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The Importance of Kindness

In my address on the first day of term this academic year, I asked our pupils to be kind to one another.  When I looked at my twitter feed later that day, I saw a tweet from Dr Laurie, Deputy Head, (@stjohnsdephead) which said ‘If you can be anything in life be kind’. Kindness is probably my number one attribute in a human being - I'll put it before courage, bravery, generosity or anything else.  Kindness is such a simple word but ‘to be kind’, in my mind, covers everything. If you're kind, that's it.

George Sanders, an American writer, was asked to speak at a graduation ceremony where he posed the question: ‘What do I regret?’ He reflected that he didn’t regret having been poor at times or having worked in terrible jobs like being ‘knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse’ (we probably don’t want to know!) but he said this is what he did regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her name will be ‘Ellen’.  Ellen was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighbourhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After a while she’d drift away. Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that? Why, 42 years later, am I still thinking about it? But still. It bothers me.

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

So let us ask ourselves why does it matter?

It has been suggested that humans’ ability to be compassionate and empathetic are two of the qualities that set us apart from other animals.  In the book Sapiens: A brief history of humankind, Yuval Harari argues that it is our ability to imagine that allowed humans to become dominant animals in the world. Our capacity for imagination gives us an ability to stand in the shoes of another human being and it is this which enables us to act in ways that support them – it encourages us to be kind. So, back to the question of why kindness is important: I don’t want to depress you but think about a time someone was unkind to you – sometimes it is deliberate, sometimes not, but I want you to remember how it made you feel. I can remember occasions and the impact: I felt down, I couldn’t concentrate, I didn’t want to go in to a place where the person was, I didn’t feel especially safe.

Experiencing persistent unkindness can impact on the brain. Individuals who report experiencing verbal abuse from their peers during middle school years can exhibit underdeveloped connections between the left and right sides of their brain, through the massive bundle of connecting fibres called the corpus callosum. And aside from the neural impact, those feelings are not feelings anyone should have. It means it is difficult to learn, it impacts on overall happiness and reduces self-confidence. 

These are all good reasons why we shouldn’t be unkind but should, instead, be kind – we’re not all going to be friends but we can be considerate. Much as being unkind to someone can have a lasting impact, so can being kind. A fascinating feature of kindness is that it appears to be self-replicating, inspiring kindness in others. Simply put, when we ourselves perform an act of kindness, this is likely to encourage others to act in a similar way. Being treated with kindness can have a lasting impact so let’s not overlook this simplest of words – let’s value this most important human trait and all make a little more effort to act with kindness towards one another.

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.   Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey