"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 COUNTERFEITS OF KINDNESS
WEAKNESS OF CHARACTER
"Of all difficult things" says Jules Simon, "the hardest is to know where kindness ends and where weakness begins." At first sight weakness mostly looks just like kindness. It is careful not to give pain where it touches, and we are so accustomed to finding thorns strewn on our path that we are grateful to it accordingly. It keeps open house, and a table of which all may share; everyone goes in and out freely. It puts everybody at his ease, it bears with everything, and stands in nobody's way. Just because it never opposes it makes no one suffer, and so passes for kindness. Yet in reality weakness and kindness are widely different things. Weakness is cold and emasculated; kindness is gentle, but strong. The former is essentially characterless; the latter has features pleasingly rounded indeed, but none the less sharply defined. The qualities of the one are all negative, those of the other are positive, and, moreover, stand out in high relief.
Weakness is inactive; it produces nothing, it likes best to gaze placidly at other people working. Weakness is easily preyed upon indeed, but one cannot properly say that a weak man is unselfish. If he is so far moved as to be really sorry for someone's suffering, his pity invariably stops short of making any serious effort to give relief; the knowledge that a fellowman is in the direst need will not make him really generous, much less venturesome, though he may be not ill-content that his goods are of service to others and even that he is forced into doing something. His emotions, though genuine enough, are irremediably slack; self-sacrifice is utterly beyond him.
Kindness, on the contrary, is an active virtue; it is only calm outwardly because all the inner emotions of the truly kind man are well under control; it springs from quiet, well-regulated strength, and can always when needed rise to sacrifices. Whether it merely move to pity, or push to an heroic immolation of self, or be the root of affection and devotedness, kindliness is ever a characteristic of an intense life-----calm, indeed, but keen and strong.
The rule of a weak man is marked by lack of restraint, by want of discipline, by disorder, and invariably in the end by general discontent. Everyone suffers where government is weak [meaning the kind of government that is proper to the the nature of man-----the Web Master], because all mistrust where all feel that there is no firm hand on the reins. A rule that is kind means regularity insisted upon, but without harshness; love of discipline and order and peace. Where virile strength is tempered by kindness, all feel the touch of the governing hand, but it does not cramp, much less crush them. Obedience and respect are gladly rendered to a kind ruler, and people are happy under him.
In dealing with human beings weakness and kindness proceed on radically divergent lines, and reach diametrically opposite results.
Weakness does not insist upon exertion, and by consequence favours idleness, emasculates the faculties, tolerates improvidence, and unfits one for the battle of life. The mother who spares her child all wholesome suffering, privation, sacrifice, gratifying its every wish and giving in to all its whims, is weak, not kind. She is preparing her child for an impossible bed of roses, and not for the toilsome workshop of life. The teacher who dictates question and answer alike to his pupil, sparing the latter all the work of looking up references and of expressing in his own words what he learns, is weak and not kind. His exercise-books may be faultlessly filled, but the pupil's mind remains without culture and without tone.
The good-natured but careless giver of alms who pours all the money he is asked for into the hands of the poor, even though thereby he demoralize them by keeping them from looking for work which he had better have helped them to find, is not kind, but weak. For it can never be too strongly insisted upon that we do a grievous wrong to our neighbour, and are anything but really helpful to him, if we lower him by making him the recipient of a seeming charity which is only our own good-natured weakness plausibly disguised.
The kindness which is born of a generous but enlightened will acts on totally different principles. It purposes, before all else, to insure in every way the true good of those on whom it heaps its favours. Assuredly it aims at making people happier, but is also wants to make them braver, more energetic, more self-reliant and more anxious to develop their own powers. It refuses no wholesome comfort, no healthy stimulus; it praises, it encourages, it cheers, it gives pecuniary help where necessary, but it refrains jealously from doing aught that might give momentary relief at the cost of paralyzing natural activities and enervating the powers of the soul. Far from enfeebling its recipients, such kindness urges them on, dilates their hearts, and perfects them as rational beings.
A father is really kind when, by dint of love and sacrifices, he makes of his child a lover of work, and brings out in him the promise of an energetic personality.
A teacher is really kind when, by persevering care, and in due course by unbending insistency, he develops his pupil's initiative. A benefactor best deserves the name when he puts. the poor people who appeal to him in the way of using their own strength to earn their own living.
Kindness of the sort we have described -and it is the only sort that is genuine-----presupposes true elevation of soul; petty minds as a rule are simply good-natured. It is, therefore, important that, since feelings which have their seat in the heart are of their nature blind and inconstant, one should not wholly trust them, but rather construct in one's mind an ideal of kindness, and with all the strength of one's will determine to be kind in that way and in no other. The naturally kind-hearted man, who, nevertheless, has no proper idea of what kindness is, mostly goes quite astray, squanders his money uselessly, and does more harm than good.
Again, however well-intentioned, however easily moved to pity the man who can never say "No," or who has not made up his mind to think before he gives, will find in the end that no one is grateful to him, for the very reason that in reality he has benefited no one.
On the other hand, we must be on our guard lest, under the pretext of not showing ourselves weak, we speak or act harshly. Though the best form of kindness be that which braces its recipient, let us beware lest our hand fall so heavily
on the bruised reed we grasp as to snap it. The deliberateness with which it is done is not the first charm of a kindness, let it be ever so much hidden by the gentleness, patience, and unselfishness which hallow it.
In old people, however, kindness goes well with a certain show of weakness. We expect a grandmother to be even more yielding than a mother. Tenderness alone becomes old people's kindness. And it is almost the same with the priest, who is the minister of forgiveness. In the service he renders to God's people, benignity should overrule strength of mind, or rather, strength of mind should express itself in terms of persistent mercy and devotedness. In regard to the faults of his flock, a priest has to show himself neither rigid as an officer to his men, nor exacting as the master of a factory to his hands.
Without changing its nature, kindness should know how to take the various forms suited to differences of persons and of circumstances. Nothing is more opposed to true kindness than that brusque manner of acting which so often masks real weakness of character, since it is of the very nature of interior strength to be unvaryingly self-possessed. The truly kind man is resolute and wise in his thought for others; he is therefore at all places and times gracious and obliging.
Flattery, like weakness, is but counterfeit kindness, though sometimes hard to detect and set aside as such.
The flatterer is affable and courteous like the kind man, but while the address of the latter has a charm and a nobleness all its own, the flatterer is instinctively distrusted and despised. The one and the other praise, but if the praise of the man who truly loves and respects you is like a refreshing cordial, that of the flatterer is an intoxicating and often poisonous drug.
"Few men," says Father Faber, "can do without praise." Scrupulous souls, unhappy over their involuntary shortcomings, and alarmed about their smallest faults, would lose heart, and let themselves be utterly crushed under the weight of their own foolishness, if from time to time they were not braced up by a little wholesome praise, and encouraged to trust God and persevere. Timid, hesitating souls would shrink unduly from publicity, and precious powers for good would remain undeveloped and unused, if opportune praise did not wake up self-assurance in them, and set their wealth of energy to work.
All who are worn out with toil, disheartened by criticism, put out of countenance by systematic contradiction, worried by the temptation to give up undertaking anything in order to sink into unnoticed torpor, are in downright and possibly urgent need of a kind and compassionate friend, who, holding out a helping hand to them, will by consoling words rally their hope and strength, and drive home the conviction that for them life is not yet exhausted, and that it still depends on themselves whether they give up for good or play manfully as they should their part in
To heavily weighted souls, opportune and moderate praise is a sure restorative; it invariably cheers and stimulates, and not infrequently literally saves a life and career.
But nothing needs more delicate handling than praise. It is one of the functions of kindness so to mete it out that it may stimulate without intoxicating. Administered carefully and in moderation, above all with sincerity, it may well be the herald of happiness and a spur to virtue. But unmerited and unwise praise is not kindness; it has degenerated into flattery.
The flatterer always exaggerates; if it is real merit on which he dilates, he either goes glaringly beyond what he should, or tactlessly repeats over and over again one and the same compliment: if there is really nothing to praise, he will extol weakness itself, and not content, with finding excuses for faults, rather than fail in praising, make virtues out of vices, nor stop till both truth and fancy are exhausted.
Some people flatter from sheer thoughtlessness and because they have learned no better. They only want to please, and the outcome mostly is that they are not believed, and finish by looking foolish and undignified.
But there are times when flattery is inspired by cold calculation and truly contemptible self-seeking; it is then above all that it is base and culpable. To gain a man's favour, to insure his support, to get hold of his money, flatterers flock round and fawn on him, deceive him, and turn his head with lying praises.
The flatterer's feelings have nothing to do with such adulation, it is literally only lip praise. Unstable as it is insincere, it gives place to venomous criticism the moment its object ceases to be of use and some fresh interest comes into view. He who has fallen thus far in a parasite, a man of an essentially mean and contemptible soul.
However given, flattery is always prejudicial to its recipeint. It may be but unsubstantial smoke, but it intoxicates and is breathed in gratefully, and even greedily. The majority of men are so taken by it that they cannot discern between the restrained praise given in wise kindness and the flattery born of thoughlessness, irony, or self-seeking.
Even the cleverest people at times allow themselves to be taken in by flattery. However clear-sighted any of us may be in other matters, we are purblind to flattery; when people who have something to gain by pleasing us and bait their trap with honeyed words, the wisest of us may fall into it. Besides, we really like to be deceived about ourselves; we are only too glad to forget our own failings, to ignore the narrow limits of our abilities; to have our own worth proved to us, and to hear that even our everyday life is worthy of note!
The great mischief of it all is that we become over-confident of ourselves, and that, overstepping the boundary line of our abilities, we rashly engage in adventures beyond us, to end not only in failure, but by getting ourselves laughed at.
Flattery deceives all the more easily because it brings on a sort of intoxication. Or, more truly, it is like those poisonous drugs which for a little while seem to warm the very heart, and impart a delusive strength, only to end by chilling a man's life-blood, lowering his vitality, and depressing or rather prostrating his whole being. The reaction from the fleeting buoyancy of spirits due to our acceptance of flattery is often the more bitter, because commonly he who has flattered us is the first to betray us, and, if he can gain thereby, to turn our best friends against us. The ancient aphorism is true: "A man has no worse enemies than they who flatter him."
Seeing, then, to what evils inconsiderate praise may lead, let us always be affable and well-spoken, but never flatter. Our praise should be a wholesome encouragement, not a poison.
Kindness, even when indiscreet, is very different from flattery; in itself it is neither mean nor prejudicial. Nevertheless, the having been performed indiscreetly, it takes from both the worth and the delicate charm of an act of kindness. To be discreetly kind is to be doubly kind, for the value of a gift is halved if the manner of giving make it a burden.
Benefactors, however lavish in their gifts, have barely a right to the name if they load their benefactions with irksome conditions. Others, again, there are who multiply their benefactions beyond all requirement; not satisfied with helping, they overpower: they not merely relieve the poor, they tire them out with their visits. Thinking to be kind, they make themselves a nuisance. They treat their protégés as if they were so many children. Their permission or, as they call it, advice, has to be asked about everything. In return for what they give they expect not only gratitude and deference, but absolute submissiveness. Their hand is heavy. They allow no initiative. Firmly convinced that by settling beforehand all important questions regarding those they befriend they further the interests of the latter, they prevent them from living their own lives, and, so far as they can, turn them into mere machines.
A man is kind in his almsgiving in proportion as he makes the poor man he relieves feel that what he receives becomes his very own. On the contrary, he is fundamentally unkind if he paralyzes instead of stimulating by what he gives and by his way of giving.
We avoid being the first to put out our hand in , welcome to the man who, to demonstrate the exceptional warmth of his friendship, crushes the hand he grips in place of shaking it; his intention is all that it should be, his disinterestedness is beyond question, but he needs to be enlightened as to the fitting way of expressing the kindliness of his feelings.
From the dealings with man of God Himself, one can easily gather that the aim of all kindness is to make life fuller, and that true kindness respects the individual, makes the best even of his oddities, and furthers the development of all that is of value in his character.
How discreet after its fashion is a humble wayside spring! Its freshness invites the traveller to slake his thirst. It gives him all it possesses, he may even provision himself from it for the longest of journeys. If it were endowed with understanding, what satisfaction would it not feel at having refreshed a man, and restored his strength, and at seeing that, thanks to the virtue of its waters, he is able joyfully to continue on his way? It asks nothing at all in return; what it did for one man yesterday it will gladly do tomorrow for another, always pleased to give, always satisfied with the privilege of helping. As not less discreet we may picture the vivifying air we take into our lungs. We are surrounded by it, immersed in it. It penetrates us, it responds to the needs of our organs; far from weighing us down, it supports us. Invisible to our eyes, it shuts nothing out from our sight. It makes us live; it never stands in the way of our living to the full.
Water and air are but symbols. In God Himself we have an example of a kindness infinitely discreet. God is pre-eminently our Benefactor. He has given us life; we hold all our faculties from Him; at each moment He confirms to us the gift of existence; His graces are continuously poured upon us; only with His help can we do any good at all. And yet, all this notwithstanding, He respects us absolutely; though ever accessible to those who seek Him, yet He never imposes His presence on any man's conscience. He solicits us unceasingly, but He never forces our will, no life could develop without Him, and yet He leaves to each one of us freedom to live up to whatever standard we please. Truly God shows us what we have to do to work wisely upon others. His kindness watchful, long-enduring, all-embracing; so should ours be. His kindness is never wearisome, never interfering, never burdensome; neither should ours be.
There is one more sort of counterfeit kindness leading to mistakes both very common and very dangerous. We think we are sacrificing ourselves, whilst in reality we are seeking self-gratification; we flatter ourselves that we are acting out of pure love of our neighbour, whereas, as a matter of fact, we are merely aiming at our own satisfaction. It is not that our heart is touched, it is only that our nerves are excited; our self-love is masquerading as Christian charity. We think ourselves good and kind, but alas! we are only selfish. What we want is to feel good, and to enjoy the feeling so.
It is not that nobility of feeling is incompatible with earthly affection. By no means, since earthly affections are lawful and even God-commanded; but certain natures have to be specially on their guard, for a feeling of particular sympathy may be with them a mere cloak under which passion shelters itself, in order both to deceive the would-be kind man himself, and to throw dust in the eyes of others.
Kind feelings deepen the heart, and open it to the realizing' of every sort of suffering. "The heart is enlarged" says Joubert, "by the very fact of its love and pity being for many." By becoming universal one's kind-heartedness suffers no decrease, so far as regards anyone of its objects, for the power it has of loving all mankind takes nothing from its intensity of affection for anyone of our neighbours in particular.
Emotional affection, on the contrary, confines the heart within the narrow circle of some" special friendship." Obsessed by one object, it is unable to stretch farther its love, and not only is its kindliness limited to one object, but it opposes a hard repellant exterior to everything besides, however worthy of a share of its affection.
The spirit of goodwill to men is the health of the soul, and dwells within it in calm peace and joy; it is moved to pity, but is never ruffled; it works hard, but is never restless; its absolute disinterestedness saves it from feeling the bitterness of the many deceptions it suffers.
True kindness makes no distinction of age or sex; it sees only that others are in need, and, touched by their distress, gives to all alike generous and gracious aid; it inhabits a region far above the realm of the senses.
Emotional affection, on the contrary, is the principal factor in what spiritual writers term "particular friendships," in which not the heart, but the senses are moved, and moved by what appeals to them, rather than to the higher powers of the soul. Such affections are quite other from Christian kindness, and are of their nature perilous from the circumstance that, being more in the flesh than in the soul, they are less under the empire of the will.
Sentiments of Christian affection are born but slowly, and are easily traced to their origin, which is invariably either well-grounded pity or well-merited esteem. The birth of a purely earthly attachment, on the other hand, is as sudden as it is inexplicable. Lacordaire has aptly said: "The heart is like a thunderbolt, we never know where it will fall until it has fallen."
Now we do know what the things are which go to make men kindhearted-----a busy and a serious lifework-----the habitual mastering of our feelings-----the practice of religion. The soul that is healthy, well-ordered and pious is sure to be kind.
"Idleness hath taught much evil," says Holy Writ. The soul that is unoccupied is like a field that is lying fallow and unfenced; weeds and brambles spring up, overrun it of themselves, and destructive beasts prowl about it.
If sensual love is the ruin of those who give themselves up to it, Christian kindness is the true preservative of the soul. It makes happy both the giver and the receiver; it is good alike for man's mind, for his heart, for his will, for his dignity, and for his virtue.
Kindness, then, bids us hold our heart in our hands, and at the same time wisdom bids us keep a hand on our heart. We must be watchful and careful, lest under the guise of kindliness we give the hospitality of our hearts to the most degrading of its counterfeits.
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