A few weeks ago I wrote a response to the shootings in Sandy Hook for the Atlantic (The Importance of Teaching Kindness at a Very Young Age) in which I called upon parents to teach their children kindness as a proactive response against the violence and death of December 14th. Around the same time, unbeknownst to me when I wrote the article, was a call for people to practice “26 random acts of kindness” in honor of the 26 teachers and students who died.
I’m sure that the experience of practicing those 26 acts was positive and meaningful, both for the one giving kindness and the one receiving it. But solitary random acts of kindness don’t ask nearly enough of us.
If I go to New York City and see a homeless person, I often buy him or her a hot dog or give some money with a warm smile. I try to go out of my way if I see an elderly person who needs help. I hold the door for others. And I hope all these things contribute to making these people’s days a little brighter, but they really take nothing out of me. If anything, they just succeed in making me feel good about myself and making other people think I’m a good person.
The type of kindness I’m thinking about is sustained and intentional. It’s the kindness of seeing the kid who is sitting alone in the lunchroom, and risking your own social capital to sit down beside him. Day after day after day. It’s the kindness of offering not only to help your elderly neighbor get the mail, but then taking time to listen to her stories. Again and again and again.
This type of kindness asks a lot. Time. Energy. Status. I don’t think random acts of kindness stand much chance of changing the world. But costly kindness could change everything.