“Be nice!” was my mother’s go-to moral directive.
If fighting with my brother, she’d order: Be nice. If I gossiped with a friend about a mean girl in class and she overheard the conversation, she’d sternly remind: Be nice. When arguing about politics over family dinner, she’d implore: Be nice. Kindness was everything.
Years later, when I was in graduate school at Duke, the esteemed Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas – known equally for being a pacifist and using profane language in lectures – regularly ridiculed “niceness” as the thin moral gruel of liberal Protestantism. Most church people, he claimed, had one major conviction: God is nice. “I mean, God is dying of niceness,” he insisted to a journalist, “It is just awful. One of the reasons I don’t think much about whether I curse is I’m just not interested in being nice.” Among many things I learned at Duke, I learned that niceness didn’t have much to do with the ethics of Jesus. Mom’s dictum “be nice” seemed quaint, perhaps embarrassing.
When it comes to the 2020 election, however, Mom may have understood more about Christians and politics than Professor Hauerwas.
What was the greatest predictor of those who changed their preference? Kindness. The Trump defectors said that the president isn’t nice enough and that Biden is kinder.
We don’t usually associate kindness with politics. Perhaps the coarseness of the Trump presidency – “the cruelty is the point” – makes old-fashioned niceness look pretty good in hindsight. But I suspect that it is more than nostalgia at work. Kindness is actually a fairly complex human action – involving empathy and sympathy, the capacity to celebrate, accept, and serve others, and being both truthful and gentle. A recent book on kindness claims it is the “ultimate soft skill in a hard world.” Maybe we are reaching toward a renewal of our life together, a rebirth of American community, and kindness might play a role in shaping it.
There is a growing scientific consensus that kindness toward others is an important part of well-being and life satisfaction. Kindness lends stability to marriages. It increases our sense of generosity. Acting kindly makes one happier. Kindness improves heart health and positive emotions. Being nice to other people makes you nicer! The empathy and compassion that spark kindness are necessary to imagining justice and developing courage to work for others through both protest and policy. Kindness isn’t merely a sort of greeting card platitude - it is actually a skill and practice that enables us to thrive together.
Yet the world is hard, and kindness is not easy. Even before COVID and social distancing, most Americans had more isolated lives and had fewer friends than generations past. Psychologists have cited a decline in empathy – along with a corresponding rise of narcissism in American society since 1979. All of this whittles away neighborliness and practices of kindness.
I’ve wondered if Trump’s 2016 election echoed these trends – as so many commentators, journalists, and authors have reported, he is a narcissistic president for a narcissistic age. Maybe 2016 was a revelation of sorts - a political moment that embodied the loss of empathy and the cruelty of self-absorption. Sometimes we hold up a mirror and don’t like what we see.
Although I don’t want to make too much of it, I hope the Vote Common Good survey shows a turn toward mending what is broken. After years of mean tweets and demeaning speeches, many of us are worn out - longing for the yelling to stop. It is good news that some white evangelicals and Catholics are apparently yearning for a kinder president. It isn’t such good news that it is only an 11 percent shift (and a majority of white evangelicals and Catholics still support Trump). Yet, the poll revealed that kindness was part of a larger cluster of virtues that these voters also admired: generosity, diligence, chastity, patience, modesty, and humility. They ranked Joe Biden significantly higher than Trump in all except for diligence. The “pro-Biden shift” described by the survey was based in traits of positive character and moral virtue.
I’ve no idea what will happen in November - if kindness will matter at the voting booth. If nothing else, however, I can finally argue with Stanley Hauerwas: Nice is good. God is broken-hearted over the meanness that has shadowed our nation. God isn’t dying of niceness, but we are certainly dying from its loss.
Don’t call people names. Don’t send mean tweets. Kindness is counter-cultural, a real revolution. Try it. Be nice.
Today is the 19th anniversary of 9/11. Take some time for reflection, be kind to yourself, and reach out to someone who might feel sad on this hard day. Pray for peace through the world, that we all may live with understanding and compassion on our small planet.
Even the smallest act of service, the simplest act of kindness, is a way to honor those we lost, a way to reclaim that spirit of unity that followed 9/11.
- President Barack Obama
There must be honesty in kindness,
It must look beyond a bowl of soup, a night of rest,
It must not be a momentary blindness,
An obstinate refusal to see the sunset in the west.
A fortnight in the country is a good thing for a child
But there are more than a score of fortnights in a year,
And some of them come when the winter is wild.
The youngest infant will grow old and full of fear.
We must hold many a hand that is dying,
We must feed many a face many winters through,
And many an angel on white wings flying
Has less to do than we have to do.
- Augustine Bowe (1941)
Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.
- Henry James
My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who and how you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness.
- Maya Angelou
When you are kind to others, it not only changes you, it changes the world.
- Rabbi Harold Kushner
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
- Colossians 3:12
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
- Micah 6:8
Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
- His Holiness the Dalai Lama
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