accepted his offer. He lifted my sobbing little daughter from the cold floor and lovingly held her to him while he patted her gently on the back. He asked if she could chew a piece of gum. When she was settled down, he carried her with him and said something kindly to the others in the line ahead of me, about how I needed their help. They seemed to agree and then he went up to the ticket counter [at the front of the line] and made arrangements with the clerk for me to be put on a flight leaving shortly. He walked with us to a bench, where we chatted a moment, until he was assured that I would be fine. He went on his way. About a week later I saw a picture of Apostle Spencer W. Kimball and recognized him as the stranger in the airport.”

What would you have done if you were in that airport? Would you think, “That woman is a horrible mother to ignore her crying child.” Would you give her a dirty look? Maybe turn away and ignore the scene because you’re also tired from traveling and don’t want to get involved.

Things are not always as they appear. To begin to feel compassion, it’s important to see a situation from the point of view of the individual in distress. If we start making assumptions about how awful a mother that woman is, we are failing to see from her point of view.

We are too focused on how much annoying noise that child is making and then shaming the mother for poor parenting when we should be shaming ourselves for jumping to selfish conclusions.

If we decide to “not get involved,” we are refusing an attempt at compassion and an opportunity for kindness. In our day and age, we are often too consumed by our own busy lives to even notice someone in need of kindness. The hand that could be extended to help is instead occupied by its nearly-permanent extension of a cell phone.

We can’t practice kindness if we are ignorant of our environment. Likewise, it can be difficult to commit to kindness without the element of compassion. I’d like to share a story:

I never had pets when I was a kid. My mom didn’t think they would be good for us because we would become attached, they would die, and we would be upset. To understand her view; her family growing up was very poor and they raised rabbits for food. She had her reasons. Plus, she didn’t want the extra mess or always be nagging us to feed, walk and groom a pet.

One summer, I must’ve been about 12; I was playing outside when I noticed what appeared to be a lumpy sack in the middle of the road. Upon closer inspection, it was not a sack, but a little brown dachshund. It had been hit by a car. Blood pooled in a tiny circle under its mouth. I was about to turn away when I saw its paw was quivering and a floppy ear twitched ever so slightly. It was alive. I dashed into the house and called for my mother. She came out to inspect the animal and, with the help of a neighbor, we diverted traffic around the dog while animal control was called.

It wasn’t long before someone figured out who owned the dog. I didn’t know the lady—she lived a good distance down the hill on another street. But I watched the chain of emotions. Horror and disbelief at the scene. Then anger as she asked who had hit her dog. We didn’t know. No one had seen it happen. More anger. Anger at whoever would run over someone’s pet and then just drive away.

Angel, the dog, recognized her master’s voice and she tried to make a sound that came out like a wheeze. Her little tail beat weakly against the asphalt. The lady huddled over her, gently stroking the tiny brown head. “It’s okay, it’s okay. You can let go. Let go Angel baby.” Obediently, Angel let go. Her body stiffened and grew still. Tears streaming down her face, the lady asked if someone had a box. I ran back to the house—to find a box, but also to get away from the scene. It was too painful to watch and, at twelve years old, I couldn’t understand why the lady had given permission for her dog to die. Didn’t she want to try to save her? I understood the animal was in pain and death was kinder. Kinder. In an unselfish act of kindness, the lady gave up her dog to death rather than have it suffer a second more.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to experience true compassion if you can’t relate to the person suffering. Watching the lady cry over her lost pet, I couldn’t even begin to relate to what she was going though.

Twelve years later, with my own dog and a very strong bond between us, I finally understand. I did feel empathy back then—in fact, my own tears hindered me from actually finding a box that day. My mom got one instead when she came to see what was taking so long. Only thinking back on it now, however, do I feel compassion for both the lady and her dog. I suppose there was much kindness from others that day—in the neighbors diverting traffic, finding the owner, and standing by her, supporting her in her grief.

Even if we can’t fully understand someone’s suffering, we can still offer kindness. My father, I truly believe, is a genuinely and naturally kind man. He will go out of his way to help someone in need, whether it be something as simple as setting aside work to offer his undivided attention to a conversation or sacrificing several hours of his time to assist a struggling math student with a complicated equation. I will never forget the first solo-backpacking trip I went on: it rained for two days straight and by the time it finally let up, I was so excited to leave the tent and go on a long, long hike that I walked for too long and ended up with so many blisters on my rain-softened feet that I practically crawled the last couple miles back to base camp that evening. The next day, I could barely stand. Full of embarrassed humility, I used my GPS device to call my dad to come pick me up two days early. He gave up eight hours of his busy day to come rescue me and take me out for pizza. Not once on the drive home did he humiliate me or say I was reckless for my lack of judgement or spineless for not sticking it out.

My dad is a mathematician. He likes to solve problems and it frustrates him when there isn’t an answer. That’s why, when he became involved in what I’ll call my emotional healing journey, it was difficult for him because there wasn’t a clear cut solution. This wasn’t simple as picking up his blister-footed daughter from the trailhead. There was no trailhead—no black and white answer. My dad is also a bishop in the LDS church. His inclination toward service makes him very good in that calling. He is often faced with problems that people bring to him—problems that, like mine, don’t have clear-cut solutions. Many times, he has told me that standing alongside me in my struggles has helped him grow in compassion toward people he serves.

We don’t need answers in order to practice kindness. We don’t need to be “mister fix-it,” solving problems left and right. We likely wouldn’t be able to do that if we tried. “Is there something I can do to help?” Is such a simple question, but it holds vast potential.

There may be times when our kindness is refused. A few weeks ago, I was grocery shopping and in the checkout line behind me was an elderly woman in an electric wheelchair. She had a box full of groceries on her lap and I asked if I could help by putting them on the belt for her. She said thank you, but her son just went to get some milk and will be back to help her.

Our offers for kindness may be turned down for one reason or another. Kindness is a gift in it’s purest form. Nothing expected in return and the intention behind the act is usually more meaningful than the act itself. Just like a gift, it’s easy to become offended if our kindness is rejected or even criticized.

Maybe you went out of your way to hold the elevator for someone in a hurry and they don’t acknowledge it. Or you slaved all afternoon to make a nice dinner for you and your spouse and their response is, “You know I don’t like fish, right?”

Practicing true kindness means that we aren’t expectant of something in return. You aren’t doing it for self-edification or to feel virtuous. You practice kindness because you genuinely care. Since we aren’t in control of people’s’ reaction, it’s not our job to have people respond with positivity. In offering kindness to a stranger, it’s important to realize that it may be turned down because many people simply don’t trust strangers. What do you do, then, when this happens? How are you supposed to feel? Remember compassion? Seeing from their point of view? They have their own reasons not to accept a kindness. That’s okay.

To practice kindness, we must be attuned to the world around us. We must be willing to take a step back from ourselves and recognize the needs of others. Unfortunately, our societal addiction to screens not only distracts us from recognizing an opportunity for kindness. As Rev. Key mentioned last week, it is all too easy to fixate on unkindness in the news; arousing anger and despair that the situation is out of our control. It can be difficult to accept that even though kindness is widespread in human relations, there are those who participate in terrible acts of unkindness

Mindfulness is essential to practicing compassion and kindness. Mindfulness is not merely awareness. It is also the ability to let go of those things out of our control. Acknowledgement that yes, there is and will always be evil and suffering. Acceptance that we can only do so much when it is beyond our ability to alleviate suffering caused by unkindness. And, when this happens, re-focusing our potential for kindness to the community around us.

A quote from Aesop says it perfectly: No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.