Amidst struggles and challenges, on-going illness and exhaustion, uncertainties and longings for normalcy, the Advocate turns an eye toward kindness and neighborliness as acts of justice and change. Inspired by the marking of Mr. Rogers Day on March 20, we explore what it means to be a neighbor, what it means to choose kindness, and how to communicate neighborliness, peace, acceptance, and justice using children’s literature.
At the beginning of every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred [Rogers] invited us to be part of something bigger than ourselves. His refrain “Won’t you be my neighbor?” requires us to acknowledge the invitation and to join him in the adventure that it is to be neighbors, to be part of the community of humanity.
Bruce Reyes-Chow, In Defense of Kindness, Chalice Press, 2021, p. 109.
Kindness is not synonymous with niceness.
At an early age, many are taught to “be nice.” Welcome others. Smile. Be polite. Don’t make waves. Avoid conflict. Don’t hurt another’s feelings. “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything.” On the surface, these lessons seem to serve us well in forming a well-mannered, forbearing, and peaceful community. Yet, we often sacrifice being real, acknowledging pain and injustice, developing friendship, expressing love, and finding human connection behind a mask of niceness. This mask can allow us to hide ourselves and to not recognize the depth and humanness of others.
In his 2021 book, In Defense of Kindness, Bruce Reyes-Chow — kindness enthusiast, Presbyterian pastor, author, speaker, and leadership coach – challenges us to champion kindness and “accept that each person is a created and complex human being – and treat them as if you believe this to be true.”
As we see and treat the other as a complex, created person worthy of dignity, we are challenged beyond simply being nice. We are pressed to view one another, and ourselves, as more than a single dimension or characteristic. We are more than our politics, our race, our gender, our religion, our ability, our size, our job, our ethnicity, our legal status. These are part of us, of course, but there is much more to our humanness. Thus, we move beyond surface interactions (or reactions). We recognize people’s complexity, see people’s fuller story. We tap into empathy and find reason to be kind.
As with anything complex, choosing to be kind is difficult. Kindness invites us to make conscious choices to pause, to consider how we see another, to assess what judgments we make, to choose to respond to the interests of the person before us. Even as we encounter differences in opinion, perspective, life experiences and outlooks, we choose kindness, dignity, and respect of each person’s humanity.
“There are ways we can choose to be kind every day. There seems to be a craving for it. It means waking up every day and choosing to live differently. Choosing to build up community in every act.”
Reyes-Chow teases out a contrast between The Golden Rule and the Platinum Rule.
“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Matthew 7:12.
This Golden Rule weaves across secular and religious thought and behavior. It encourages people to think of the other and treat them in the manner that we want to be treated. On its surface, it’s a sympathetic and caring teaching. Its limitation is the view that our interactions are transactional. An eye for an eye. To be treated well, I treat another well. To be treated badly, I treat another badly . . . Oooooh. There’s the limitation of this rule! Who signs up to be treated badly? If we’re treated badly, does that mean we’ve done badly or treated another badly? Sometimes we’re treated badly because someone is having a bad day. Someone could be angry, hurt, hateful even. Do we treat them badly in return? Would this help the situation?
In the Platinum Rule, we treat one another the way they tell us that they want to be treated. We don’t base our assumption of treatment on what we meet at face value. Instead, we step back and consider “how does the other person want to be heard? How do I want to have this interaction so that the other can interact with me in a way that is comfortable, respectful, or impactful for them?”
This is a hard rule to live: It calls us to adjust the ways we encounter people so that others can hear us. It involves clearing away the clutter of our differences to engage and connect on a human level. It calls us to look through a lens of kindness, seeing another person as a valuable human being and acting toward them as if they really matter. We stand, face-to-face with another, fully aware of who we are. We receive the other as they come to us, as a complex and valued creation worthy of dignity and respect. This is kindness.
Sometimes, the kindest thing to do is to walk away. If a person is in a position where they have (or show) no interest in interacting on a human level, it’s okay to disengage. “Just because I’m invited to a fight, doesn’t mean I have to show up!” In the Platinum Rule, we are conscious of our humanness as well. We do not have to put on our “nice” face. Rather, we pause to discern when to step in and when to step out. Then, we choose to honor the complexity of ourselves, the other, and the situation in ways that are respectful, kind, and loving. We see one another as neighbors, sharing this planet together.
Kindness is a way of being in the world that requires practice:
Every day we have to choose to commit to live out kindness for that day.
Choosing kindness is an act of courage that challenges a worldview driven by hatred, dishonesty, and dehumanization.
Choosing kindness is about living a life of integrity in which we daily work at resisting the seductiveness of wealth, success, and self-preservation.
Choosing kindness is life-giving. For when we choose to see and respond to the human dignity of any one person, we are all given a little more hope.
Bruce Reyes-Chow, In Defense of Kindness, Chalice Press, 2021, pp. 109-110.