The way that we think about kindness is fundamentally flawed. When you walk past someone and give them a smile and a wave, or open the door for them as they enter the building, you’re being nice. Kindness is different — more complex, layered, intentional, and above all, about self-reflection, says Houston Kraft, the author of Deep Kindness: A Revolutionary Guide for the Way We Think, Talk, and Act in Kindness. We don’t wrestle with this very often because it’s not neat.
“Kindness relies on a lot of skills that we take for granted,” says Kraft, who spent seven years speaking at more than 600 schools and taking to students about kindness, empathy, connection, and leadership. “I realized that, ultimately, my ability to behave in kindness requires things like empathy, and emotional regulation, and perspective, vulnerability, and all these other related tools.” Kraft realized that while, say, paying-it-forward at Starbucks or holding open a door for someone walking behind you are wonderful acts, they are not true examples of kindness. He realized that true kindness is uncomfortable and hard, a far more nuanced behavior that demands more than the easy definition we tend to give it. Regardless, kindness — true kindness — is as important as ever and should be thought about with more depth.
Fatherly spoke to Kraft about what kindness really is, what the limitations to kindness are in a world as cruel and in as much turmoil as ours, the big difference between being nice vs. kind, and why there’s never a time when kindness isn’t the right call.
Kindness can seem like a hard sell these days. You look at the world and see one bad behavior after another. It makes you think that kindness is dead or dying.
I think there’s a level of increased awareness of the need for kindness. The more visibly we see cruelty, the more we begin talking about kindness, which is why I think my book is important. The way we speak about a thing is going to be indicative of how we treat that thing.
We’ve begun to commodify some of these words like “mental health,” or “kindness.” Because they’re responses to the challenges that we’re seeing. Mental health, as a talking point, is born out of the collective increase in anxiety that the world has been experiencing. Suicide is overtaking homicide is a killer of teenagers. I think there’s a cultural outcry, “we need to focus on mental health.” Right?
I think the same thing is true about kindness. And for both of these things, I think we have to be thoughtful in how we throw those words around. We say we need more kindness, and we need more connection in the current world. But we’re using our old definitions of these terms, to approach problems. I think there’s a mismatch there.
What do you mean?
I’ve always loved words. I think they have such a critical importance in how we engage with our world, and how our world is shaped. We have the cultural definition of kindness, that’s awkward to us, we have the dictionary definition, and then we have our personal definition.
And for so many, the cultural definition of kindness comes in the form of what they’ve seen or experienced in the media, or in their schools growing up. So much of that is “kindness week,” or “free hugs” or the pay it forward coffee lines. Those are great! But they also fail to acknowledge, to your point that, that we can have all the coffee lines in the world that we want and we will most likely still have immigration detention facilities, we will most likely still have people who aren’t willing to wear masks, we’ll still have people who deny that there’s racism alive in our country.
Okay, so tell me about the words you choose: “deep kindness.”
I had just gotten done speaking at a conference, and for the first time, I had real gumption around this idea that the way we speak about kindness is perhaps the most destructive thing we are doing with kindness in our world right now. And I leaned heavily on a quote that I see often in my work working in schools, which is to “throw kindness around like confetti.”
I’ve seen that poster in probably 90 percent of the schools I’ve ever worked in. Probably all of us at some point have seen a poster with a similar sentiment — throw kindness around like it’s free! Sprinkle that stuff everywhere! Just be kind! Right? It’s well intentioned, but ultimately damaging because the unintentional implication is that kindness is as simple or easy.
Yeah, the definition we have speaks to a sort of easy way out.
I wanted the book to be called Confetti, and I could see it in my mind. I wanted it unpack how we think and talk about kindness in our world, and how that ultimately shapes the way that we act with it, and how we don’t act with it oftentimes where we need it most. And I started writing the book. Ultimately in that process, Simon and Schuster, the publisher, said, “No, you shouldn’t call the book the thing that you don’t want people to do.”
So we changed the name to Deep Kindness. That’s really the distinction that book tries to make — and I think a lot of people, when they pick up a book about kindness, they anticipate or expect to be inspired or regaled with inspirational stories. That’s important. But that dismisses the harder work of kindness — and, for what I think the current cultural realities call for right now — which is a much higher level of compassion and practice of kindness. And, I think, that’s way more uncomfortable and hard.
You visited more than 600 school visits, and gave speeches about kindness over seven years. In that time you honed your approach. What did you discover about deep kindness during that time?
One time, I was speaking at a conference in Washington. And at this point, it was about six years in six or seven years into my career, and the person speaking before me was a Holocaust survivor.
I remember waiting in the wings for my turn to speak, and I was having this reckoning. I had spent the past five or six years trying to sell people on the idea that kindness was good. And it occurred to me, listening to the Holocaust survivor, that like, I realized people were already agreement. Kindness is good! And yet, we are still capable of something like the Holocaust, and plenty of atrocities that are maybe less immediately evident, but no less gruesome, and horrific.
I realized, maybe the more relevant or challenging question is: What gets in our way and what prevents us from living the things that we say are important? That gap between who we say we want to be, and what we actually do, the gap between what we say is good, and what we’re actually good at, the gap between what we value, and what we make important with our time and our practice? I started asking a lot more of those self reflective, uncomfortable questions.
That was a big defining moment, in how I spoke about kindness. My whole talk was reframed. It was less about inspirational high flying stories, and rooted more in the accepted, and more messy offering to put people in the space to self reflect.
So what is deep kindness?
A couple of adjectives I would associate with deep kindness would be: intentional, disciplined, sacrificial, unconditional, and empathetic. I don’t think that gets attached to ideas of kindness always. Most of the time when we see kindness in the news, or even on social media, it’s these shareable moments of high-flying goodness. Those are still good things — but we need to make [deep kindness] small, daily, mundane practices.
What I define as confetti kindness in the book [which is what most people exhibit], doesn’t speak to the need for disciplined, honest, self-reflection required to confront some of the truth of ourselves. We need to do that if we’re going to confront some of these bigger, systemic, messier challenges in our world. I suppose the long answer to your short question would be that the book was written before much of the world started to seemingly crumble in front of us. And yet, the timing of it feels important, because I think the single most important thing that we can practice right now is kindness. How we think about that kindness is going to be the single most important thing we can offer ourselves in the world in order to address the root problems we have.
So I guess you’re basically saying that someone who is racist can often be “nice”, but they may not actually be kind. So they might be polite at the grocery store if I bump my cart into them, but do they actually have disciplined, empathetic and unconditional kindness? Probably not.
I think an excuse that people lean on is that they just want what’s best for their family or their parents, they have good intentions. All those excuses that we give ourselves, that dismiss their real actions in their world, in favor of, the less relevant hopes or intentions behind them. What I’ve found is that people who are really generous in one area, sometimes their generosity is really conditional. “I will give only if these people are willing to do this,” or, “I’ll only give to this type of person.” And I think that that is a symptom of niceness, not kindness.
Is there ever a time when kindness is not the answer?
I think that question speaks to one of the big misunderstandings of kindness, which is that it is soft, and fluffy, and boundaryless. In fact, the kind of kindness that I’m advocating for is tenacious. Dr. Brene Brown is one of my personal heroes — she tells stories attached to data, and she’s interviewed thousands of people and codified all these different data points. And she said that the data shows that the most compassionate people objectively are also the most boundaried.
I love that. It is hard for people who have a hard time with boundaries to reconcile that when they want to be kind. But she says that the people that say “no” the most are the ones that most compassionately say, “yes.” They say it with the fullness of themselves. And they’re not resentful of giving their time, because they’ve done it honestly.
That makes a lot of sense.
I think there are lots of times where saying no is the most kind thing you can do. I think sometimes, drawing a very clear boundary to say, ”Hey, I love you, but at a distance. I forgive you as a person, but the behavior you’re demonstrating towards me is not okay. But I will not allow this behavior to persist. You’re not allowed to be in my life in this way.” That is kind, and hard, and it’s messy. But those boundaries are exercises of compassion. Those challenges of creating clear distance between toxic relationships and behaviors, are the most profound exercises of kindness. So no, there is no moment coming to mind where kindness is not relevant.
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