Years ago, when I was not yet a teenager, my father nearly died. He had a series of heart attacks, but then a triple bypass saved his life. There is so much to say about the weeks he spent in the hospital and the months he spent in recovery, as well as the miracles of medicine and the mysteries of the human body, but I want to say something about when his failing heart first shot pains through his left arm.
It was early in the morning, but he knew exactly what was happening in his chest and woke my mother to ask her to call an ambulance. Our telephone was in the living room, but before she could leave their bedroom to use it, he asked for something else. My father asked that the ambulance not use its siren.
Weeks later, when the fear of death had receded like some strange tide, my mother asked him about the siren. My father said simply that he worried it would have woken and frightened his three sleeping daughters. It is true that we were all light sleepers and that our farm was usually blanketed by the polite silence that comes from having no close neighbors, but what impossible kindness there was in my father’s request.
Kindness is not always as heavy as action: it can be as light as speech or as invisible as inaction.
I have called it an act of kindness, which I think it was. It was considerate in a way I cannot begin to understand; generous in a way no one would expect, much less demand. Years later I still do not comprehend how in what very well might have been the final moments of his life, my father thought to ask for quiet so that his daughters might continue sleeping.
KINDNESS IS LIKE HOLDING an ice cube in your hands. It stings, but then the cold dissolves; what at first you could barely hold becomes something you cannot let go. My father’s request for a quiet ambulance came from a man so familiar with kindness that the sting was completely gone: the ice was no longer cold, but one with the flesh.
But how do we cultivate such kindness, learning to hold the ice in our hands? While the science of happiness may be the most popular these days, it is closely related to the science of kindness. Take Stephen G. Post’s 2005 survey “Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good,” where he gathers a fascinating set of studies that show in various ways how altruism makes us not only happier, but healthier.
Post cites two studies that “confirm an association between altruistic activities and both well-being and life satisfaction in older adults”; another that links volunteerism to lower levels of depressive symptoms and higher levels of well-being; and two others that found moderate amounts of volunteerism were associated with lowered risk of death (even after controlling for variables like age, gender, chronic conditions, exercise, health habits like smoking, and marital status).
Post writes “that altruism is one of the factors that increases the odds of well-being, better health, or survival in many people,” though cautions, “it is no guarantee of good health.” The overall explanation for why altruism influences health so positively, Post states, is “that emotional states of unselfish love and kindness displace negative emotional states (e.g. rage, hatred, fear), which cause stress and stress-related illness through adverse impact on immune function.”
Post suggests that generous behaviors not only be taught in schools, but also prescribed by doctors in the interest of public health. In that way, whatever natural inclination we may have toward kindness might be nurtured and enhanced. But why wait for a prescription? Self-examination may be all we need.
CONSIDER GEORGE SAUNDERS' CONVOCATIONspeech last year at Syracuse University when the celebrated author said clearly, “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” Saunders leads by negative example, revisiting missed opportunities for kindness, including one powerful memory from the seventh grade when he was nice, but not kind to a new girl who was “mostly ignored, occasionally teased.” It is, of course, easy for all of us to remember such examples from our own lives.
But kindness is not always as heavy as action: it can be as light as speech or as invisible as inaction. Sometimes the kindest thing we can do is to exercise self-restraint: not posting a nasty comment on an article, leaving a mean-spirited tweet in the draft folder, keeping quiet to listen to whatever unfamiliar or opposing opinion is being offered.
The Internet has offered us many facile ways of expressing approval (like, favorite, share) but few ways of being kind. It might be that the greatest act of kindness on the Internet is to be quiet. Not to be forever silent, but at least listen and learn before expressing outrage or anger, and to realize that kindness will not always take the form of approval. My father’s quiet ambulance was one act of kindness, but so too was rebuking me not long after when I fought with one of his hospital nurses about visiting hours.
It was kind to confront me with my own failure of kindness. George Saunders advised the graduates at Syracuse to reflect on their own balance of succeeding and failing to be kind: “in your life,” he said, “there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter.”
Revisiting failure of any kind is chastening. But when it comes to kindness, such reflection can, as Saunders suggests, teach us about our own inclinations. A prescription to perform acts of kindness may seem like a silly thing, but perhaps simply revisiting our successes and failures is enough.