Sunday, November 29, 2009

Book Review: The Art of Being Kind

We probably would agree that being kind is important. For Stefan Einhorn, not only is it important — it is the key to success. In his book The Art of Being Kind Einhorn argues that success and being good can go together. Of course, whether you agree with Einhorn will have a lot to do with what he defines as kindness/goodness and success.

For Einhorn, success is the feeling that you have a meaningful life. It is a life of generosity, seeing others, resolving conflicts, empathy, responsibility, and role modelling. It is easy to see how this sort of life is supported by kindness.

But Einhorn makes the important point that we need to distinguish between true and false kindness. There are many ways that actions can have the illusion of kindness but not be kindness at all. True kindness is not about words but actions. It is courageous, discerning, transcends laws, rules, and norms, and is kind to oneself as well as others.

In exploring kindness, Einhorn also discusses what he calls 'counterforces' — those things that tend to pressure us not to be kind such as the lack of time, resources, empathy for others, and reflection. Hypocrisy, innate aggression, a victim mentality, the principle that 'someone else will do it', and pessimism also contribute to reducing kind acts by individuals.

Kindness is clearly something that benefits others. But are there reasons for being kind that transcend the individual. The author summarises his reasons for being kind (pp. 205-206):

  • We feel better if we do good. Research has shown that it is pleasurable to do good things for other.
  • The people around us feel better if we do good things for them. Being surrounded by people who feel good is enjoyable, and helps us to develop.
  • Indirectly we create benefits for ourselves by doing good things for others, because what we do for others comes back to us, one way or another.
  • Societies with widespread ethical thinking function better than others.
  • We will get a better world as a result. Even if individual people can sometimes feel powerless, this is not the case. Do not forget how the effects of a good deed can spread out like ripples on a pond. We can do more than we think for others, and in this way make our contribution to a better world. And a good world is much better than a bad one.

In the end we have everything to gain by being kind with discernment, and a lot to lose by not being kind. And this is no bad reason for being kind — the fact that we gain by it. In fact, this is a really good reason.

Christians have another reason for being kind to others. The essential gospel  message is that God has been unconditionally kind to us in the person of Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. We are to treat others with the same kindness with which we have been treated. The Art of Being Kind, while drawing on a number of religious traditions, fails to mention this essential message of Christianity. The book would have been the richer for it.

The Art of Being Kind is a gentle meditation on the benefits of being good to others. Abraham Joshua Heschel once said: ''When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.' For Einhorn, kindness is a part of ethical intelligence. We can only hope that this intelligence is one which we will all develop in order to make our world a better place.

Einhorn, S 2006, The Art of Being Kind, Sphere.

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