Of Kindness and Unkindness

The value of kindness is often under-rated. We all know how a small gesture of courtesy, a thoughtful remembrance of something important to us, a smile, a word, can transform our day from bleakness to sunshine. The opposite is true of unkindness. A harsh word, a contemptuous gesture, can leave us feeling diminished. One of the things that has troubled me for a long time is the way in which the online world often seems to give free rein to unkindness. Even on this blog you will find a few comments that are deliberately rude and provocative, as though giving offence were somehow the measure of independence of mind (it isn’t). Yesterday I ‘listened in’ to one or two Twitter conversations prompted by Dr Meriam Ibrahim Ishaq’s case. What struck me forcibly was the number of people who used this poor woman’s plight as an opportunity to be rude and belittling about religion. There was no attempt at argument. It was like children saying, ‘ya, boo and sucks!’ — only the people doing the name-calling were not children. They were adults, many of them with university degrees and presumably some degree of intelligence.

We can rationalise such behaviour by saying that, if one believes something to be absurd, treating it with contempt simply underlines its absurdity. Possibly, though I myself would argue that to ridicule successfully one must be really witty. ‘Force without mind falls by its own weight,’ and I’m sorry to say there are many instances of that to be found online. The horrible insults and threats to which Professor Mary Beard and others have been subject are not merely examples of a particularly nasty misogyny, they are also the result of the two big dangers of the internet: its anonymity and immediacy. Some people hide behind the shield of anonymity. Others are a little too prompt to express their views. I have sometimes written things I wished I hadn’t in the heat of the moment or expressed myself clumsily when a little more thought and time might have spared both the reader and me some pain. But deliberate unkindness? No, I don’t think I have been guilty of that; so where does it come from?

This morning I read a sad little message on Facebook from a FB friend who has an advanced cancer. Yesterday he informed all of us via a status update that the tumours are still growing and unless the next round of chemotherapy can achieve something, the prognosis is poor. It was honest, brief, and to the point. But he was accused by some of ‘sympathy seeking’ and rubbished. To me, that smacks of cruelty, but I think it is a cruelty born of fear. Did my FB friend tap into a little reservoir of fear in his reader that led to that explosion? Was it his cancer, or the other’s fear of cancer that called forth the resposne?

I think those of us who are Christians have a duty to watch our behaviour online with particular care. We can build up or tear down. To be kind, to attempt to lessen the world’s pain rather than adding to it, may not attract much notice, may not make us ‘big names’ but it is surely worthwhile. Jesus in the gospel calls us his friends ‘if you do as I command you’. Loving as he loved means loving in all the little, everyday things of life, often in simple, human kindness rather than in huge, dramatic sacrifices. We may be mocked for it, but wouldn’t it be better to be mocked for being kind than condemned for its opposite?


17 thoughts on “Of Kindness and Unkindness”

  1. Slowed by mending knee ligaments, I am used to missing several buses whilst waiting in the centre, to cross the road. Yesterday, having walked too far and just about to miss a 2x an hour bus, the driver saw me as he turned to pull out. Both he and the traffic queue waited as I crossed the road. I went on that day , warmed by the kindness of strangers.

  2. 5 Star Blog!
    Showing kindness, either in word or deed can cost little and yet transform things for both the recipient and giver.
    Jesus said do unto others as I do into you. I don’t remember Him being unkind to anyone so it’s pretty clear which way we should go.

  3. Once when I was ill and in hospital an elderly lady in a worst condition than I came and sat beside me, she said nothing, she just rubbed my arm. In so doing she conveyed so much compassion that the memory of her love upheld me for over a year. I wasn’t the obvious candidate for her care because I probably appeared self sufficient, but see saw beyond that. Given in the right spirit even little gestures of love and kindness can matter, such a gesture can even save someone’s life.

  4. I have several times been at the receiving end of warm but very unexpected kindness.
    Nothing can make my day and make me feel valuable to others, like such unexpected kindness.

    It is my hope that I can give the same to others – perhaps my kindness can build up some other person.

    Thank you for making us see more clearly.

  5. I think I don’t understand twitter, I have no idea how you can watch a conversation…. Oh well

    I have been online sine 1983 believe it or not with Prestel and everything that followed. I am reminded often that St Thomas a Kempis wrote in tbe a Imitation of Christ something along the lines – (the hated dash) – I have never gone out into the world and not come back a lesser man.

    I restrict my use of social media as it makes me less than I ought to be.

    After many years as clergyman and the last fifteen overcome by illness that has plagued me since 1975 disabled now and unable to function in the real world of work and social interaction I have been led to quieter inner waters. My reception into the Catholic Church last December has led me to even quieter places of contemplation.

    I’m not sure what this has to do with your post? Oh well it is written now.

    Kindness is so important unkindness when you are in a wheelchair is best ignored – especially when they talk to my wife as though I was invisible.

  6. Thank you and well said.
    With freedom of speech comes responsibility, politeness, respect, measured responses and kindness.
    Meeting people where they are at.

  7. Distance and anonymity might explain why people feel free to be vile, but it does not explain why they would wish to do it. Is there some built-in wickedness that we all have, but most of us manage to control? I have long suspected that much of today’s evil comes from people who are third (or more) generation of non-church-going families, where moral values and thus moral teaching are unknown.

  8. We have family rules, the first of which is “In our family…we are kind.” It goes onto We try our best, we work together…etc. So during our day if they are unkind we go back to the rules..”where you kind?” etc
    My children are still little but as they get bigger we remind them that as a family we are kind but that they means we aren’t just kind to family. we hope that this repetition will sink in and that kindness will become habit and outward looking towards others.

  9. Thank you Dame Catherine for a kind and thoughtful post.

    I know that I have, in the past posted in haste and repented at leisure. Hopefully I’ve learned that lesson.

    But you are right about the lack of kindness among some, whose sole purpose online (and perhaps off line) seems to be to denigrate or to belittle others. Trying to put them to shame, where in fact, they’re showing themselves for what they actually are foolish and immature and unworthy of our time or attention.

    I’m not sure if ignoring or deleting them is a workable solution, but I use it anyway – and I don’t respond to comments that describe something that I might have said in an offensive way, I don’t have the energy, I’d rather pray for their display of intolerance in the hope that they will be spurred to amend them.

    I just don’t believe in becoming in arguments online as they just run on without end and generate heat. I’ve better things to do with my time.

  10. Sister Catherine … bless you!
    One careless post can be terribly wounding … but is outweighed a hundredfold & more by the loving support & prayers of others.
    The struggle for those so wounded is that they know that instead of hardening their hearts against those who hurt them, they need to forgive them 🙂

  11. It is a great shame that we do not see how much unkindness hurts others – all too often we think we are being clever or witty.

    It is also hard sometimes to understand how much a small act of kindness lifts others. I can vouch for this having been on the receiving end from strangers who put themselves out when I was very ill – rather dramatically and suddenly felled by a life threatening complaint. They will never know how much their (sometimes small/simple) acts helped me but I remember and can only think of a certain parable and then pray for them. If we really felt this all the time and acted accordingly…

  12. There are people with damaged temperaments and therefore too little self-belief and self-confidence, so they are looking for people to upset in order to feel better than their victims feel. Anyone who is already down is an easier victim and so attracts their attention.

  13. I think it is important to spare a little love for those who are unpleasant online. For a while, I allowed a colleague I sat next to upset me greatly because of his snide-seeming and belittling remarks. Then I came to realise how insecure he is, and how this is a manner he has to boost his own sense of importance and confidence. I also (as I got to know him better) realised what a kind heart he has underneath his occasional unkindness.

    The internet provides a barrier that does not allow us to develop empathy for those who post in a way we would rather not see. That same anonymity and distance means that we cannot reach out, get to know people better, and build mutual understanding.

    So when I see a bitter, unkind, or downright unpleasant remark, I try to remember that I cannot know what brings them to that perspective. But they are probably still in need of a little love.

    (My mother has suggested that I’m being ” a bit of a dishrag…” 😉 Damp and downtrodden, and trying too hard to clean the dirt off everyone!)

  14. Hospital visit; patient( friend) on 6th floor, my. anxiety must
    have been obvious , a gentleman( stranger) do you have a
    problem with the ‘Lift’ ,I replied “yes I’m terrified” he offered
    go with me and gently held my hand all the way to the 6th
    offered to come back if needed.
    an epiphany
    #bless you and yours,

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