There is a well known story by a famous man that goes something like this:
A young man steps outside his front door, paces through crowds of the marketplace, across the town square, down the narrow alley to the main road. As he crosses the road, he hears a screech, looks around and sees a bus skidding towards a collision with a fully loaded truck.
Terror overtakes him and seizes control, he turns and flees back across the road, down the narrow alley, across the town square, through the market place, bursts open his front door, slams it behind him, runs up the stairs to the attic, prises open the attic door, jams it closed and then throws himself into the corner of the dark room, frozen with fear.
The next day, his girlfriend cannot find him. She goes to his house, but there is no reply.
Afraid he may have been injured in the recent crash, she calls the police. They break the door of his house down, but as she calls his name in panic, no response is to be heard. Eventually they come to the attic door, prise it open, and there they find him, silent, still frozen with fear. She sits awhile, then realising she can do nothing, she turns to him and with a kind voice says, “I will come and see you tomorrow.”
The next day comes, and she finds the front door closed but unlocked. She opens it, walks up to the attic door, which is also closed, prises it open, and there she sees her boyfriend, still frozen in fear. She tells him stories of how beautiful it is outside, the birds singing, the fruit on the trees. He sits, motionless. After a while, she turns to him and with a kind voice says, “I will come back and see you tomorrow.”
The next day she returns and finds the front door ajar. She walks upstairs, prises open the attic door, and finds her boyfriend sitting still, in the same place. Again, she tells him of the beauty outside, and again he sits, motionless. So she turns to him, and with a kind voice says, “I will come back and see you tomorrow.”
The next day comes, and this time she finds both the front door and the attic door ajar. She enters the attic, and finds her boyfriend still sat, motionless, in the same place, as unresponsive as ever, still frozen in fear. A while goes by as she tells him of the beauty outside, then she turns to him and with a kind voice says, “I will come back and see you tomorrow.”
And so the next day comes, and both doors are now wide open, but this time no-one arrives to see the young man. He waits, and he waits, and he waits, until finally the waiting becomes unbearable. Up he jumps, runs down the stairs into the street, through the busy market, across the town square, down the alley way and over the busy road – determined to find his girlfriend.
The victims of kindness
Kindness is associated with many positive characteristics, like warmth, consideration, affection, concern, care, usually bound together by the theme of help: if we are being kind to someone, we are helping them, or being helpful in some way. Yet experience shows there is much harm done in the name of helping.
We are all familiar with the saying, give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he will eat forever. This is not simply a metaphor for self-sufficiency: it is a warning against dependency. Why should anyone learn to fish, if someone else is willing to hand them the fish on a plate? And in this dynamic we start to see what we would rather care not to see: how the well-meaning helper can become the perpetrator, innocently keeping the other frozen in the position of the victim. Each needs the other.
Yes, in order to be kind, we need people to be kind to. There are no doctors without the sick, no lawyers without litigants, no charitable giving without the poor. This is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is not wrong or right. It is simply what is.
Who are you being kind for?
Once we accept that acts of kindness can innocently make us perpetrators, we are forced to confront the important question: who are we being kind for?
Many acts of kindness are done intuitively from a personal sense of what it right, often clouded by the pleasure we enjoy at feeling good about ourselves when the kind deed is done. Often this creates a blind spot in the eye of the giver. Very often it is not helpful to the recipient. The parishioner who buys the local priest an expensive bottle of scotch for Christmas, is horrified to discover that the good Father, a recovering alcoholic, ends up spending the festive season in hospital.
How often do we help without asking, motivated more from a secret sense of what we need to do rather than a genuine respect for the needs of the other?
A challenge for mental awareness week
So here is the challenge for mental health awareness week: before acting kindly, think kindly. Are you able to let go of your own motives and desires before acting? Are you willing to enquire instead into the needs of the other – what will genuinely support them? Where are the boundaries between their needs and your own personal motives, desires and feelings? In this way we can start to act with true kindness centred beyond ourselves.
And sometimes, as the young man’s girlfriend discovered, the greatest act of kindness may be to take no action at all.
The authors are systemic coaches providing individual, couples and team coaching and holding workshops to enhance professional performance through personal development and skills learning, particularly among lawyers. All their coaching and training services can be delivered online. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org