The Four Pillars of Kindness
by David Jones
“Be nice!” This is what we hear from our parents when growing up in situations of physical or verbal aggression. It’s what we tell our own children. “Be nice!” What exactly does that mean, be nice? Basically it means to be kind, right? That is, stop aggressing against the person. But what does it mean then to be kind? This is a question I’ve been pondering for a long time now. What exactly is kindness?
According to Wikipedia kindness is defined thusly:
“Kindness is a behavior marked by ethical characteristics, a pleasant disposition, and concern for others. It is known as a virtue, and recognized as a value in many cultures and religions.”
To be honest I struggle with that definition. To me kindness is much more than having a “pleasant disposition” or “concern for others”. I don’t believe that kindness is that simple. Kindness is an amalgam of qualities. To me:
Kindness is a manifestation and extension of four different human characteristics: Compassion, Empathy, Sympathy and Forgiveness
How did I come to this conclusion? Over the last four years I’ve lived near my father in rural Arizona. When I made the decision to move here I had no idea that I’d be taking a journey of self-discovery that would ultimately find myself caring for my dad in the final days of his life.
My dad and I had our challenges throughout our lives. We were at loggerheads with each other many times. Whether it be politics or religion or social and family matters we disagreed with each far more than we agreed. At times I’m certain that we didn’t like each other. This caused us both to be unkind to each other through much our lives. Not physically of course but certainly verbally.
In the final months and days of his life I began to think about our time together and what I could learn from the experience of watching my father die. For the first three years in Arizona I wondered why I had moved here. The desert isn’t really my cup of tea. Furthermore, I didn’t feel appreciated and frankly thought about leaving many times. It made no sense to be in a place that I didn’t like with a man who seemed ungrateful to have his son there.
Something happened a year and a half ago which changed the course of my life and enabled me to gain perspective. First of all, I met Justin Clarke, co-founder of The Honey Foundation when I was looking to go back to work. The story of The Honey Foundation is remarkable. Justin and his wife Jaime took a family tragedy and converted that into a vehicle to spread the most valuable and healing of human qualities – kindness. They have become my friends and to a certain extent teachers of this incredibly powerful human attribute.
The dictionary defines compassion as – “deep awareness of the suffering of another accompanied by the wish to relieve it.” This is one pillar of kindness. Kindness often requires us to understand the pain of others before we can practice it.
In the final months of my dad’s life I grew to have compassion for him. I saw him suffering daily with pain and the decline of his cognitive abilities. In his youth my dad was a great athlete and entrepreneur. He raced boats, raced cars, played basketball, was a decent golfer and a world class racquet ball and handball player. He started multiple successful companies and never worked for anyone except when he was a kid. To see him struggle to walk or take care of even the most rudimentary physical tasks was difficult. I so wanted to make him feel better but could not. In a very real sense I was deeply aware of his suffering and wanted nothing more than to relieve it. The very definition of compassion.
One definition of empathy is – “The ability to identify with or understand another's situation or feelings.” Can we practice kindness without empathy? I don’t think so. It is an essential element, another pillar supporting kindness. Often we have to put ourselves in another person’s shoes to practice kindness. To see what they see. To feel what they feel. To experience what they are experiencing.
I can’t say I understand exactly what my dad was going through in the final months and days of his life. After all I’m younger and healthier. However, I endeavored to put myself in his shoes. I made myself imagine what it would be like to lose my mental acuity. I made myself imagine what it would be like to decline physically to a point where I couldn’t walk or even clean myself. It must have been frustrating beyond belief for a man who routinely cleaned my clock in racquetball to not even be able to stand on his own. At times he would lash out at me and I grew to understand why. This man who once drove Ferrari’s at 150 miles per hour couldn’t work the remote control on his television.
Sympathy is defined as – “A feeling of pity or sorrow for the distress of another; commiseration.” All of us at one time or another have pitied someone. I felt pity this week from people who knew my dad had died. In the final month and especially the final days of his life I experienced pity unlike anything I experienced before. It was painful to watch him or even be with him. I felt sorry for him and the distress he was often under. Most of the time I would have given anything to take his pain away and it frustrated me to no end that I couldn’t.
Can we be kind without being sympathetic? I don’t think so. We must feel the pain that others are going through even in their most difficult times. It’s difficult however. None of us save for masochists wish to feel pain. It can be exhausting to feel another’s pain. Yet it’s incumbent that we do so in order to practice kindness.
“The act of forgiving; to pardon.” For me this is the single most challenging thing to do in life. Perhaps it is for many people. And yet it is unquestionably the most important of the four pillars for me in the practice of kindness.
My dad and I had a lot of history together. Sixty-one years of it. And a lot of it wasn’t good. It’s fair to say that for much of my life I held a grudge against my dad. I blamed him for the angst I often felt. The first fifteen years of my life were tumultuous and they laid a foundation for many years of unhappiness. At times I was bitter and resented deeply his fathering skills or lack thereof. Over time however I began to realize that I was making the very same mistakes he had. At first I blamed him because after all he had raised me. The path of least resistance is to blame others for our own failures. Guess what? We have free will. At a certain point in time we have to start taking responsibility for our lives and how we conduct ourselves. This was the beginning of learning to forgive my dad. I know with absolute certainty that whatever kindness I showed him in the last days of his life were a direct result of my forgiving his past transgressions.
I’ll miss my dad. He taught me more about life in the last months of his life than the first sixty-one years. In a very real sense I learned how to be kind from him. This is because, as my friend Justin so eloquently wrote recently, Kindness Is a Verb. We learn best by doing, not observing. During the recent Olympics my dad would watch television for hours. It was his only respite from a shrinking and painful world. In the evenings we’d watch as Michael Phelps claimed yet another gold medal or Usain Bolt blow away the field in the 100-meter dash. And I knew that no matter how many times I watched Phelps swim the 100-meter butterfly I would never compete with him.
We don’t learn kindness by sitting and watching others, we learn by practicing it. We learn by standing atop the four pillars and exercising compassion, empathy, sympathy and forgiveness. The operative word is exercise. Like physical exercise where we improve when we do something so too it is with kindness. We get better at it when we do it.