"On [the Exceeding Worth of] Kindness"
by the Very Rev. J. Guibert, S.S.
Taken From CATHOLIC TREASURES, Issue No. 77-78, 1982
ON THE NATURE OF TRUE KINDNESS, PART 1
Though a virtuous soul is naturally inclined to be kind, and though kindness of all virtues is the easiest to practise without being taught, we will nevertheless here set down in order its characteristics, partly in order to make it to be more loved by making it better known; partly to help the kind-hearted to use some sort of method in carrying out the suggestions of their own good nature.
The first of all acts of kindness is to pity any who suffer; a heart moved by the pain of another straightway feels itself instinctively drawn to succour him in his trouble. But the gifts of the kind man must be given kindly, graciously, else the kind act will be no balm to the soul of the sufferer. But the supreme act of Christian kindness, and the most a man can give to his fellow, is to love him as himself.
There are, therefore, varying degrees of kindness, and the more precious the gift it bestows, the more perfect it is in itself. When merely compassionate, it gives pity; when actively beneficent, it sacrifices money, goods, time, and comfort; when gracious in the practical expression of its compassion, it bears witness that it respects and honours those on whom it confers favours; when, in fine, it is, in Scriptural phrase, loving, kindness means the giving to another one's very heart.
HOW TRUE KINDNESS IS COMPASSIONATE
"It is only pity that can make us kind," says Joubert. At any rate to feel for others is the first and surest proof of a kind heart. Look neither for devotedness nor for sympathy from a heart that the sight of pain does not touch.
There are men and women who take no notice of the sufferings of others. Every day they see people in trouble; but it neither surprises them nor affects them; they would not think of stopping to help up again a poor man who has fallen down, nor to aid in dressing the gaping wounds of one whom some accident has stricken to death. They simply pass on, nor allow the trouble of their neighbour to draw them for a single instant from their pursuit of pleasure or from their business. Nothing will they sacrifice for the sake of their suffering fellow creatures. It is of such as these one is thinking when one speaks of hard, cold, callous hearts.
Again, there are men and women who, in presence of acute distress, forget to pity the sufferer, so intent are they on discovering where the fault lies. They seem to be seeking to know the truth in order that they may feel justified in shutting compassionateness out of their hearts and in trampling on those who have fallen, rather than reach out to them a helping hand; they make known weaknesses of others about which they would do well to be silent, and take a truly criminal pleasure in fatally compromising by their indiscreet utterances persons whom a charitable silence might have saved. Of a truth, the hearts of such as these are evil.
The impulses of a kind heart are quite other. By a mysterious instinct it seems to become conscious of distress; no details of pain escapes it, it pierces any and every poor cloak with which shame may seek to hide wretchedness. Far from turning away from the sight of suffering as from something that revolts, the man of kind heart cannot refrain from gazing upon what only makes him long the more to stay and help. He does not trouble to blame the unfortunate; he knows only how to commiserate them, to suffer with them, above all to understand them.
For him, a fault is atoned for by the mere fact that it is suffered for. Indeed, a truly kind heart cannot heed the fault; it sees only the consequent misery; and this is the very reason why the pity of the truly kind-hearted is so sweet to all who mourn.
To the kind man every sort of trouble appeals; bodily pain, sadness of heart, the wounds one's surroundings or one's bad fortune has inflicted, mental suffering-----for such there surely is-----nay, peradventure is pain of mind the hardest of all to bear.
The kind man never makes little of another's real sufferings; his heart all but bleeds for the least of them. He concerns himself, too, about sorts of distress concerning which people, as a rule, do not trouble; the everyday commonplace woe of artisans employed in unhealthy workshops, of women subsisting on starvation wages, of children left to roam the streets, or, though mere babies, already worked to death. Secretly the kind heart feeds the shame-faced poor; very noticeably it shows respect for and honours all whom the world scorns; on the forsaken and desolate it lavishes its words of comfort and encouragement.
Nor can there ever be a lack of opportunities for the kind heart to show himself as such. "The poor you have always with you," said Christ. These words are always true, however much and well men have worked in our time for the bettering of the lot of the masses.
Let civilization be advanced as it may, always will there be orphans to succour, the helplessly sick to look after, the feeble-minded to protect, the weak-willed and tempted to watch over, the listless and incapable to be kept up and pushed on. The world will never be without men on the point of making shipwreck of their lives. not without women ready to sacrifice to vanity the well-being of their homes. The ambitious or sensual man will always put the gratifying of his unlawful desires above duty. The uncurbed passions of the criminal will always as now be a danger to society.
Hospitals and refuges may be enlarged, dispensaries and industrial schools multiplied, prisons and labour colonies better organized; misery will not disappear from our streets; you will find it on your own doorstep, and sooner than let go its hold on you, it will attack you yourself and find its way into your very heart.
In presence of this inevitable suffering, albeit convinced that there needs must always be suffering about it, the compassionate heart never wearies; day after day, distress appeals to it, moves it, as if there were always novelty in pain. It is attracted by suffering, not from reason or duty, nor because it has made a business of charity, not even (apart from what is supernatural) to fulfill the Will of God-----high as this last motive is-----but because it is a human being that suffers.
"Kindness," says Lacordaire, "is a virtue that does not think about its own interest; does not wait for the call of duty; has no need of aesthetic attraction to solicit it; but is instinctively the more drawn towards its object, the more the object is wretched, poor, forsaken, and, humanly speaking, contemptible."
Any so-called kindness not springing from this natural feeling of compassion will inevitably be hard and austere; it may perhaps be self-sacrificing, but it can never attract.
No heart can be tender in its compassion as is the Heart of Christ. For in this Sacred Heart, which is one thing with the mercy of God, began upon earth the reign of pity. Infinite were its riches, but of them all Christ willed to make manifest only His goodwill to man. Pitying all, hard on none, Christ understood and solaced every suffering. They brought the sick to Him and He healed them, He met lepers and He cleansed them; He saw the dead wept over and He raised them to life; He multiplied the loaves to feed the multitudes that had followed Him into the wilderness; Magdalen's tears He did not spurn; at His feet the woman taken in adultery found forgiveness and salvation, He was moved by Peter's tears, and He heard the prayer of the penitent thief. His dying in shame on the Cross that we might be saved was a supreme act of pity for us.
He taught His disciples to be kind-----to be kind always. To those who would have had Him call down fire from Heaven on the ungrateful city of Samaria, His one reply was: "Ye know not of what spirit you are." What His spirit was He has taught us in the parable of the good Samaritan, who, going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and lighting upon a man sore wounded, stayed on his way to pour the oil and wine of his charity into the poor traveller's open wounds, and to have him cared for at his benefactor's charges in the nearest inn.
Christ condemned the hard-hearted in the person of Dives, who, seated at a sumptous table, had no thought of Lazarus dying of hunger on his threshold, and cast the remains of his banquet to the dogs utterly heedless of the poor. In fine, He warns us that God's mercy is for the merciful, and for the merciful alone.
The Saints have each one largely shared in the charity of Christ, but the character of St. Vincent of Paul seems to have been above that of others its living expression. There is not a single form of human misery by which, at some time or another in his life, the heart of this Saint was not moved. The destitute, the sick, forsaken children, victims of war and of famine, galley-slaves, prisoners, hardened criminals, women in trouble or in danger, all alike moved him to pity, all were lovingly helped by him.
True as pretty are the prints of the time that picture him gathering up forsaken children from the streets of Paris, and himself carrying them to the homes he had got ready for them.
He was not a philosopher who has argued out the duty of every man to take his share of a joint responsibility; it was simply that he was holy and human, and that he was touched to the heart by the sufferings of others.
He himself says as much; "Oh, Madam, what a harvest there is to gather for heaven, particularly in these days when the misery at our very doors is so great. . . . I am anxious for the future of our Congregation, yet most truly I can say that it does not trouble me nearly so much as does the lot of the poor; we priests can always ask bread from those among ourselves who have it, or we can disperse and work as parish priests in different parts of the country; but my poor, what can they do? Where can they go? Now you know what really is my burden, my sorrow."
Now this compassionateness for which the sufferings of the poor are "a burden and a sorrow," can it be acquired by everyone? Its germ is surely implanted in each individual soul, for as Bossuet remarks "When God made the heart of man, the first thing He implanted in it was kindness." Nevertheless, in too many hearts this germ has dried up. Nor must we be surprised if we meet with many men and women hard and insensible to the sufferings of others. In certain highly gifted natures the God-implanted seed of kindliness may grow of itself, but in most hearts it needs cultivation to force it into healthy life and action. Therefore, it is that it is important to begin early to teach children to be kind and compassionate. In the words of a writer of our own time, "Men have more need to be taught how to pity the sufferings of others than how to bear their own."
HOW TRUE KINDNESS IS GENEROUS
"Good impulses are just nothing at all unless they develop into good actions." This remark of a thinker is not altogether true, for the mere pity felt by a kind heart may be itself a kind deed. All sufferers are really helped by feeling themselves understood, thought about, and sympathized with. Of the manifold miseries which we meet on our path through life, only a small number can call for sacrifice and devotedness on our part; but all claim at least our compassion. Tears of sympathy are never shed in vain; they heal the wounds that caused them to flow.
But to pity is, after all, only to begin to do good; of its very nature kindness tends to express itself by means of kind and charitable actions. The human heart, when deeply moved, is an over full vessel; it cannot contain the torrent of goodness that wells up within it. And Father Faber has very truly laid down that "kindness is the overflowing of self upon others." The heart that is moved by compassion makes the sufferings of others its own; it grieves over them; it weeps over them; it tries to relieve them. To still the cry of pain it sacrifices everything-----time, money, trouble, its very existence. It would give anything to be able to do away with the suffering which at the moment is before it, and to realize its own noble ambition to add a measure of justice and happiness to the world's history.
The compassionate heart gives of its time. Do the duties of its state leave it any leisure? Such leisure is hoarded like a precious treasure, not that therewith one may yield to the allurements of pleasure nor for the profit of business, but that it may be devoted to the service of the poor and the afflicted, or may be spent in paying visits of charity, or in working for the distressed. In a word, that it may be taken up with the saying of kind words and with the doing of kind actions.
This was the lesson taught by St. Vincent of Paul to the Ladies of Charity, and later by Ozanam to the young students whom he gathered to his conferences. Those who treasure up the smallest fragments of their time as so much precious coin and spend them on the poor, are blessed of God surely as much as they who give to the needy their cast-off garments and what remains from their table. But the compassionate man gives also of his money. Once such necessary expenditure as is required by his station in life has been met, what is over he carefully sets aside for the benefit of those who are in want. If he is well-to-do, he draws upon his superfluous riches with a lavish hand, only too happy to be able to relieve a greater number of the needy.
There are more people in the world than one would think who practise the strictest economy for the sole purpose of enabling themselves to follow the generous inclinations of their kind hearts, without, in so doing, omitting any expenditure proper to their station in life. There are, everywhere, humble work-girls and poor labourers who, like the widow praised in the Gospel, take, day by day, from the little they have their mite for the hungry and the homeless.
Besides time and money, the kind man gives to his suffering fellowmen of his strength, of his talents, of all his resources. He takes pains to be kind. He does not mind trouble; after emptying his purse he spends himself.
There are kind people who make clothes for the poor, others artistic or useful objects to be sold for their benefit; others again who visit and tend the sick in their poor homes.
Not all the "Little Sisters" who go forth into the by-ways of our cities to comfort the suffering wear a coif; God only knows how much devotedness is the more effectually hidden by a worldly dress, and how often dainty hands are discreetly employed in her service by holy Charity, in making beds, in washing children, or in cooking humble meals.
In other walks of life this selfsame kindliness of heart takes all manner of trouble-----faces perhaps even humiliations, to get 'employment for a man out of work, to save a woman in trouble from utter ruin, or to retrieve from wretchedness and dishonour one of the many lives of agony hidden away under a commonplace exterior.
Again, in a higher and more special sense, the sympathetic heart truly gives to others its very self. It clings to those whom it helps. What it is kind to, that will it first respect, and eventually love. Likely enough, it will receive neither gratitude nor love in return, nevertheless in the end it needs must love those to whom it does good. Even when in the words of St. Paul, "for loving more he himself is the less loved" (2 Cor. xii. 15), the kind man does not lose heart, for of true affection as of all else, "verily is it more blessed to give than to receive." The virtue of kindliness pushed thus far has reached its perfection.
Unselfishness is the first condition for the bestowing of a benefit to be a true act of kindness. The master who in ancient times looked after the health and well-being of his slaves, but only in order that they might work the better for him, had not the merit of charity, because he was seeking his own interest and nothing besides; in the same way he, who rendering a service to another looks upon it simply as a good investment, out of which he looks for profit, neither acts from kindness, nor feels the joy that is brought by the doing of a kind act; such a one may be a good man of business, but not necessarily kind-hearted. The kind man is no calculator. He asks for nothing from the gift he bestows, except the joy of having helped misfortune. He has no thought of material advantages, or of praise which may accrue to him from being kind. He purposely envelops his best actions in silence and secludedness; far from himself proclaiming them with self-satisfied pride, he conceals them as carefully as others hide their faults; he wants the world to know nothing at all of his good deeds, and even the poor to benefit by them without feeling that they owe them to him. He tries" not to let his left hand know what his right hand doeth." Hence, he prefers those good deeds which are ordinary to those which are striking; and for the very reason that good done at home has mostly the look of a duty, and rarely implies an out-of-the-way devotedness, he puts in the foremost place those acts of self-denial by which his own household benefits. To be the less noticed he likes to give his life, so to speak, piecemeal. So little does he look for gratitude, that if by chance it comes to him, it surprises him. For, ever there ring in his ears those words of Christ; "When you shall have done all these things that are commanded, you say; We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which we ought to do."
Kindness must not only be unselfish, it must be catholic [universal]. The truly kind-hearted man knows no exception of persons in the distributing of what he has to give. He considers himself beholden to all sufferers.
The kindliness of the Jews was limited to their brethren according to the flesh, the children of Abraham. They hated the rest of mankind; Christian kindliness reveals its Divine origin in that it extends to every creature. According even to Schopenhauer; "When kindness dwells in a heart, it opens that heart wide enough for it to embrace the whole world."
Kindness makes no distinctions on account either of nationalities, or of opinions, or of sympathies, or of antipathies; wherever it sees misery there it speeds. "I meet," writes Jules Simon, "a poor man who is suffering from hunger. I hasten to relieve him. What does his name or his country matter? I shall never see him again; but he is a man. . . . The Sister of Charity takes the habit of St. Vincent of Paul and enters a hospital; whom is she going to look after, comfort and heal? She has no idea-----some human being or other. All who need her care are sure of her welcome. This is love of mankind."
The wicked even are not excluded from the solicitous tenderness of the truly kind, for as Plato remarked; "If they are forsaken by their fellow-men, they can but become more wicked." And here God Himself vouchsafes to set us the example; "Does He not make His sun to rise on the just and on the unjust?" Has not Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of all mankind? And has not that eloquent preacher of the Master's doctrine, St. Paul, declared that for Christians "there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, Greek and Roman, Scythian and Barbarian, for that all men are brethren in Christ Jesus." The distinctive note of Christian charity would be wanting in our kindliness if our motive in being kind were other than that of wishing to do good to someone just because he is our fellowman.
Yet charity must not be practised without discernment. On the contrary, charity should be intelligent, and far from blindly distributing the means at its disposal, should increase the value of its gifts by the opportuneness of its bestowimg of them. In some cases alms-deeds means the giving of money in place of help in other forms. The assistance required by those whom infirmity renders unfit for work differs from the aid to be bestowed on men and women in distress, but able to earn their own living.
True kindness is fully conscious that alms are hurtful, if they unduly dispense a man from taking his part in the struggle to live; it is, therefore, ingenious in seeking out the work for which each one is fit; for artisans according to their trade and skill, for boys and girls the means of learning the one and acquiring the other. It is more really kind and a far truer act of charity to spur the able-bodied on to work than to relieve temporarily their distress by the gift of money.
Similarly, in the matter of education, it is true kindness to let the child off no work, to insist on its own individual effort. Only by urging the child to act for itself can its character be developed and fitted for the battle of life.
It is deplorable that the rich seem to prefer to put unquestioningly considerable sums into the hands of the poor, rather than to follow the needy step by step and to take the trouble to show them how to help themselves. A wise foresight, a taking into account of any probable outcome of his kind act is essential to the kind man; and no one wishful to be kind must forget it.
Lastly, almsgiving is the expression of true Christian charity only when it respects the dignity and the feelings of the poor. One meets at times with men who give away lots of money, but whose harshness is painful, even insulting, to those whom they help. Their very favours are made to be a burden hard to bear. True kindliness is considerate and discreet; it inspires a delicate mode of treating with the poor which conciliates them and respects both their feelings and their freedom.
In giving alms, beware of wounding the pride of the poor; do not humble still more a man whose misery already lowers him enough in his own eyes; do not let him imagine that you are lording it over him; efface yourself for sheer fear of offending him. On this condition only can you again make of an outcast-----a man and a friend.
Remember that needy though he be, the poor man is a free man. It is bad enough for him to be tyrannized over by misfortune, or by the brute forces of nature; do not, by exacting what he need not give, crush the man who feels himself to be a failure. Do not make his chains heavier; rather set him quite free, so that he may the more surely become better. It may be that the respect you show will not be appreciated by all the poor, but it is certain that the charity which is overbearing always irritates and at the same time depresses them. The most Christian and the greatest benefactors of the poor are assuredly those who strive to hide their own better fortune, and to bridge over the distance between the poor and themselves. By showing itself retiring, almost shy, their generosity clothes itself with the winning charm of true kindliness.