Was that all an illusion? Kindness toward others — even ourselves — has been shown to help balance seesawing emotions, which we all have these days, and even possibly improve some health outcomes. Yet in these fraught times, somehow the idea of kindness seems quaint if not passe.
Yet it’s worth noting that, even as it feels like darkness and struggle are ratcheting up, people are reaching out to others to help, even if they don’t dominate the news.
In Atlanta, for instance, fraternity men from historically black colleges cleaned up neighborhood streets after a night of protest and violence. “We are better than this,” the city’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, had said the day before.
In Columbus, Ohio, the local newspaper reported, “Random acts of kindness break out amid protests,” with individuals who’d just met on Facebook providing masks, protective eyewear and first-aid kits to protesters.
Ditto in Cleveland, where Ricky Smith, the founder of Random Acts of Kindness Everywhere, brought his “message of positivity” downtown to help “people think outside of themselves and help others.” And last week, a man on a street in downtown Washington opened his door to dozens of marchers fleeing as riot police bore down firing chemicals. He provided a refuge through the night so they wouldn’t be arrested for violating curfew.
In an earlier draft of this column, I’d written: “Yes, there is beauty to be found in these dark days, and its name is kindness.”
I described examples of what I called the “viral nature of kindness.” Ramona DeFelice Long, who lives in Newark, Del., told me that when her mother, a former nurse, died of the novel coronavirus in April, she asked that “people perform an act of kindness to a nurse” in lieu of sending flowers. One person sent lunch to the emergency room unit in a small hospital, and another sent a gift card to a struggling neighborhood medical professional with a family.
The pandemic, it seemed, was bringing out the best in us. But — there always seems to be a “but” — Cynthia Ambres, a physician in Los Angeles, wanted me to know how she had “witnessed how disparate the pandemic is when it comes to my community, the African American community.” And that was before four Minneapolis police officers were charged with Floyd’s death.
Yet, kindness may be more important than ever, especially when it comes to listening to people and hearing what causes them pain, anger, sadness — often all at once — in an emotionally and politically challenging time unlike anything most of us have ever experienced.
Why is kindness important, even — maybe especially — from six feet away?
Rose Arce, a Latina documentarian, says she has been deeply affected by the recent turn of events, but she remains an advocate for “kindness, [which] is also about empathy and understanding, about recognizing the plight of the person next to you and offering emotional support and advocacy in a moment of anger or despair.” Kindness builds bridges, two-way bridges.
Ambres, the Los Angeles physician, has tried to do her part, too, donating money or food to as many homeless people as she sees. She’s also been the recipient of others’ generosity, telling me that strangers have offered her groceries out of their own carts when they found her standing before an empty shelf. “It goes on and on — a cycle of giving and receiving,” Ambres says.
Last year, I spoke with Jamil Zaki, a Stanford University psychology professor, who studies kindness. “There’s lots of evidence that our experiences, our choices, our habits, our practices go a long way to predict how empathetic we become,” he told me. In researching his book “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World,” he says he learned that empathy or kindness is a skill that we can build. “Doing so is a crucial project for us, both as individuals and as a culture.” Now more so than ever.
Early in the pandemic — in what was a panicky time but now seems almost calm — when my stress level was rocketing, I received a beautiful calendar created by a textile artist who lives near my home in North Carolina. Elaine O’Neil walked block after block distributing 100 of these calendars to friends and neighbors. On each one, O’Neil attached a short note: “Please accept this 2020 calendar as an I’m thinking about you” gift. And how did folks respond? “They gave me sunshine right back,” O’Neil posted on her blog.
People often say that kindness begets kindness, even such small acts as a calendar or providing safe refuge for protesters, which is one reason it is seen as a way to bolster our mental health. Spreading kindness does not mean ignoring the need to protest injustice and cruelty and demand that the world be made fairer, better. Zaki and other experts say it can be another tool to help create a more just and loving world, and to keep ourselves from being overcome by anger and despair.
But to get through these trying times, we need to do what we can to stay balanced and emotionally solid to face a future that feels very uncertain. In this angry and stressed time, research says we can learn to be kinder.
We don’t have to look far back to see precedent for the outbreaks and hotspots of kindness amid crisis — the HIV/AIDS epidemic, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina produced random, and non-random, acts of kindness. I can testify to it firsthand when I lived in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1980s as AIDS was rampaging and so many were dying, including my friends.
My fellow San Franciscans came together to help. In 1985, a group called Different Spokes hosted the first AIDS bike-a-thon, raising a then-unprecedented $33,000 from 66 cyclists for people with AIDS. Three years later, a modest holiday food drive spawned the first Food Bank for people with AIDS, providing 24,000 bags of groceries to people living with HIV in just one year, its founder, Cary Norsworthy, reminded me recently.
At the same time, few in the LGBTQ community who lived through that time will forget the discrimination and stigmatization of people with AIDS and the frigid shoulder of the Reagan administration as the epidemic was emerging.
In January 1991, the New York Times reported, “AIDS Deaths Now Exceed 100,000,” on the bottom-half of page 18. Indifference is another kind of violence.
In April, with the pandemic virus spreading in my hometown, Kristin Wilson told friends on a Zoom call that members of their household had been infected with covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. After she recovered, she told me that neighbors, in response, left baked goods and spring flowers at their door and called with good wishes.
“I’ve been surrounded by kindness,” she said. Before turning to get dinner ready for her three kids, she added, “I hope we can keep this level of concern for other people, and I hope to be able to return the favor.”
Kindness is not a cure — our challenges are far too serious — but it is a way of being that can make a difference to those around you. Right now, the biggest act of kindness any of us can do is simple — wear a mask to protect others (if not yourself), respect social distancing so we can all get back to work and life — together again, and listen — really listen — to those who are angry, depressed or in despair.