America has a long and complicated relationship with kindness. No good deed goes unpunished. Kindness is rewarded. Kindness kills. You can never be too kind. It’s a classic tug-of-war, with kindness often coming out on the short end of the rope. In our age of meanness and deep cultural divisions, is kindness dead? History may hold the answer.
For my upcoming 30-Day Kindness Challenge, I researched kindness through an historical lens, unearthing common themes and contrary sentiments. With the help of newspapers.com, I focused my search on February of selected years, beginning with 1873; a time when the wounds from the Civil War were still fresh and Ulysses S. Grant served as President. From that point, I leaped ahead every five years, finally reaching February 2018 on day 30. That’s 145 years of history encapsulated into 30 days. And what an intriguing journey it turned out to be!
It seems every generation believes they are the last to embrace kindness…and manners. For instance, in 1873, Mrs. M. A. Holt wrote, “A word of kindness and a look of sympathy cost but little, and yet we frown and condemn, and let the evil principle govern us” (The Whig and Tribune, Jackson, TN, Feb. 22). Jump to 1963, when Ora Spaid, in an article published in The Carrier-Journal (Louisville, KY, February 4) lamented our suspicious nature when it comes to kindness, “…we cannot accept an expression of kindness as genuine. We have to find … some deep-seated and diverse motivation for the deed.”
But in the last 25 years, kindness has become a social movement, starting with the 1993 publication of a book called Random Acts of Kindness. Now we have organizations whose sole mission is to promote kindness—World Kindness Day, the World Kindness Movement, and the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. While the kindness movement has spawned greater awareness, one might wonder if it has supplanted the spontaneity of kindness? Do we now require outside intervention to remind us to be kind?
Throughout history, kindness has been portrayed as a human trait, but more so for women and the poor. In 1913, the Times Democrat (New Orleans LA, Sept. 26) noted that, “As a rule, women are by nature kind and sympathetic when it comes to sickness and suffering.” And back then, there was something “wrong” with women who did not return kindness. In February 1918, the Lincoln Journal Star published an advice column in which ‘Miss Blake’ suggested that “George” give a young woman the “black eye treatment,” since she failed to properly appreciate his candy and flowers (“Some girls seem to like a violet eye better than a bunch of violets”). There’s a dark undertone in which acts of violence and stalking against women were condoned when kindness failed to produce a favorable outcome for men.
The lesson of history is that the wealthy do not become…or stay…wealthy by being kind. This proverb was the subject of a lengthy story published on February 26, 1878 in the Star-Democrat (Easton, Maryland): “‘When a poor man need(s) assistance, he should apply to the poor.’ The reason is obvious. Only the poor know the curse of poverty. They know how heavily it falls, crushing the hearts of man, … and are therefore always ready to render assistance as far as they are able.”
There are plenty of stories in which the stranger who stops alongside the road to help a stranded driver gets hit by a car, or the hero who intervenes in a fight is stabbed for his trouble. In 1938, a young man violated immigration laws, crossing into New York from Canada to donate his blood to his ill sister. While the judge gave him a temporary pass to donate blood, the young man faced a jail sentence for his act of kindness (Los Angeles Times, February 20). And in an essay from 1933, columnist Elsie Robinson mentions the scores of instances when kindness doesn’t pay, “…instances where people rewarded your generosity with gross ingratitude; where they took cruel advantage of your goodness” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 7).
But yet there’s an expectation that kindness will be rewarded. In 1953, the Oakland Tribune (February 8) published the winning entry on kindness from an 11 year-old girl. The story has a happy ending, as “Jill”, who had done a kind deed for a poor girl, was given a watch after the girl’s family discovered oil on their property. And in 1983, the Herald and Review (Decatur, Illinois, February 2), wrote about an unemployed auto mechanic who turned in $6,800 and was rewarded with letters of praise, checks and job offers.
A common theme in the history of kindness is that too much kindness is a bad, even dangerous thing. The headlines from the 1963 Fort Lauderdale News (February 10), citing an incidence in Conyers GA, sensationally claimed “15-Year Old Kills ‘Too Good’ Mother’” and went on to add that the “foster parents showered him with kindness.” And in 1928, The Greene Recorder (Greene, Iowa, February 8) published an article on the dangers of kindness shown to hobos. It seems a “kind-hearted marshal” provided a warm basement for travelers. Word spread until the city council put an end to it. “In other words,” wrote the columnist, “the ‘jig is up.’”
What can we make of all the mixed messages? Is kindness for suckers? Historically, writers have suggested that kindness, at its best, is detrimental to success and profits, and at its worst, is a tool used by con artists to lure “suckers.” In other words, kindness is used to manipulate people to get what you want. But doesn’t the very survival of humanity depend on genuine kindness?
After reviewing kindness stories and essays since the late 1800s, there’s one article that sums up my current thoughts on kindness. I’d like to believe that Elsie Robinson, writing in 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression, got it right: “KINDNESS PAYS—NOT BECAUSE IT DOES SOMETHING FOR THE OTHER FELLOW, BUT BECAUSE IT DOES SOMETHING TO ME, MYSELF.” It’s really quite simple—we give kindness because it makes us feel good. And that’s a fine reason to lend kind words and do good deeds![Join me on the FREE 30-Day Kindness Challenge to spread kindness throughout your community. The challenge starts on February 1.]