It was back in 1998 that Jewel wrote the song “Hands”, in which she said that in the end, only kindness maters. 10 years later in 2008, Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at U.C. Berkeley, wrote in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, that we as humans evidence a remarkable inherent tendency towards kindness. He added that kindness is vital to our evolution. Actually, Keltner adds some things to his discussion of the seminal components to evolution beyond kindness such as play, generosity, compassion, gratitude, and self-sacrifice. But really, it might all boil down to kindness.
When I talk with patients, I often feel their frustration in not being understood by their partner or spouse. I also see how variable and how important the manner in which they present their point is. And inevitably, it is kindness that emerges as the most salient predictor of success in their efforts to be understood by the other party. When we speak with kindness, and when we evidence kindness in our actions, it brings me back to Jewel’s lyrics that in the end, only kindness matters. It seems this is true. We are forgiven our mistakes, when we are kind. We are better able to see the good in others, when we are kind. If we can only look at the world with more awareness of the importance of kindness, we avoid so many of the pitfalls inherent in conflictual interpersonal interactions.
David Foster Wallace, one of the truly great authors of our generation, told a story before his tragic death in 2008. It went something like this. “We’ve all worked a long day, come home tired and somewhat stressed, and just want to eat something, maybe unwind for a little while, and go to sleep because of course, you have to get up and do it all again the next day. But then you remember there’s no food at home because you haven’t had the time to shop this week, and so now, after work, you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded cause it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. You wander all over the huge, over-lit store with a grocery cart that has one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, and go to the checkout line which is incredibly long. You can then get in your car and drive home in the end-of-the-day traffic, being disgusted by the huge, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers burning the selfish, forty gallon tanks of gas, and start thinking about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on”.
Wallace goes on to say that there are totally different ways to think about these situations. “Possibly the grocery clerk who wasn’t very friendly has a sick child at home. And in this traffic, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get huge, heavy, SUV so that they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am; it is actually I who am in HIS way”.
It’s not easy to think this way. We cannot expect that we will be able to do it automatically. But we can learn to pay attention to ourselves, to be more mindful of our judgments, and to remember that we have a choice to decide how we are going to see these frustrating events in our lives. And in so doing, possibly we can remember that in the end, only kindness matters.