What a Puzzle is Kindness

Henry James’ biographer Leon Edel uses an anecdote from James’ nephew Billy, who visited Henry in England in 1902 and says his uncle told him: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

As inspirational quotes will, this one morphed, by sloppy citation and wish-fulfillment, into something Fred Rogers supposedly came up with near the end of his life, when he had achieved peak wisdom. Of course Mr. Rogers would say such a thing. In fact, he did, but had the grace to reference the original.

Kindness memes, the only things standing between us and raging unkindness, pass around all the time on Facebook. But because this quote is particularly didactic and vague, its intended meaning shifts with each user and becomes an interesting puzzle.

If a left-leaning friend posted it, it might imply, Do not put children in cages. A right-leaning friend might mean, Do not forsake the dictum “And be ye kind one to another….” Someone else might be signaling, I am hip to the kindness scene and want to be seen as a participant.

That is, abstractions like this one are more often cudgels or self-promotion than bodhicitta. Be kind? It is neither more nor less meaningful than the slogan of that coffee company that markets to veterans on Facebook: Freedom isn’t free. It isn’t a safe space. It isn’t for the faint of heart. But, it’s the American way. Freedom on!

In an ideal world, even Be best could mean Be kind.

What, I wonder, do Facebook friends intend us to do? How must we act?

Is it kindness to let your pets have your bed and you sleep on the floor?

Are you kind if you know how to vote “correctly” without education?

Are corporations kind when they pay taxes to support the communities they depend on?

Would kindness include signing off Facebook in order to interact with potential recipients of kindness?

Or is kindness simply more “niceness”—another product of the meme factories—and smiling and waving as your neighbor goes down for the third time?

What could kindness possibly mean in the context of being faced with enemies, real or imagined?

Is it kindness that sends thoughts and prayers when children die in schools? Kindness when Facebook friends cry, “Lift them up,” on behalf of the sick, instead of demanding more funding for science?

I once knew an ex-con named Happy. Nice guy, convicted of murder (he said). He doted on his girlfriend, who lived at the rooming house I managed for a time in college. Happy chatted with me amiably, told funny stories, shared his beer, and never beat me up for making them have to plot to flee in the night before her lease was up. Happy told me he loved working at the slaughterhouse. He viewed it as a kindness that the bolt dispatched them quickly.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.