Choose Kindness

I like to listen to podcasts when exercising. Recently, the American author George Saunders was on The Ezra Klien Show (highly recommended). The subject was kindness, and I have been thinking about their discussion ever since.

Who deserves kindness?

That may seem like a ridiculous question. Doesn’t everyone deserve kindness? Perhaps a better question would be, who are we as individuals willing to extend kindness to?

Saunders defined kindness as “Behaving in a manner that improves the lives of those in our proximity.” My first impression was that it seemed pretty narrow, until I gave it more thought.  

Recently we bought a second home in Portland, Oregon. (Signifying the side of privilege we hail from.) Homelessness in Portland has always been an issue, and in the last five years, it has exploded. Homeless encampments spread trash along highways, vacant lots, and public spaces throughout the city. Neighborhood parks and private property are impacted. No one seems to have a solution.

So here’s the question. When the tents show up on our sidewalk, will I notify the authorities (not that this does any good) or bake cookies for my new neighbors? I must admit being inclined toward the former, but then again, I’ve never been accused of being a paragon of kindness.

Let’s take another example.

Recently, a spike in Covid hospitalizations drove the Minneapolis region’s hospital intensive care occupancy rates to near capacity. A friend’s surgery was canceled because the hospital was overwhelmed by Covid patients. The vast majority of these Covid hospitalizations are from unvaccinated patients. When personal decisions negatively impact public welfare, how much kindness should be extended?  

Previously I hadn’t thought about kindness in a conditional context. Perhaps I hadn’t thought about it enough?

We are quick to extend kindness to malnourished animals and children in need, but what about people who do not conform to our work ethic or social behavior norms?

Saunders’ definition of kindness is straightforward but imposes a deceptively high standard. Are our actions benefiting the lives of those in our proximity? To be truthful, my answer is no, at least not entirely!

I believe awareness follows a continuum. Experience progresses to knowledge, and maybe even wisdom. Love is the ultimate awareness, especially when it is unconditional. But what about kindness? Are we willing to extend kindness unconditionally? 

There are many ways to practice mindfulness. One practice involves centering attention on loving-kindness. It has never really appealed to me. I guess I’m finding out why! 

Kindness should be extended to everyone. I am at once embarrassed and daunted by the challenge that presents. Perhaps that’s why the podcast stuck with me.  

Taking action to improve the lives of those in our proximity is worthy of increased effort. 


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