There are things I learned growing up in Arkansas that have structured my entire life. I open doors for people. I say please and thank you. I use the words sir and ma’am.
All of these things are little. But it is the little things that make it possible to live with people. People are often prickly. They are often self-centered. People too often assume everything is about themselves. These things are neither good nor bad. People are people. We forget sometimes that what we do affects others. It’s a simple slip, in most cases. I firmly believe that given the opportunity that people will do the right thing. Maybe I’m just a starry-eyed optimist, but it is the only path I choose to take. The only other option is to give up hope and wrap myself in pointed individualism, dread, and anger.
In the South, I learned a lot about honor and integrity. I learned about courage and service. I learned that kindness is not just the act of being nice to children and animals. It is a lifestyle. Without kindness, people separate themselves from the world. Without kindness, we become dark and hard.
Being kind doesn’t require you to lose yourself. It doesn’t require not standing up for yourself. Kindness is the choice to never deliberately cause pain. Kindness is the choice to reach out to someone and make this moment a little lighter. Kindness is the choice to lift yourself and others up.
Kindness is built with small bricks. It is a smile on the street corner. It’s helping a mother alone on the bus pick up the toys her child drops. Kindness is choosing words carefully at work to make the people around you feel safe. Kindness is choosing to accept people’s differences without losing your own.
I remember, when I was young, my grandfather would often ask me why I would say something when I was being mouthy. He would tell me that a real man is not cruel or indifferent. He told me that a real man works hard to make the world a better place at the end of the day. He told me that kindness is not charity, that it costs nothing. He told me that you always win an argument if you refuse to drop to judgment and assumptions.
To me, kindness is deciding that the people around me are good when their behavior suggests otherwise. It is choosing to believe that people are capable of wonderment. Kindness is courage. As a Southern man, the small things matter. Kindness is what makes it possible to live together. Kindness doesn’t require grand gestures. Grand gestures without the fundamental change in thought, in assumptions, are empty. True kindness changes the world. True kindness changes lives.