Can we be kind all the time? Really?

I’m all for kindness. It’s a big deal. It’s a gesture of our shared humanity, a nod to how hard things can be. But that’s just it. Life as a human can be hard. So why expect that people be on their best behavior ALL THE TIME? Isn’t the expectation of universal, 24/7 kindness a form of oppressive perfectionism that gets in the way of our humanity?

Sometimes things suck and we can’t spare a smile. I think the world can deal with this. It’s not an affront. I’d rather know reality than a weird sunshine-y rainbow version of your day.

This isn’t meant to be a rant so much as a demonstration of concern. I work with young adults (new adults?) – college students – and there is a culture of positivism that threatens to crowd out real feelings. Being in your early twenties can be a tough time.

Even more importantly, there isn’t a universal experience. Not everyone has had kindness shown to them. Not everyone has had a charmed upbringing. Not everyone feels like the world is theirs for the taking. The culture of positivism seems dangerously like a culture of privilege. Or, a means of denying our full humanity.

The other evening I was at dinner with three young women who have their shit together. I don’t know much about their personal lives, but by appearances, they seem well supported. I mean that emotionally, financially, socially, holistically.


Kindness is critical to our survival. However, I believe the universe is indifferent. Photo by David Trattnig.

One of them shared a story about her internship in San Francisco the summer prior. Somehow the conversation turned to the people she crossed paths with while commuting on public transportation. They weren’t nice people, she said. Sometimes, in fact, they were outright mean.

And that can hurt. It can startle you when you’re moving through life as a sensitive person, for sure. I’ve been there, surprised when someone is enraged that I exist, and that my existence may interfere with theirs. It’s not great. But I can’t imagine turning to them and saying, SMILE!

So this wonderful young woman says that she wants to start a kindness project. She wants people to be kind to one another. How can I argue? Yet I could tell she hadn’t considered the complexity of life as a human. The immense scale of experience, much of which is uncontrollable, like who you’re born to, in what country. She wasn’t empathetic to what may harden a human. She wanted a happy place, one where people are kind all the time.

I heard myself, in my head, respond. It was the response of an older woman, more cynical, better traveled. It was meant to be liberating, a reminder that we experience a range of emotions throughout life. It was a caution against the imperial rule of being a woman who is nice and puts concerns of others before all else. But how could it be said without sounding like the words of a dream dasher? Maybe it couldn’t. So I stayed silent.

Would you have said something? Or will time do the talking?

Inspired by The Daily Post.

If you’re interested in how positive thinking informs our culture, I recommend Bright Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich. I also love this piece by Mark Epstein, The Trauma of Being Alive.


7 thoughts on “Can we be kind all the time? Really?

  1. I probably would have said something. Something a bit more realistic (albeit from my own self-proclaimed Pollyanna vantage point) by way of a reminder that negativity is as natural as breathing for some people and that it isn’t up to us to judge, but to simply encourage. And that sometimes all it takes is a smile to totally turn someone’s day around for the better. – Fawn

    • It’s true; smiling can connect us. I’ve also tried to empathize with those who see the world through grey, and it can be really tough. But I wasn’t thinking of people who are stuck, who can only see negative. I was thinking more of the emotional fluctuations we all experience through time. Sometimes we meet the world while we’re in a difficult place, and if the world expects something more from us – something cheerful, even, during that time – that is a demand more for their benefit than ours.

  2. I am totally of the mind set that we should all be a bit kinder. Hell, I just wrote a post about it like a week ago. To be honest I didn’t think about your point. You are right. We all have different life experiences and those experiences shape who we become. All I can do is do my best to be kind to others and hope that it can, for the moment, brighten their day.

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