Practicing radical kindness is hard. You should do it anyway.
There is, perhaps, no other virtue that is more misunderstood or ill-defined than kindness. Like love, kindness is more verb than noun, and like love, it exists in a variety of states and categories. Unlike love, however, we rarely, if ever, discuss the different types or categories of kindness, and this can result in an overly simplistic interpretation of the word. That may sound like semantics, but it isn’t because the way we define kindness is ultimately the way in which we will practice it.
I would argue that there are actually three unique categories of kindness: passive kindness, transactional kindness, and radical kindness. Passive kindness is the easiest. It’s the sort of kindness we encourage after telling horror stories about the treatment of retail workers or sharing videos of people screaming as they fight over a roll of toilet paper. It’s not so much about doing the right thing as it is not doing the wrong thing.
Passive kindness is important. It’s essential for a polite, functioning society, and because it’s relatively easy, it’s quite simple to practice. That simplicity, however, is a double-edged sword. Using this definition makes kindness a very easy box to check. Essentially, if you’ve been a remotely decent human being today, then you’ve been kind. Job done. Mission accomplished. Box checked. The danger in that is that if you define kindness in this way, focusing solely on doing no harm, you may miss the opportunity to do more substantial good.
Transactional kindness is slightly harder. It requires action and often sacrifice. But it also comes with conditions. Transactional kindness says “I will do this for you because I know you would/will do the same for me.” We see this sort of kindness extolled on social media a lot in posts with advice like “Don’t cross oceans for people who wouldn’t cross puddles for you.” On the surface, this sounds like good advice. It sounds like self care. But it isn’t. It’s transactional kindness masquerading as self-care, and it’s dangerous.
I understand the appeal of transactional kindness. It’s safe. Our energy and resources are limited, and our time is precious. Transactional kindness ensures that, when we invest those things in other people, we can expect a good return on our investment. The problem with this approach is that the times when people need our kindness most are often also the times when they are least equipped to reciprocate it. Realistically, people may never be able to the kindness we show them, but that shouldn’t stop us from performing the kindness anyway. People aren’t stocks, and their ability to provide a good return on investment shouldn’t determine their worth.
What we need, instead, is radical kindness. Unlike transactional kindness, radical kindness doesn’t say “I will do this for you because you will do this for me.” Radical kindness doesn’t care about what the other person can or will do. It is only concerned with what the other person needs and what you can do to provide it.
Radical kindness is hard. It’s risky. Practicing radical kindness means putting yourself out there, over and over again, knowing you may ultimately not get anything in return. It means crossing oceans for people who may not cross puddles for you. Practicing radical kindness can be messy and lonely, and sometimes, it hurts. But you should do it anyway.
We are all fairly close to capacity right now, and I’m not suggesting you pull a Giving Tree and carve yourself into pieces for the good of someone else. Self-care is important, and you need to be mindful of setting healthy boundaries and not trying to pour from an empty cup. But if there is good to be done, and you are in a position to do it, then you should. You never know the battles people are facing. You never know the good that kindness might do.
So as you navigate this strange reality we all suddenly find ourselves living in, strive to do so with radical kindness. Cross oceans. Take risks. Do reckless good. The world needs that now more than ever.