Radical Kindness

Radical Kindness

Author: Anne Vial
July 07, 2020

Radical kindness. I have been leaning on this phrase as a sort of shield against the period of social vitriol we slog our way through these days. “Kind” is often used as a mild, watered-down version of “generous,” as a delicate action without oomph. I am out to reclaim kindness as an essential and life-giving force to carry through this most fraught moment.

I start with the dictionary. It turns out that “kind” and “generous” derive from the same Indo-European root that gives us many of our “gen-” words: generous, generate, gender, genius, genesis, for example. But another batch of progeny from the same root sounds more like “kind”: kin, king, kindergarten; even Kriss Kringle makes his way into the derivatives listed by the American Heritage Dictionary. These two branches of the same root are on different linguistic journeys through our language. The line to “gen-” words has at its heart birth and beginning. The “kin-” track focuses on clan, nation, and belonging. Think of a group of things all the same: “That’s my kind of music!” Taken together, the branches produce an exquisite and beneficial tension—family and belonging bound linguistically to new birth and generosity. They are impulses moving simultaneously inward toward home and outward toward change; protective and brave, pregnant with possibility.

Why radical kindness? “Radical” has its own suggestive linguistic history. Again according to American Heritage, radical means “arising from or going to a root or source; fundamental; basic.” Botanists and mathematicians use radical this way. The next definition may seem more familiar: “departing markedly from the usual or customary, extreme.” Radical in this sense is chaotic and challenging, reaching out to something new and different. Radical kindness, then, is a double dose of the human ties-that-bind blown open to embrace whomever we encounter.

How does kindness become radical? What would radical kindness be or do for the world? The pull of kin and tribe is powerful, and the social identities of race, gender, and nationality used to define these terms are embedded in many of the current struggles with cultural difference. Rootedness is part of what humans value in community, yet tribalism makes us lash out at difference. The person who can look beyond individual comfort and safety or anger and injustice to act for the greater good is radically kind. I think of Fred Rogers’ unconditional acceptance of each individual he encountered and of Nelson Mandela’s choice of reconciliation over revolution. Is there a way I can learn to practice such radical kindness?

One possibility lies in the energy and power inherent in difference itself. Diversity specialist Verna Myers recommends an intentional movement toward difference as a strategy for change. In a 2014TED Talk on the project of dismantling the racism and brutality of centuries, Myers urges her listeners to “walk toward your discomfort” in pursuit of understanding. Walking toward what we fear requires more than common kindness. It is difficult—introspective but also outward-looking. It serves as a challenge to break open the protective boundaries of the familiar. She calls us to “go looking for your bias,” not to deny it. Myers’ plea embodies the outward movement of the generative roots of what is both radical and kind, but it also returns us to kinship—she argues that “people who can see your humanity” ultimately become “part of your family.” For Myers, this version of kindness can challenge and redirect the fear that leads to racism and the desperation that leads to the violence of reaction. I can’t help that I am a product of a society that has codified and ranked racial and cultural differences. But I can move toward that which I fear both within myself and in the world. It sometimes feels naïve to say so—but necessary too—we must be kind, radically kind, to cut through the clannishness of cultural identity and move toward a generative, chaotic notion of human family.



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