I noticed a lot of people talking about kindness yesterday because of a video that was going around in which a celebrity was talking about being kind to everyone. It probably won't surprise you to know that I do believe we should be kind to everyone. I don't always live up to that ideal, but I try. But I think it's worth thinking about what kindness actually is, and what it does.
Because kindness isn't the same as politeness. It's not the same as non-confrontation. It's not the same as forgiveness, which is itself not the same as forgetting, or a lack of accountability. Kindness is not, at its root, about reducing tension. Kindness is, I think, about giving people what they need. When we focus on removing tension from our interactions, it may be more comfortable in the moment, but it doesn't necessarily feed us in the long run. Often, focusing on reducing tension merely delays a reckoning. It allows us to ignore harm, which often compounds that harm. That is not kind, I don't think.
I do think that difference is something that should be tolerated, even celebrated in many instances. But I think it's also important to recognize that not all differences are benign. Some differences of belief result in people choosing to harm other people. I think that using the language of kindness and tolerance to ignore and erase past harms is, itself, a harmful thing. It enables current and future harms. And it is therefore not kind.
We can have compassion for everyone, I think. Because everyone is in some way suffering—indeed, it's often because someone is suffering that they choose to harm others. And I think we can with kindness mitigate that suffering and enable people to be kind and generous to others. But I think it is important to understand that having compassion for someone's suffering does not mean that we must condone their actions. Neither does kindness mean that we must always make people comfortable.
Kindness is not amoral. It does not require us to eliminate our emotional or ethical boundaries. Indeed, I find it is just the opposite: it is only through understanding the difference between right and wrong that we can be truly kind. Kindness is not simple. It is not easy. It requires us to look at each other and ourselves clearly, to understand deeply, to overcome our own very natural urges toward seeking our own comfort or lashing out against others. Kindness is not safe. In order to be kind, we must be willing to see and understand our own shortcomings and complicities. We must be willing to make ourselves vulnerable, over and over again.
So, yes, let us be kind to everyone. Let us be kind across difference. Let us be kind also to ourselves. But let us not mistake deference or niceness or comfort for kindness. If we are going to commit to kindness, let us do so with the understanding that kindness and healing and justice are all of a piece, they go hand in hand, that none of them have meaning without the others.
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Some other news:
- I've released four new episodes of Keep the Channel Open since my last letter. There was a conversation with photographer Robert Calafiore about male nudes and de-skilling. There was a conversation with podcaster Helen Zaltzman about language and podcasting. There was a conversation with photographer Binh Danh about history and landscape, and the aesthetics of smoke. And just today I released a conversation with writer Lyz Lenz about faith and Middle America and her love of country music women.
- I also announced my new podcast project recently, LikeWise Fiction, on which I'll be reading short stories written by women and nonbinary authors, authors of color, and LGBTQ+ authors. The show launches next week, on Monday, October 14, and you should already be able to find it in all the major podcast apps.
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I've been running myself a little ragged lately, and it's starting to catch up with me. I need to start dialing it back a bit soon, and I will. I hope that you're able to lay down some of your burdens soon, too.