Chapter V Love's Lords In Waiting: Kindness
"That best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love."––
It is interesting that a great poet should place little forgotten acts of kindness first in order of merit in the acts of a good man's life. Kindness, also, is a born Lord of the Bosom: I have known a little person, not old enough to talk, draw forward a chair and pat it for the visitor to sit down; the untutored savage has impulses of kindness.
Kindness makes Life Pleasant for Others.––The law of Kindness is universal. One would think at first sight that Pity, Benevolence, Sympathy, should cover the whole field; and that, with these present, the office of Kindness is but a sinecure in the House of Heart. But there is a curious principle in human nature, best described perhaps as vis inertiæ, which makes even the benevolent, pitiful, and sympathetic person slow to do the little everyday things about which Kindness concerns himself. The office of Kindness is simply to make everyday life pleasant and comfortable to others, whether the others be our pets which we feed and attend to, our dog which we play with and take for a scamper, our horse which we not only feed and care for, but cheer and encourage with friendly hand and friendly word, or our family and neighbours, rich and poor, who offer a large field for our Kindness. The kind person is described by various epithets: he is called courteous or thoughtful, obliging or considerate, according as he shows his kindness by refraining or speaking, by his manner, his regard, his words, his acts.
The Kindness of Courtesy.––-We English people are rather ready to think that it does not much matter how we behave, so long as our hearts are all right; and some of us miss our chance of doing, the Kindness of Courtesy, and adopt a hail-fellow-well-met manner, which is a little painful and repellent, and therefore a little unkind. We miss, too, the courtesies of gesture; it is good in a German or Danish town to see one errand-boy raise his hat to another, or school-boy to school-boy, or porter to laundress, without any sense of awkwardness; but in these matters we have got into a national bad habit. In this field, perhaps, the rich and the poor meet together, because there is not in either an unconscious struggle after social status which does not belong to them, and so both can afford to be simple, considerate, gracious, and courteous to all who come in their way.
Simplicity.––Simplicity is the special quality of Kindness; people can be kind only when all their thoughts are given to the person or creature they are kind to, and when there is no backward glance to see how the matter affects self. A great deal has been said and written about Kindness, about slippers and footstools, and gifts of flowers, and much besides. There is even a movement to make children kind by counting up how many kind things they do in the course of each day; but that spoils all; the essence of acts of Kindness is that they should be unremembered. Of course, we never mention a kindness we have done, whether to the person concerned or to other people; but chiefly let us beware that we do not say to ourselves, 'I have done this and that for So-and-so, and now see how he serves me!' or think that, if we receive a kindness, we can blot it out, so to say, by conferring a favour. Worse still is the notion that having been kind to another gives us a right to expect great things from that other, and to be ungracious and disagreeable if the claims we set up do not seem to be recognised. But these pitfalls are escaped when Kindness is simple, and we do not even know that we are being kind; it is not only our gifts to the poor that are covered by our Lord's precept, "Let not thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth."
Everyone wants to be kind––
"Man is dear to man! the poorest poor
Long for some moments in a weary life,
When they can know and feel that they have been
Themselves, the fathers and the dealers-out
Of some small blessings; have been kind to such
As needed kindness."
Kindness in Construction.––But the greatest, sweetest, most generous kindnesses perhaps that of which we take least thought; I mean kindness in construction. There are always two ways of understanding other people's words, acts, and motives; and human nature is so contradictory that both ways may be equally right; the difference is in the construction we put upon other people's thoughts. If we think kindly of another's thoughts––think, for example, that an ungentle action or word may arise from a little clumsiness and not from lack of kindness of heart––we shall probably be right and be no more than fair to the person concerned. But, supposing we are wrong, our kind construction will have a double effect. It will, quicker than any reproof, convict our neighbour of his unkindness, and it will stir up in him the pleasant feelings for which we have already given him credit. Of all the causes of unhappiness, perhaps few bring about more distress in the world than the habit, which even good people allow themselves in, of putting an ungentle construction upon the ways and words of the people they live with. This habit has another bad effect, especially upon young people, who are greatly influenced by the opinion of their fellows. They think So-and-so will laugh at them for doing a certain obliging action, so they refrain from following the good impulses of a good heart. Kindness which is simple thinks none of these things, nor does it put evil constructions upon the thoughts that others may think in the given circumstances. "Be ye kind one to another" is not an easy precept, but––
"All worldly joys go less
To the one joy of doing kindnesses."