"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 WAY TO BECOME KIND, PART 1
HOW THE SORT OF MIND A MAN HAS LEADS TO
HIS BEING KIND-HEARTED OR OTHERWISE
It is obvious that kindness is not a mere mental gift. Yet to imagine with some that kindness of disposition in no way depends upon intellectual ability, much more to hold that clever people cannot be expected to be kind, is a very great mistake.
The intellect, it is sometimes observed, can descant learnedly upon the nature of kindness, but cannot impart it; talent means brilliancy and clearness of understanding, whereas kindliness is warmth of heart-----a very different thing. An over keen insight into what we see of our fellowmen seems even to shut the door upon kindness. The clever man's sharp reply, witty though it be, to an appeal for sympathy and help, mostly hurts more than his money or advice relieves; it is only from simple and unassuming thoughts that flow the kind words and kind deeds which are as healing balm to wounds.
Whatever of truth there may be in this, we hold that there is a kind mind as there is a kind heart; and that kind thoughts, kind words, and kind deeds are, in general, naturally inseparable and dependent each one on the other. For it is the mind that shows the heart where, and how, and why to be kind. It is the mind that frees the heart from the groundless fears and foolish suspicions that act as a drag upon its kindly impulses; while, in return, the heart softens the mind and makes it kind.
Many others before us have insisted on the debt a man's heart owes to his understanding. Comte writes; "Every noble intellectual flight leads of its very nature and directly to a feeling of sympathy with mankind." Gaston Davenay puts it that "the heart" (by which he means kindheartedness) "is nobility of intellect in one of its most beautiful forms." Another psychological writer affirms that, "though it be possible to be kind without being clever, no one can be very clever without becoming very kind."
This remark is, moreover, a very ancient one, since in the Old Testament the wise man exhorts us "to understand our neighbour," and the Psalmist calls "blessed" the man who understands the poor and the needy, as if the fact of understanding distress brought in its train the doing all acts of goodwill to our fellowmen.
Truly, too, there is no little merit in getting to understand a man, that most complex of beings, and more especially a man who is suffering.
Looked at merely from the outside, man appears to be "uneven and changeable," many-sided and self-contradictory. But to judge him thus superficially is to judge him unjustly. Go a little deeper, and under his seeming restlessness and shiftiness you will come upon accuracy of thought, uprightness of intention, and, possibly, fixity of aim. But it needs a keen-sighted observer to see into those innermost recesses of human nature where the true man, the man worthy of all respect, for the simple reason that he is a man, is to be found.
By their speech and action most men show themselves not only fickle, but strangely weak. Yet, from the point of view of the laws a man is seen to break, a man's weakness is one thing; from the point of view of his own conscience, it may be quite another. The narrow-minded are inexorable judges, for they see no farther than the letter of the law, the broader-minded try to look at a fault through the conscience of him who did it. They reproach him with it, but only as a merciful God looks at it, and always light upon extenuating circumstances to make their judgment more indulgent.
Moreover, there are many ways of studying suffering and of realizing what it is-----especially interior suffering, pain of mind or heart. There is much, then, for the kind man's mind to do.
The superficially-minded never notice suffering unless it is made a show of, the man who has "fallen among thieves" must cry out very loud, or they will pass by without having so much as seen him. The kindly thinker instinctively probes a wound to the bottom; he realizes how, as a general rule, a sorrow is deeper seated and more keenly felt than it appears; he gently draws aside the curtain under which shyness or suspicion conceal even agony; he has the sharpest of ears for the cry of pain -let the sufferer be as silent and as sullenly suspicious as he may.
To understand a man is to afford him an immense satisfaction. The moment he is understood he begins to feel comforted. It is just because he longs to be understood that it is such a relief to him to tell his troubles. Once understood, he has weight off his mind. Our being sympathetically told more about ourselves and our troubles than we knew ourselves, and our hearing the story of our sufferings and misfortunes better put than we ourselves could have put it, somehow or another gives us a positive, if indefinable, pleasure.
Even the most fervent of believers likes to feel that, besides God, there is some being who takes notice of him, who understands him, who cares for him, and who values him for whatever steadiness of good purpose his apparent fickleness conceals, for whatever degree of virtue has survived the weaknesses which his many failures witness against him, for whatever little moral strength he displays when beaten down by misfortunes. Now, that someone should show himself intelligently kind and intelligently sympathetic-----a form of goodwill possible only where thought is deep and sure-----is just what those who have gone under, whether it be through deplorable stupidity of their own, or through cruel misunderstanding on the part of other people, are longing for.
If "the understanding of the poor" be already in itself an act of kindness, it becomes the more kind from the feeling of pity it stirs up in the heart. To show himself pitiful is the kind man's first impulse, and the more he pities the more generous and more lasting will his kindness be.
No matter whether we be naturally sensitive to other people's pain or the reverse, we are moved to pity them exactly in proportion to what we understand and realize of their sufferings. A glance may suffice to move us to a momentary feeling of compassion, but we must look deeper and linger long to be able to say with truth that we feel for our brother in his trouble.
To be able, then, to think things clearly and thoroughly out makes a man kinder. The deeper one's insight of mind, the more generous one's impulses of heart.
Again, a man's intellect works with his heart to make him kind, by ridding him of certain vain fears and foolish hesitations, which but too often obsess him and tend to paralyze him in the very best of his work.
A child's fear of darkness and its mysteries vanishes with the light of day, and unwholesome thoughts of others, born for the most part of an unworthy over-sensitiveness, die away in the clear light of a healthy mind. Among unhealthy states of feeling towards others, the chief are jealousy and touchiness.
Jealousy is the pain which the worth of others causes to the envious. The heart that suffers from this degrading malady makes itself unhappy over the good qualities and successes of others, and takes offence at everything they do. For the jealous man, his rival or competitor is no longer a brother, but a personal enemy whose most trivial doings are irritating, whose very name gives offence, whose manifest virtues are at the very least annoying, whose faults are a source of depraved pleasure, whose every rise in life is a torture, and whose humiliation is the one thing longed for.
Jealousy has been rightly likened to the worm that dieth not, for silently it undermines with cruel tortures the wretched soul it invades, and in which every feeling of kindness for others is the first thing it destroys. The jealous heart knows no pity, no generosity, no goodwill to man, and most surely no affection, no love. It is wild with passion, yet dead-cold with selfishness. Sullen looks and cutting words, both naturally and by deliberate choice, are its preferred expression; and it all but refuses to conceal its ill-will.
A clear-sighted mind has more power than it is generally credited with, to cast out from the heart the devil of jealousy, and to fan into a cheerful blaze the dying flame of kindliness.
When tempted to be jealous-----for even the best natures are not exempt from such weakness-----a wise man will say to himself; "It is every way a good thing that my brother is highly gifted, that the pains he has taken have developed his powers, that his own striving has kept him virtuous. His success he has justly earned. He is a power for good, and the benefactor of many, whether in soul or in body. I have no reason for anything but to be glad at it all. There are in the world only too few capable and active people. No heart should be so evil as to begrudge the good they do.
"I had best applaud with everybody else. After all, I lose nothing because he has got something. Be it that he is better or cleverer than I. There would be no good in dragging everybody down to my own mediocrity. I can gain more by copying him than by being jealous of him.
"In place of letting myself be paralyzed with envy, the thing to do is to try and catch him up."
However tenacious our jealous antipathy, little by little the force of deliberately sympathetic thoughts will wear it away. By enlarging the heart man's intellect delivers it from unhealthy obsessions.
For touchiness the mind has likewise a remedy. Ill-regulated feelings are often keenly sensitive to the merest mistakes and to the most trifling errors of forgetfulness. Of this, narrow-mindedness is invariably the cause. Why do you feel annoyed? What was there in what was said to hurt you? Why does a man doing a thing in one way rather than another put you out? No doubt you are sensitive. But your outburst of temper was not quite unpremeditated. You had somehow thought over the matter, and it was when you had concluded that you were offended that you writhed with indignation under the insult. It is when you have reasoned out that people have been wanting in consideration for you that you get into a passion. A little more reflection and you would have remained self-possessed, and behaved kindly and properly. You would have seen that such and such words had not the disagreeable meaning you at first sight were inclined to give to them; that you were mistaken as to the reason of such and such proceedings; that in any case the meanings you so readily put upon things were very doubtful. Nay, had you even a certainty that others were intentionally rude or unjust to you, would you not show greater magnanimity of soul and more strength of character by keeping your temper. There is no sense and no display of strength except in keeping one's head in a storm, and in going about as quietly and as methodically as in a calm.
If the intellect helps the heart, the heart, in its turn, is a wholesome school for the intellect. Father Faber goes so far as to say that "nothing deepens the mind so much as a habit of charity." And on his side Augustus Comte maintains that "no great intellect can be developed unless it have a certain fund of kindness to draw upon."
It is, then, a mistake to look upon kindheartedness as giving no more than a gracious charm to character; it is a real source of intellectual light. For kindness develops in man a new sense which in delicacy is second to none. The blind man perceives by touch what his eyes cannot see; and a thousand things in life which escape the mind, the heart knows by its own intuition. Pascal has put a great truth into the well-known words: "The heart has reasons which the reason cannot understand." Indeed, there are two truths here: The heart can know things; and the things the heart knows man's mind cannot always reach to.
The mind of man develops with the treasures of observation and experience he lays up; the richer his store, the more fruitful his output. But the heart's share in getting together these treasures is immense. When, by becoming kind to others, it has refined its over-sensitiveness, the heart quickly acquires a delicacy of perception which all other senses lack: half a word is enough for it; it recognizes what is genuine in feelings, no matter by what cloak disguised; it understands embarrassing situations; it thrills when appealed to by emotions barely outlined, and imperceptible to natures less thoroughly developed: it falls into unconscious harmony with interior states which no word has described or defined to it, but which it learns to know by itself entering into them. There revolves, then, within the heart a whole world of impressions, and the heart can communicate to the intellect elements of knowledge which of itself the intellect was powerless to acquire. Its readiness, too, to act, its perseverance, its thoroughness, are qualities for which the mind is debtor to the heart. Practically in life, good-hearted men often show themselves in the end to have understood things better than the merely clever.
HOW A MAN CANNOT BE TRULY KIND UNLESS HE HAS THE WILL TO BE SO
Did it not depend on our own freewill to be kind or the reverse, kind acts would be purely instinctive. It is because we will to be kind that kindness is, in the true sense, human, meritorious and deserving of esteem.
It is very true that not all kindnesses are equally deliberate; some people have naturally gentle and sympathetic natures, to be kind they need only to follow their own bent. Other characters, sterner and colder, have almost to force themselves to be kind; they are like the seeds which must be ground in a mill before they yield the oil they contain.
Nevertheless, even the naturally kindhearted, those on whom has fallen "the great good fortune to be born good," should bear in mind that to no act of virtue is it natural to be easily put in practice, and that kindnesses are all the more welcome for being premeditated and carried out under difficulties.
Man's will dominates his very soul, and, like the governor of a citadel, controls every one of his powers of action, checking them when unruly, rousing them when sluggish, guiding them, nor allowing them to run to waste. When, then, a man, as he should do, has made up his mind to be kind to all he has to deal with, he should deliberately-----and purely because he wills so to do-----encourage every feeling of goodwill to his fellowmen, give no ear at all to harsh thoughts, and train himself to distinguish at a glance between true and false kindness.
The noblest souls have had to struggle with themselves before they could be rid of an instinctive tendency to be harsh and ungracious. St. Francis de Sales avows that to make himself kind and gentle he had to work long and hard. The sympathetic and catholic charity, which is the characteristic of his sanctity, St. Vincent of Paul confesses cost him a wearisome fight. "I turned to God," he says, "and I besought Him earnestly to change my hard and repelling temper, and to give me in its place a meek and gentle spirit, and by the grace of Our Lord, and with a little attention which I myself gave to keep natural impulses well under, I have at least partially got rid of the surly temper with which I was
Unkind feelings come over a man without his wanting them, and when he least expects them, and they are of many sorts. Unexplainable antipathies, baseless jealousies, sudden fits of anger, strange tendencies to an uncalled for and systematic opposition-----even something almost equivalent to the hating of certain persons,-----they are all of them evil growths of our nature, and, albeit our will has had no part in quickening them to their loathsome life, it is by will and by deliberate effort that they have to be uprooted. It is not enough that a man be convinced in his mind of the folly and shamefulness of indulging in evil thoughts of this sort; it is his duty studiously to reject them. And he must do this at once, for however transient the pleasure willfully taken in what is wrong, however momentary its mastership of the soul, it leaves its taint behind it, and the door open for its own return. Just as one is bound to put away all positively uncharitable or unkind thoughts, so must one resist the inclination to repress in ourselves impulses to be kind. This strange and really lamentable tendency, which is over-common, springs mostly from sheer selfishness. In proportion as a man thinks only of himself to the exclusion of others, he becomes blind to their sorrows and to their claims upon him. He sees only the use he can make of them or the trouble they may cause him. If they serve his turn he makes much of them, if he has nothing to gain by them he turns his back on them. Again, mere love of money may make a man grudge even the time needed to do an act of kindness, for to be kind one, as a rule, must spend both money and time. But most heartless of all the unkind are they who deliberately grind down the faces of the poor, who squeeze out of the labourer the maximum of work for the minimum of wages, who make a business of trading on the weakness or ignorance of the simple-minded and friendless.
Pride, too-----that ambition which insists, at whatever cost of truth and virtue, on being foremost in everything-----not only hinders men from being considerate and kind to others, but often tempts them to be cruelly unjust; to trample on the rights or the dignity of those beneath them, if only to show themselves masters; and, without thought that all men can suffer, to use their victims as mere stepping-stones to their own advancement.
Sensual natures, in fine, are invariably naturally unkind, for the indulging of the baser passions is sure to close the heart to considerateness and to pity. Thoughtlessly at first, but afterwards from sheer willful malice, the sensual man sacrifices to his own gratification the honour, tranquillity, interest, and happiness of those in his power. Into the soul of a man who would lay waste a quiet home without so much as a regret, kind impulses cannot penetrate. Christian charity only grows where the soil is pure and healthy, and it is also in order to make the soil of the heart purer and healthier that one must practise being kind and careful of the happiness and well-being of others.
Even if one cannot at the outset rid oneself of unkind and suspicious imaginings, one can at least always behave kindly to others, and one is bound to take pains to do so. So long as there is war within us, hard thoughts striving to overmaster Christian charity, we must take special heed to what we say and do. We must keep back the bitter and violent words that are on the tip of our tongue, and even more the seemingly calmly thought out and reluctantly made insinuations of evil that mean the death of souls. We must be watchful not to hurt other people's feelings by our proud and haughty looks, bearing, and way of acting. We must never revenge ourselves on anyone, and never, whether openly or secretly, act unfair by our fellowmen and women.
By firm self-repression and self-command, whatever our character, we can cease to be positively and habitually unkind. But more has to be done. We must render ourselves absolutely and self-sacrificingly well-disposed to our fellowmen, and for this we must practise the doing of kind actions. Our resolve to learn to be kind must arouse all the energies of our soul, must stimulate us to act, must make us want to carry things by storm.
Plenty of people are gifted with really generous natures, but are temperamentally cold, reserved, awkward. There is a kind heart deep down within them, and those who can get at it may draw upon it without stint; but superficially they appear unfeeling and impassive, and it takes both time and trouble to find out how full of downright goodwill to all they really are. Now, characters such as these carry with them a very grave duty. They themselves have not culpably hidden the talent God has given them; but it is hidden all the same, and it is for them to set to work within themselves and to try to bring it to light for their own and their neighbour's good.
Practically, since pity is the first of kind feelings and the first of kind actions, and since from it comes to the human heart the first impetus for good, let the Christian begin to be kind, by coming out of his isolation, by seeking out and offering his services to the suffering, the poor, the sick, those who are in trouble, the forsaken, those who have been humbled or put to shame, the mourners, the victims of misfortune, the despairing, those on the brink of crime.
It is not in unadulterated human nature to remain for long face to face with palpable misery without pitying it. A downright hard and depraved heart may remain unmoved; but a heart which is only, as it were, asleep, will rather be wakened up, and will soon beat with kind feeling, that sweetest of rhythms. When once kindness becomes active it is sure to become generous. If it is slow in getting to work it is for the will to insist, to spur it on. When we cannot give from enthusiasm, let us at least give from sheer logic. A spontaneous gift, the effect of an impulse, is often the more gracious, but a gift, the giving of which has been carefully pondered and perhaps reluctantly resolved upon, is equally meritorious.
Cooly to calculate to the cost of our kindnesses is right enough, but by conviction we must be disinterested to the point of sparing neither wealth, hearth, nor work, wheresoever the doing of good to others is obligatory upon us. Our forgetfulness of self is of none the less worth because it is a command laid upon us, and by us simply obeyed.
You who are not naturally kindhearted, try to graft kindness on to your temperament, whatsoever it be. Cure yourself of your rough ways of thinking and of acting; they are only the shell that needs to be broken in order to get at the good heart God has in reality given you.
Encourage that same good heart to betray itself in compassionate looks, in sympathetic, composure of feature, in unaffectedness of manner, in evenness of temper, and in kindliness of speech.
Everything about you ought to be pleasing. You ought to receive people affably, and to talk to them about what they want to hear. If you would do better still, try to show those with whom we have to deal that you do not consider this tiresome, that they do not weary you when they pour out long confidences in your ears, and that they must not imagine it would be a happy release for you to be left alone.
When our kindness has come to mean all this, far from being a burden to any, we shall be a sure refuge to many; far from often wounding as hitherto by heedless word or deed, we shall everywhere in our measure promote the happiness and the moral well-being of our fellowmen.
Nevertheless, it always remains true, that until we have learned by persevering practice to be truly and wisely kind we shall often have to do wholesome violence to our very nature to show ourselves kind at all; and whether kindheartedness be natural to us, or whether in us it be wholly an acquired virtue, it will ever want watching to keep it straight.
Such watchfulness has to be specially strict in the case of passionate and impulsive natures, always liable to break the fetters of reason and virtue.
Quick, generous, impetuous natures, ready at one moment to overpower by a kind attentiveness almost bordering on the indiscreet, may at another give way to a sensitiveness which is mere selfishness, and selfishness only half-disguised. Like other virtues, true kindness keeps a happy medium. Later on we shall try to show that foolish good-nature and unwise indulgence of others is not kindness, but its counterfeit.
Once more, it is necessary that a man should himself think and will so that he may put order and harmony into his goodwill for others.
HOME--------------RULES OF CATHOLIC LIFE--------------CATHOLIC CLASSICS