Kindness is best appreciated in the little acts. It is special when it can make a person smile or be happy, from something as simple as holding a door in recognition that you're near another person, to letting an undeserving car two lanes over cut in front of you even if you do that only to avert your or the other driver's road rage.
The little acts, the simple things, can make a big difference. That's a good foundation for religious practice.
The Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, has said, "My religion is very simple, My religion is kindness." He's expanded on that a bit, saying, "This is my simple religion. No need for temples. No need for complicated philosophy. Your own mind, your own heart is the temple. Your philosophy is simple kindness."
That might work for anybody, regardless of their formal faith, and even including people who aren't religious. Kindness would be a metaphor in the end, though, because life is not so simple.
Henry James said, "Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind." Those three things in mind, is there a kindness shortage today?
Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst, and Barbara Taylor, a historian of feminism, wrote a book titled On Kindness that was published in 2009 and '10. At the beginning of the book, they're taking the position that we're not as kind as we used to be. "Most people appear to believe that deep down they (and other people)," the authors said, "are mad, bad, and dangerous to know; that as a species--apparently unlike other species of animal--we are deeply and fundamentally antagonistic to each other, that our motives are utterly self-seeking, and that our sympathies are forms of self-protection." From my time in New York City, a place with a notorious reputation for its people being me-against-the-world, I've seen kindness in action plenty. Yes, people can be self-absorbed and preoccupied, but when need is there, people reach out--from helping the homeless to directing traffic as civilians during a power blackout. Kindness is a daily thing, even in the nation's largest city.
In Toledo, I've found in my year and a half after moving here, kindness is standard fare. Most Toledoans follow the kind life, which, the authors of On Kindness wrote, is "the life lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others." They also say that kindness is "the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself."
Kindness, a driving goodness, a human interaction focused on the here-and-now, is kind of like radical hospitality, a way to be especially welcoming to others. That's an attitude I aim for in my own life, even though I know I fall short often enough. And I have the support of Mahatma Gandhi, who said, "The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful than a thousand heads bowing in prayer."
The Christian season of Lent, which spans from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, began on Wednesday. Lent is a time of reflection and self-examination, similar in that way to the month of Ramadan in Islam, the month of Alá in the Bahá’í faith (happening now, ending March 20), and to Yom Kippur in Judaism. Kindness is a good exercise to practice consciously in this season.
Kindness is an ideal for human behavior, whether looked at psychologically or philosophically. But what's the tie specifically to religion in the 21st century? We want to be well-removed from the Crusades in the Middle Ages, when unkind wars (is there any other kind?) were waged over whose religion was the "right" one. But the conflict doesn't have to be from long ago on a grand scale. The need for kindness is there for people Westboro Baptist Church doesn't like, when religious people might form a screen of protection between the misguided protestors and the objects of their wrath--being as kind as possible to all in the process. And it goes all the way to personal, one-to-one conflict that might be lessened with kindness providing an opening for conversation about what's wrong. Plato said, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle."
We take our kindness into the world, and I hope that when we return, it's always with extra, not depleted reserves of this virtue.
And don't forget to be kind to yourself. That's especially true with religion in the mix. As Aesop said, "No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted."