“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.” – George Saunders
There’s nothing at all wrong with acting in ways that are sensible, reserved, and mild. But there are times when such demeanor is the result of fear. Fear of getting involved, fear of engendering expectations of future solicitude, fear of being harmed in real or imaginary ways by people of whom we feel unsure.
I’ll bet there are none of us who cannot remember seeing, or being, a school-age child who was treated unkindly by peers. When I look back on the times that persecuted person was me, I remember with tremendous respect those who stood apart from the crowd by refusing to capitulate to mob psychology; the ones who were kind to me for no reason at all, perhaps even catching a bit of jeering themselves in doing so.
When I remember standing by and saying nothing while others were being mistreated, I agree with Saunders; those are among the moments in my past that I most regret. But the fear of being kind extends far past the school years. In a world where stranger danger is not just a phrase we teach our kids, it can be a dilemma to know when and how to show kindness to a suffering person in a way that is not harmful to them or us.
But as the saying goes, “hard cases make bad law.” For every situation where we may feel legitimate reservations about reaching out in kindness, there are dozens more where safety is not the issue; where we are just too tired or preoccupied to concern ourselves with people who may require time and energy we’d rather save for our own interests. It’s true that one can be easily overwhelmed by the magnitude of need around us, and we could easily wear ourselves out (as some do) trying to help everyone but ourselves.
However, looking at my own life and many around me, I think most of us tend to err in the other direction. Sad, really, since thoughtful kindness is a self-sustaining practice that almost always yields high returns on investment, for ourselves and everyone around us.
As we face daily situations at work, home and elsewhere, may we hope and pray for the wisdom to know when it’s time to go beyond sensible, mild reserve, and take a risk — even a small one — to make a difference in the life of a person who is hurting.
One year ago today: