The popular slogan of our time ‘Be kind’ tends to irritate me, partly, I suspect, because those who utter it are sometimes anything but kind themselves or use it as a defence against any criticism of their own opinions or actions. Yet we all need kindness, perhaps never more so than as the New Year 2021 advances on its way with a pandemic still uncontrolled, wars, poverty and injustice still rife, and human hearts still unconverted. And perhaps the only way to real kindness is via an experience of compassion.
The meaning of kindness and compassion
It helps, I think, to reflect on the origin of the words we use. To be kind is to recognize kinship with another — Old English cynd(e) gecynd(e) — and is closely linked to nature. We are naturally kind to those with whom we are united by blood — only, let’s be honest, sometimes we aren’t. That’s where compassion comes in. To feel with, to suffer with another — Latin compati — requires imagination and is a work of grace. That has nothing to do with natural relationships as such, but allows us to be kind to those with whom we have no natural affinity.
Being truly kind, being compassionate, requires more than vague feelings of benevolence or a few well-meaning words. It requires effort, a change of stance. Matt Collamer’s photo reminds me of the top-down attitude we often adopt towards those we try to help or ‘be kind to’. The photographer has come down to the level of the man holding the sign, and how different everything looks! The figures in the background are higher, distant, and, whether by accident or design, walking away from the subject. There is no connection between them and him. It is almost as if man with the sign has become an object rather than a person. Does that make you examine your conscience? It does me.
The challenge for us
People often speak of our living in a broken world or one in need of healing. We tend to forget that it is up to us to mend the pieces and bind up the wounds. The fact that we feel we can do very little doesn’t mean that we can do nothing. We can be kind; we can be compassionate; and doing so will bring us closer to God than many of the other activities in which we engage. Ultimately, it is not how rich, powerful, learned, beautiful, admired, ‘right’ or anything else we are that matters, but how much we love God and others for his sake, who is all mercy and compassion.
May 2021 bring you many blessings!