Despite how it sometimes seems when we focus on the negative, Americans still value kindness as a culture. Each person’s view on kindness may be a little different, but the idea is still in our framework as a people. No one has ever sat in a merging lane of a highway traffic jam forever. Someone will eventually let them in with a wave.
Most children’s television programming regularly teaches ways to be kind through stories or songs. Beloved children’s literature is filled with beautiful examples of what kindness looks like. Neighbors will shovel walks or lend a hand to someone in need. Americans often donate time, energy, and dollars to help improve lives in a large variety of ways.
The motivations for this kindness are different for different people. For some, The Golden Rule or an idea of karma inspires kindness. For others, kindness involves a reciprocal relationship. It is easy to be kind to the beautiful people or those who are kind first. Some people reach out to others as a way to ease guilt or prove that they are a good person.
And still others have been given the gift of a tender heart. One of the most beautiful yet simple verses in the Bible is Ephesians 4:32. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Be kind. It is a clear but impossible task. Humans can’t do it perfectly, but that doesn’t mean we get to give up. Showing kindness through a tender heart is a lifelong journey.
Having a tender heart doesn’t always seem like a gift, though. In fact, an easy ability to empathize can feel like a curse. Events or emotions that some people barely register or can ignore, leave other people looking for a bed to hide under. For example, I usually get odd looks when I am asked how I liked a book, and I reply with, “It made me want to lock myself in a closet for two weeks.”
My husband correctly tries to encourage me to give myself a break from following the news of the world when he feels like my sadness will start affecting our family. Sometimes I can listen to his wisdom, but other times I reply, “I have to read it. The least I can do is to KNOW.” Some may say that being tenderhearted is a curse, but I maintain that the kindness it inspires is not a weakness.
As adults, we have lived long enough to know how to effectively shut down the tenderness of our hearts. For me, it is even a physical process. I can freeze my face to stone and feel my eyes go blank. I bite my tongue and stick my chin up a little. I tense to lock down any tears. I do this when I need to protect myself or make sure that my well-being is more important than the people around me.
It didn’t used to be possible for me to control my body at all in this way, but painful practice means that at this point in my life, I can do a decent job. I was at first proud to be able to close off my heart and not cry. But eventually, I realized that a heart that is not tender is not a comfortable thing to live with. Instead of protecting myself, it harms relationships. Being tough in my heart was not really a desirable accomplishment.
All of the effort used in the past to teach my heart to not care has to be repurposed into not letting the freeze begin in the first place. Being tenderhearted means that I can put other people’s needs before my own. I want to be that kind of a person. Of course, sacrifice comes with the territory of being a mother and a teacher, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy or that I’m always successful.
Large and small kindnesses have been given to me by my friends, family, and coworkers. They have often been lifesavers as well as examples to me of how to open my heart. I can show my students the kindness of taking a deep breath and smiling at them when I don’t feel like it. I can show my family the kindness of making a long drive to support someone’s accomplishment. I can show my household the kindness of not snapping at them even when they may deserve it. I can leave my heart open to the people that I love. Lately, though, I have been thinking about not limiting my thinking about kindness to my small sphere of influence.
I must also keep my heart open to the world around me. This is, of course, easy to talk about and much harder to do. In real life situations, hardened hearts get in the way of kindness. This happens when we are cranky to our families, but also when we try to close out the world around us. Sometimes unfamiliar people with unfamiliar ideas seem scary, but I do not believe that closing our hearts is the answer. We cannot positively affect the world without true tenderness. We cannot change a world that we don’t care about.
Reading a book that opens my eyes to the suffering of others is not the end of the process. Getting teary eyed over my phone while reading a tragic news story is not helpful. But the tenderness I feel when touched by a story can be the catalyst for kindness. I can be more intentional in my prayers and conscientious in the donations I make. I can find ways to help increase awareness and make steps to take action.
Most importantly, I can make sure that I don’t shut down my heart. The stories that we hear of struggling families do not have to be met with judgment. Cranky co-workers can repeatedly be given the benefit of the doubt. Acquaintances who question our worldview do not have to be met with emotional riot gear. We can truly and seriously think about other people’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences without first asserting our own. Each person we meet or think about should be met with the tenderness of an open heart. No one should have to somehow prove their worth before we feel that they deserve our consideration. True kindness means that we can reach out with empathy to fellow human beings instead of feeling threatened by differences. It is valuable to show kindness to my friends and family, but also to the difficult people, the incorrect people…and the people who don’t show kindness to me first.
Sesame Street told us that, “K is for Kind” when we were very young. As adults, whether we are on a highway, reading the world news, or hearing the latest gossip, let’s not forget the fundamental importance of a kind and tender heart
This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!