“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”
I enjoyed a few hours of peace and reflection on the beach with my wife last Sunday and read an article which has had me thinking quite a bit this past week about why it seems so much of society has become so mean or unkind in recent years. I think it was because I was there on the beach where serenity and contemplation are common that the article really struck a chord, because it shed light on a noticeable shift in societal behavior away from kindness and courtesy.
I thought back to times I had enjoyed kindness from others and some of those memories were from a church I had attended with my family when I was little. I remembered always looking forward to seeing people we would know there and how nice some of the adults made me feel when they paid attention to me and said nice things to me and smiled as they said it. I compared that to things I had seen or experienced in churches in more recent years and realized there was less kindness and more divisiveness with arguments about politics had replaced sharing and caring about each other.
Reminiscing about those older and more recent experiences made me realize that even in places we would traditionally look for kindness, like churches, there is less compassion and caring and more judgment and divisiveness. It seems that the sanctuaries where we once learned and affirmed human virtues have become less friendly places, so I don’t think it’s surprising then that less people are attending them weekly than ever before in our history.
I sat there on the beach after finishing that article and watching to see if any dolphins might swim by, and I wondered at the same time, why did I find that article so profound and unsettling? I really thought about it and realized it's because things like kindness, empathy, and respect are such fundamental aspects of our humanity. They are essential elements of survival because without them, we would not have survived the first year of lives when we were entirely reliant on someone else for all our most basic physical and emotional needs. Kindness and related character traits have always been the threads that weave our social fabric together, they’re what bind our families and communities together.
But for the past few decades, it’s been increasingly common to experience unkind people while driving, and now more recently it is growing more common to experience rude or hostile people in restaurants, or movie theaters, and even on airplanes. Community and national leaders we once looked to for decorum and dignity now routinely espouse hostilities, bigotry, and bullying. The increase in hostile behavior in these environments can create a cycle of negativity, where one unkind act triggers another, and soon a pattern of rudeness becomes the norm. Instead of paying it forward with kindness, we find ways to vindictively pay it back.
One possible reason for this apparent decline in kindness might be the rapid advancement of technology and social media. While these platforms have undeniably brought people closer in many ways, they have also created a kind of emotional distance, allowing unkindness to flourish behind the anonymity of screens – much like how we can be more easily rude when surrounded by the confines of our cars. In that way, road rage is being augmented by social media ranting and we’ve found more venues where it’s increasingly acceptable to be mean and rude to other people. In so many parts of our lives now, the personal connection, the touch of humanity that fosters empathy, often seems to have gone missing.
I think another factor which might be contributing to our growing unkindness could be the stressors of modern life, the rush to accomplish more, and the competitive nature of contemporary society. In the rush and chaos of daily life, we may overlook the importance of simple courtesy and understanding, forgetting that our words and actions have repercussions on others.
Whether it’s these or other factors, there are clearly shifts happening in our humanity which are taking a toll on our individual and collective welfares. There are repeated studies and reports indicating that deaths from drug overdoses, suicide, and murder are increasing, but less publicized are reports which are equally troubling. The percentage of people who say they don’t have close friends has increased fourfold since 1990 and more than half of all Americans surveyed now say that no one knows them well. The percentage of high-school students who report “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” has risen sharply from 26 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2021.
However, it's not all bleak. Simply recognizing these troubling trends is the first step towards putting them to a stop and implementing more positive change. Understanding the value of kindness and courtesy, and actively striving to practice these virtues in our interactions, can slowly turn this concerning tide. Kindness doesn't merely enrich the lives of those we touch; it enhances our lives as well.
In the broader scope of human psychology, these virtues trigger the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and social connections. This not only reduces anxiety and stress but also encourages feelings of trust, stability, and compassion. Kindness and courtesy, in essence, promote a sense of community and belonging, linking us to one another in a beautiful web of human understanding.
By embracing these simple yet profound qualities, we allow ourselves to be part of something greater, something that speaks to the core of our humanity. It's an ongoing dialogue, a dance of human connection, where courtesy and kindness become the gentle hands guiding us to a place of understanding, compassion, and growth. The practice of these virtues is not just an ethical choice; it's a path leading to a more fulfilling, empathetic, and connected life.
Kindness and courtesy are not merely words or gestures, they represent a profound understanding of human connection and empathy. As we journey through life's ups and downs, the acts of kindness and courtesy we extend to others and those we receive in turn become an oasis of emotional warmth. In this way, kindness becomes a universal language. It transcends cultural boundaries, languages, and personal biases. When one person extends a hand in kindness to another, there's a subtle yet powerful exchange of positive energy that has the potential to uplift spirits.
In psychotherapy, the application of kindness and courtesy can create a safe and nurturing environment, allowing the patient to feel respected and valued. This nurturing setting often opens doors to deeper conversations and healing, something that we, as therapists, aim to cultivate in our practice. It lays the groundwork for trust, which is vital in helping individuals to open up and explore their emotions without judgment.
Furthermore, from an educational perspective, practicing kindness and courtesy in the classroom fosters a positive learning environment. As graduate students, you may find yourselves amidst intense intellectual challenges. An atmosphere where respect and empathy prevail encourages collaboration, creative thinking, and intellectual growth.
I believe that during this same time when society has become more nasty and unpleasant, there has simultaneously and maybe in correlation been a growing need for places to find welcome, and kindness, and psychological safety. This certainly seems to make sense when you consider the proverbial tsunami wave of new and growing demand for mental health services.
When we talk about fostering a safe space in therapy, it's not merely about the confidentiality and professional boundaries we maintain; it's about the nuance of human interaction. It's about the respectful nod, the empathetic silence, and the nonjudgmental acceptance that echo in the four walls of the therapy room. Every moment of kindness and courtesy is like a tiny brick in the wall of therapeutic rapport, and before you know it, you've built a sanctuary where someone can finally allow themselves to be vulnerable, to be human, and to heal.
Consider this rapport as akin to soil quality in a garden. If you want to grow vibrant flowers, you don't just need seeds; you need fertile soil, conducive conditions, and the loving attention of a gardener. Kindness is that rich soil, and courtesy is the loving attention. With these, you allow the person—the flower—to bloom in their own time and their own way. In the context of psychotherapy, this can mean the difference between a patient merely going through the motions and one who finds transformative change.
So it is in these nurturing conditions, where therapeutic dialogues can flourish, engendering moments of clarity, insight, and ultimately, healing. But if we peel back the layers of this process, we find it rests on pillars of active listening, empathy, and unconditional positive regard—cornerstones that can easily be translated to broader social contexts.
So imagine if we could transfer these same ingredients of psychological safety to our communities and the greater world in which we find ourselves right now? Imagine a world where the non-judgmental gaze of a therapist is replicated in conversations between neighbors, where active listening becomes the bedrock of community meetings, and where the empathetic validation found in a therapeutic relationship permeates the interactions between colleagues, friends, and even strangers. We would find ourselves in communities that are not just collections of individuals but supportive networks; we would be contributing to ecosystems of compassion.
So I hope as you read this you might join me in striving to infuse the air around us with kindness. Not kindness that is self-conscious or performative, but a kindness that flows organically from an understanding of our shared human struggles. Holding the door open for a neighbor, offering a listening ear, or even just a warm smile can go a long way in breaking down the invisible barriers that often keep us isolated, even in crowded spaces. It's in these seemingly minor acts or random acts of kindness that empower the potential to ignite a powerful ripple effect, where one act of kindness can engender another, spreading warmth and goodwill in an expanding circle.
I’m thankful for the time of thoughtful reflection I enjoyed on the beach last weekend as it has opened a window for me into a critical issue affecting our communities and culture. The decrease in kindness and courtesy is not just a fleeting concern but a sign of profound changes in our societal values. As individuals, and collectively as a society, we must strive to preserve and nurture these essential human virtues. The path to a more compassionate, tolerant, and connected society lies in our hands, in the choices we make every day, in the way drive on the road to the many other ways we interact with and treat others, and in the values we pass on to the next generation. After all, a society that fosters kindness and courtesy is one that uplifts everyone, weaving a tapestry of empathy and understanding that embraces us all.