Be Kinder Than is Necessary

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”  (Winston Churchill)             

I was driving along in August—98˚ in the shade, rush-hour traffic inching forward, some Cars tune on the local oldies station—when I noticed a bumper sticker on the Honda to my left: Be kinder than is necessary. Something lifted in my heart. A breeze penetrated the mug. At the next opportunity, I pulled over to the side of the road and jotted down those words on the back of a grocery receipt. Be kinder than is necessary.

To say we live in divisive times is like saying arsenic will kill you. Duh. And there are real issues we must confront attached to these divisions—racism, immigration, misogyny, healthcare, the environment, democracy itself—but that’s in the aggregate. On a molecular level, each of us deals with the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker—our neighbors and fellow community members. Not cardboard demographic representations. Not a frenzied TheRUMP rally mob screaming “Lock her up!” Or a deluge of polls dividing us 60/40, 40/60, 50/50. But real people with real faces. If we want to build a better world, this is an excellent place to start.

Wax and Wane

Homo sapiens are a quirky little species. We are both caring and cantankerous. Principled and sheeplike. Social and self-absorbed. Among our many tendencies is the kindness we demonstrate in moments of major crisis—natural disasters, wars:

Texas Military Department

Houston resident Jack Schuhmacher rescued numerous people trapped by the rising floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey, ferrying them to safety in his 17-foot fishing boat. 

Hermine “Miep” Gies, her husband, and three other Dutch citizens risked their lives for more than two years to hide Anne Frank’s family and four other Jews from the Nazis. It was Miep who grabbed Anne’s diary in the mayhem of the arrests, keeping it safe until Anne’s father returned from Auschwitz in 1945.

International Auschwitz Komitee

Sadly, the sense that we’re all in this together tends to go dormant once a crisis wanes. People return to insular mode, making a living and looking after their own turf. Petty concerns predominate and rancorous rivalries erupt. Twitter wars ensue. But the reality remains: We ARE all in this together every day. If anything ultimately dooms us, it will be our failure to recognize the truth of this.

Beyond Necessity

Be kinder than is necessary. But, what is “necessary kindness”?Is it merely good manners—holding the door for someone carrying a child or packages, thanking someone who does the same for us? Is it mouthing the expected platitudes in certain situations? I was so sorry to hear that your father died/ I hope you’ll find another job soon/Wishing you a speedy recovery. Perhaps the word necessary here serves as a synonym for the minimum response required to not be thought rude or heartless. We are busy, busy people after all, and it’s just not possible to extend ourselves to all the need out there.

Until it’s us. Our sorrow. Our disaster. Our need.

Fortunately, being kinder than is necessary rarely involves the sort of mortal risk Miep took in hiding the Frank family. Sometimes it’s just—literally—going that extra mile.

In my student days, while doing a semester at the University of London, several of us decided to go to Paris for a long weekend via the Hovercraft from Ramsgate to Calais. Taking the train to Ramsgate was easy, but we had no idea where the docks were once we debarked. This was in the days before satnav, before the Internet and Mapquest. You got around mainly by asking the locals “Which way?”

The woman we asked for directions in Ramsgate could have reeled off a list of street names and left/right turns, as most people do. But she didn’t. Instead, she offered to walk us to the ferry landing, despite the fact that she was on her way home after a day of work, despite the fact that the docks were in the opposite direction of where she was heading. “It’s only a mile or so,” she said cheerfully, and off we went. I have never forgotten her.

A Simple Gesture Can Mean A Lot

Sometimes that extra shot of kindness is as simple as picking up your phone.

When I got into my VW Bug in the summer of 1983 and moved to Boston, I had just written my first novel. I had an IBM Selectric III, but nothing in the way of connections to editors or publishers. About a month after my arrival, I went for a haircut. During the usual salon banter, the hairdresser, Donna, asked what I did for a living. I explained I was the editor of a business publication for retailers, but what I really loved was writing fiction. Then I told her about my novel.

Now, she could have said that’s nice or I wish you luck or how exciting. But instead she said, “My cousin is an editor at Addison-Wesley. They don’t publish fiction but she might know someone working at another house. I’ll give her a call if you like.” I liked and she made the call right then. Her cousin invited me to have lunch with her in Reading (then-headquarters of A-W), at the end of which she called her old college friend, an assistant editor at Random House. My manuscript went out in the mail the next day. I received a lovely, enthusiastic note about the book from this woman. And though a senior editor later decided not to go with the manuscript, I was really grateful to my hairdresser, her cousin, and the RH assistant editor. It was my first experience wading into the often muddy waters of publishing, and their kind support kept me going.  

A double-shot of kindness is walking the walk. Demonstrating our compassion by offering material assistance, or bending the rules when people need help.

After a health emergency put the kibosh on a trip to London and Sicily—just days before we were scheduled to leave—I was faced with cancelling a slew of theatre tickets or losing a lot of $$$. Our Air B&B reservations and flights were refunded because we had trip insurance for those, but theatre tix always come with the disclaimer that all sales are final, no refunds. I wrote the various box offices anyway, briefly explaining our situation and asking if anything could be done. All but one of the twelve theatres refunded our money, and many wrote words of sympathy, expressing hope that Ed would be better soon. I was deeply moved by their kind notes and willingness to respond in a human way to a human situation. 

Paying It Forward: The Ripple Effect

And sometimes kindness with a capital K simply comes down to paying it forward.

Jerry took his first trip to America when he was just 23. Sent by his London employer to represent their firm at a meeting in New York City, he was cabbing to what he desperately hoped was the correct address. Upon sharing his anxiety with the cabbie, he was stunned to hear the man say, “Don’t worry. I’ll wait out front for you while you check it out. No charge.”   

Jerry couldn’t believe it. After everything he’d heard about the stereotypical New Yorker—self-absorbed, indifferent—he was blown away by this man’s kindness. “I promised myself right then that I would always seek ways to do something nice for Americans visiting the UK.” 

He told me this story as I was dining out with two friends in a cozy restaurant off London’s Baker Street. Jerry was a regular—knew the owner, the kitchen staff, loved to mix American-style cocktails for the diners. Overhearing us chatting, he came to our table to ask what part of the States we were from, a conversation that lasted well into the evening. And then he offered to take us to Pinewood Studios and show us around. He worked for Lloyd’s of London in their film insurance wing, and was scheduled for a meeting at Pinewood in the morning.   

We were excited—Pinewood Studios is a legend in British filmmaking. Fiddler on the Roof. The Man Who Would Be King. All of the Bond films. Jerry picked us up from our dorm in Regents Park the next morning and drove us to the studio where we enjoyed a tour of all the major sets and lunch with Pinewood’s director.  I have kept this photo of Jerry for decades, a memento of one man’s generous spirit.

Show a Little Faith

When I finally managed to make it through the drive-time traffic last August, I googled Be kinder than is necessary. The full quote, variously attributed, is Be kinder than is necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.

One of the bummer side-effects of our deeply-divided society is the suspicion and uncertainty it breeds among everyone. Rather than nodding and smiling at people we pass, we are now sizing them up at twenty paces—seeking clues from their clothing, hair, make of car, accent, job, vocabulary—and making snap assessments. Friend or foe? The anger out there becomes anger everywhere.

Is this making us happier? Is this solving our deepest, most pressing problems?

Categorizing comes easily to our species, but people as individuals are a lot more complicated than that. Yes, we have a swamp of BIG pressing issues and we need to fight for a more humane, just, sustainable world, but if we can’t show a little faith in each other, can’t open our hearts and stand by one another, what hope do we have?

Be kinder than is necessary. We must make that extra effort. Take that extra step. Open our generous hearts. Because we ARE all in this together. Every day.

24 thoughts on “Be Kinder Than is Necessary

  1. Very interesting. In the TV show Fringe, one of the characters had a mantra taught by his mother (in Greek): Be a better person than your father. It struck a chord with me and I have it written (in Greek) in all my notebooks, both at work and at home. If everyone lived by that quote, imagine how different our societies would be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I googled this quote, Laura, and mostly got discussions of translations. My takeaway–it works best in Homeric Greek (LOL). Great quote. Thanks for sharing and for stopping by to comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I studied Ancient Greek as part of my degree, so Homeric Greek definitely appeals to me. I like the original version best, because it’s often translated into English as “Be a better man than your father”, whereas the Greek word is definitely human rather than man. The original puts the onus on us all to be kinder and more compassionate. Of course, it’s up to an individual’s interpretation what being a better person means…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Amy, I just have to say that your blog is my all-time favorite in the blog-universe! I look forward to your posts. The world doesn’t make sense to me anymore, but I can count on your writings to give me a little clarity and a better perspective. Thanks, Amy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Apologies for the time it’s taken to respond to your much-appreciated comment, Cindy. Blame it on the holidays (and also a little author shyness regarding praise). I guess your words are the perfect example of being kinder than is necessary, and I’m grateful for them. All good things to you in 2019.


    1. So glad to see you back here, Tom. I was afraid you’d succumbed to the deep distress of the times. Glad it helped you to read this because it sure helps me to write it. May your holidays be filled with whatever peace is possible in these hours of uncertainty.


  3. Amy this is wonderful! So thoughtfully presented with snippets of “real” moments where special people took the time to be kinder than necessary. It was very touching and quite eye opening about character.

    I often wonder if there are those of us who think in a perpetual “we” state of mind and others who remain in an “I” or “Me” state their entire lives. I think that may be the case and why many of us are so confused with the current state of the world. Whenever we lose the “we”… then mankind dissolves to its lowest form. Most people from my generation are still thinking in a “we” frame of mind. I know I raised my children to think that way and gave them positive reinforcement when kindness towards others was displayed. Both sons grew up extremely caring, one going into community service.
    We, as a society, do need to understand that we are all in this together. However, I think there are certainly individuals who find that behavior a sign of weakness. (Our President) And are too self centered to get beyond the “I”. Sad but true. Other than toddlers, no one should think that way. Obviously, these folks have never been taught that compassion and kindness makes life so much richer. (Way more than dollars and cents.)

    And what always seems to happen in any society that gets caught up in forgetting about the “we”, is that when the masses are unhappy they join forces and unite. And for a while their unity reminds them that they need to be “We the People” if they are to succeed and get anything accomplished. Teamwork!

    A truly wonderful post! Interestingly, the other day, I was shopping for food and a confused older woman was roaming about the isles angry and frustrated. I looked up from browsing the salad dressing and asked her if I could help. She proceeded to tell me that the staff who worked there wouldn’t help her find a certain sugarless energy drink that her doctor suggested she take as a supplement. And she looked as if she were going to cry. Now, this woman was older than I, but she could be me in a few years. So, my heart went out to her and I told her to follow me. I took her to the isle that had what she needed and showed her the brand her doctor had written down for her. I explained she just needed to pick a flavor she liked and she’d be all set.. She was so grateful. All I needed to do was be kind and walk with her and read a few labels. It took me five minutes. I tend to do little things like that all the time. Maybe because I’m getting older, or maybe because I think it is just a nice thing to do. Plus I hope that the universe will send someone to me when I am older and get confused. None of us can escape this world without needing a helping hand now and then.
    Yes, kinder than necessary is really the way to go. It’s physics, really. You get an equal and opposite reaction when you do something nice. (It comes back to you twofold because it feels really good when you help someone!
    Thanks for sharing Amy. This was inspiring and brightened my evening.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I often wonder if there are those of us who think in a perpetual “we” state of mind and others who remain in an “I” or “Me” state their entire lives.”

      I’ve been asking that question all my life, Lesley. It often does feel like we are two species, and that the struggle is eternal between those who view life as a vicious zero-sum racket and those who feel connected in a John Donne “never send to know for whom the bell tolls” way, with now one side ascendant, and then the other.

      Thanks for responding at such length and for sharing how and why this post resonated with you. If I had an award to give for the most thorough response to a post ever, you would win, but you’ll have to settle for my appreciation, I’m afraid.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I accept your appreciation rather than an award. Lol But your posts always make me think. So, when I respond it’s like we are sitting, having a cup of tea and just chatting. Therefore, everything your writing conjures up in my head comes out in my response to you. I sincerely enjoy reading everything you write and letting your words and intent mull over in my brain.
        BTW, I love your use of literary references. Ahhh the marvelous John Donne!!! It’s been quite a while since I spoke to anyone who could actually use him as a reference. It’s so refreshing to chat with you!!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. We need only think back to the difficult/desperate times in our own lives and how we felt when people helped us (or didn’t) to realize just how priceless kindness is. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful sentiment relevant throughout the year, not just during the holidays when people are often feeling a little more generous. Two thoughts come to mind. To paraphrase blogger Mike Allton, random acts of kindness ‘cost us nothing’, so why not? And perhaps more importantly, you’ve done a great job describing what a positive impact these acts had on the recipients. But what about the giver? Guaranteed you can take that warm fuzzy feeling and double it. Triple it. It feels fantastic being able to help someone else.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Lissa. Your observation about the emotional rewards to the bestower of kindness is a great addition to the topic, and echoes the Churchill quote beautifully.


  5. I reread your post today, thinking of the kind woman who saw someone hit my car, wrote down their license plate number, came into the store looking for the car’s owner, and then waited with me until the sheriff came. She kept saying “I’m sorry,” and I responded, “Sorry? I’m trying to think of a way to repay you!” She answered, “I just did what you’re supposed to do. . . . Just pay it forward if you want.” I certainly will.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So much of life is just that–paying it forward. I love the Warren Buffett quote: Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment here, Susan.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Your post put me in touch with the many small (some not so small) things that others have done for me. Co-workers who called me on my birthday when I was in FLA taking care of my father just after my mother passed away. My husband kissing my neck and telling me he loves me. My son giving me a hug. A family friend driving my son’s carpool when I got sick. Thanks for helping me remember!

    Liked by 1 person

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