What does ‘kindness’ actually mean?

From a reader:

In the posting titled “What men want”, several men identified “kindness” as a quality that their potential spouse should exhibit.  It seems to me that many kind-hearted women read that statement and immediately updated their online dating profiles to make sure some declaration of their kindness was included.  After all, if men are looking for such a characteristic, it had better be announced, right?  That must be the missing piece of the puzzle.  Tell the men how kind I am, and wait for the offers to come in.

Not so fast.  Words have meanings.  And the devil is in the details.

If you lined up 100 men and asked them what spousal “kindness” means to them, you’d surely get 100 wildly different responses.  Some might expect a pat on the head at the end of the day, and reassurance that tomorrow will be better somehow.  Others could see kindness in a refusal to tolerate any whining about his day, and an expectation that he will correct today’s mistakes and make tomorrow better.  My point is that even a positive characteristic like kindness can mean just about anything, depending on the personalities and the situation.

This makes your writing that you consider yourself to be kind (or loyal… or devout… or anything else, really) open to interpretation.  Personally, I don’t think a truly kind person would be comfortable bragging that they are.  Perhaps I am bringing “modesty” into the mix, which only confuses the situation further.  The bottom line is that we can write about our qualities all day long, but it really doesn’t accomplish anything of true meaning. Online dating profiles are a morass of unproven nothingness, and I sincerely believe that this is why online dating is so inherently flawed.  It may be “better than nothing”, but not by much. 

Where am I going with this?  So far, I’ve said that I don’t know what kindness really means, and I won’t trust you to tell me that you are kind.  So how can men possibly learn of your kindness or other good qualities?  I can think of two ways, and both require real in-person interactions:

– I’d like to hear it from someone who knows you.  From a friend or a relative or a co-worker who knows both of us, and thinks we might be a potential match.  Or just in random conversation.  Do your friends and relatives try to help you in this way?

– Or, because we share an interest or activity or “know of” each other in the community, and I can develop that opinion for myself. I can see you “in action” and see that your particular kind of kindness appeals to me.

I’ve written over and over about how Catholic parish life used to provide an environment for introductions and friendships and marriages. Not intentionally – there was no mission statement nor theology of such things – they just “happened”.  It’s immensely frustrating to me that our Catholic parishes have abandoned the kind of community life that many of our parents and grandparents used to make Catholic friends and yes, quite often to find their spouses.  This is not operating a “dating agency” as someone alleged in a previous article, and it’s not an additional burden for our tremendously overworked priests either.  Social activities do require organization and volunteers and time and effort.  But the benefits are that people can actually know each other.  In person.  Good things can happen naturally after that.

I think it’s true that words like ‘kindness’ can be vague. When I pointed out that so many men mentioned kindness as a desirable trait in a wife, I took that to mean someone with a kind heart – not resentful or spiteful, someone who is gentle and caring of those around them. A few people mentioned kindness in contrast to the trait many American women, in particular, seem to show when it comes to messy divorces; suing their husbands for all they’re worth, etc.

I can certainly see why this sort of kindness would be desirable and attractive in a wife. And while I’m not certain lots of my female readers are running to change their dating profiles accordingly, it’s worth noting that kindness is a virtue worth inculcating in general. Whether that means volunteering at soup kitchens, visiting the sick or helping an elderly person carry his or her shopping bags down the street.

I’ve noticed that building up a habit of random acts of kindness changes your behaviour towards others in general, and it seems to beget itself. It’s a really beautiful thing. Once you start doing kind things for your neighbour regularly, you want to keep doing so, and it becomes easier to do things like visiting elderly or infirm relatives and acquaintances in hospitals and nursing homes. This is just being a Christian, really, and something we all should strive to do if we claim that title.

The last point about community that my reader makes is an important one, which I delved into in a recent post. I’m now trying to revive this kind of community in my own parish, and I encourage my readers to consider doing the same, whether that means starting new events and opportunities or helping others do so.

Community is important for its own sake, not just for making it easier to find potential spouses, after all. And if we who value and yearn for community don’t step up, who will?

8 thoughts on “What does ‘kindness’ actually mean?

  1. I come from mostly Catholic roots. I’m not sure that there is much evidence that couples were always meeting through the community of Church. I grew up going to Catholic schools. I suspect more marriages came out of the Catholic school experience than out of the parish. I hardly knew my same age peers at Church that went to public schools. There were some efforts at general community within our church, but on the other hand the Church I attended was very large. Again the general sense of community came more from the school experience than the parish itself. People who had the most sense of community within the Church were those who had been members for the longest and may have had parents that attended that same Church etc. In my experience I had a lot of classmates whose parents who had attended the Catholic school together.
    As I look at my family tree you can see many married out of their clan. My family tree is mostly based in Chicago. As people became more mobile you can see the woman who attended church at the historically Polish Catholic church marrying someone from the traditionally Irish Catholic church. You get the picture.
    My own dad who would be in his eighties now had some exposure to these sorts of singles ministries but both he and his brother married Protestant women that weren’t from their geographical area. My mom converted. My father in law, not Catholic, married a woman from another state.
    I’m not saying there wasn’t some community within these churches. Today, and even before I was married there really was little buy in for these sorts of activities. I think these sorts of ministries worked best when people were less mobile and stayed close to their communities. My dad and his brother went in the military after high school. People leaving their communities for whatever reason when they may have been of marriageable age makes it harder to make these connections.
    I’m no longer a practicing Catholic. I just thought I would give my two cents on the issue. But if people are looking for that sort of community it may need to start with them, as you say you are doing in your post.

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  2. I’d also say that “community” can also work against you. Sometimes having a fresh slate works better for people. I can say there were people that looked good that I grew up with that looked good on paper, but I would have never considered dating/marrying. Some of these people just were not kind. For others they may have eliminated a lot of the community related to issues of social status. When I graduated Catholic school I’d known a portion of my classmates for a very long time, in my case 11 years. In 11 years you can get to know the good, bad and the ugly about people. Likewise if I had a classmate who didn’t care for me, it isn’t likely he/she would give someone rave reviews about me.
    I married someone who grew up in a small town but moved to the city I lived in. Had I ended up with someone from my Catholic community though, anyone who thought I was a loser or who had bullied me during my school years was off my list. I did have a few guys in that category express a desire to get to know me better after high school. No thanks. I’m sure that plenty of girls in my high school had their own category of boys who they thought were losers.
    My kids are in of dating age. To the extent the church we used to attend could have been a place to facilitate marriage, kids just ended up losing interest in coordinated activities before high school graduation.

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  3. Meeting someone on a dating site is difficult because you’re dealing with a dating site. Because it’s a dating site, expectations are heightened. People use profiles to make themselves seem more appealing than they actually are. As stated above, saying that you’re kind, devout and pray ten times a day doesn’t really mean much without real-life examples of those qualities.
    On a dating site responding to a message is akin to saying yes to a date. To me it seems that dating sites are pretty much self-defeating.

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  4. If kindness is a difficult word, we could call it generosity of spirit.
    Most women today are laying in wait to spot or detect the smallest of a man’s flaws, then to pounce on him and to darkly or angrily question his intentions, his abilities, his unwitting prejudices, whatever.
    When a man is ten minutes late and obviously mortified by it, a kind woman responds with a smile and understanding; an unkind woman uses it as opening to try to cut him down to size. The same holds true for any number of ways in which a man might fall short, or end up in need.
    A kind woman forgives a man his sins, if he’s obviously looking for forgiveness, and seeks to help build him up when he needs it. An unkind woman seeks to indict, convict, and crucify him for his sins, no matter how small, and doubly and with a kind of perverse enthusiasm if he’s obviously looking for forgiveness. She sees it has her job to utterly destroy “problem” men, yet any men that don’t meet the perfect feminist ideal tend to be “problem” men.
    An unkind woman doesn’t see the human beings in men, happening in shades of gray and episodes of trying-their-best and inevitably-falling-short, as is human nature. Instead, she categorizes the world into good men and evil men, into tyrant-chauvinists and “the tolerable,” and at length she and those around her discover that the “good” category is empty and the “evil” category ultimately contains every man alive and dead.
    I exaggerate, but only slightly. From the male perspective, it’s shocking just how venemous women seem to have become. It’s not just that they won’t forgive you your flaws, but that they are actively looking to (again) cut each man down to size as harshly and ravenously as possible.
    I know it’s impolitic to say what I’m about to say, but I imagine that many men think back to their mothers and remember someone nurturing that could be absolutely trusted with his emotional universe, someone who had his bests interests at heart and the best interests of others, rather than secretly hoping that he would fail so that she could extract a delicious pound of flesh.
    We don’t want women to be our mothers, necessarily, but we also see no reason to continue to spend time with women who don’t have our best interests at heart, but seem rather to fondly hope that we suffer terribly, as often as possible. We certainly don’t want our boys raised by such women.
    Again, it’s a very simple thing. As a divorced guy I can say that I’d still be married if it wasn’t clear to me that my ex-wife had come to hate me with the force of 10,000 burning suns—for no reason that I could ever discern. And this despite my best efforts. Educated, earned a good living, tried very hard to be loving, understanding, supportive. I encouraged her in every pursuit that she took up. I never forgot a special day or planned a special experience for such special days. I baked cakes. I made dinner. I cleaned up afterward. I intentionally helped with the children and the house as best as I was able, seeking to be an “enlightened” man. I never raised my voice. I never cheated or even thought about cheating.
    I did, of course, make mistakes. Sometimes I was late for things. Sometimes I would put the dishes in the dishwasher the wrong way. Sometimes I would ruin something in the laundry. Those little things—do it once and get yelled at. Do it twice or three times and be accused of chauvinism and being a self-absorbed man-pig. I never pointed out her sins; I sought to ignore, diminish, or silently forgive them. Iv’e always done that in relationships, with a smile. “It’s okay, that’s no big deal in the grand scheme of things! We’re all human, it’s no biggie, forget all about it!”
    I can’t say that I’ve ever been granted the same courtesy by a woman in my life apart from my mother and my daughters—and I dated for a decade and a half and was married for another decade beyond that.
    Sometimes it’s really simple. Kindness means kindness. In the way that we’d explain it to our three-year-old child. It means “Don’t be mean to people! Instead, try to be nice to them. Treat people the way you’d like to be treated.” It means don’t have the sharp tongue, without even a touch of levity, ready to snap and crackle 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It means don’t be a person that’s simply miserable to live with.
    It really is that simple.
    And it’s vanishingly rare today in women, in my opinion. Just being nice to people. In particular, just being nice to men. So many warriors for the sisterhood. They’d never say to other women the things that they say to men, or treat other women the way that they treat men.
    I know it’s stridently stated, but it’s my opinion and representative of my experience.

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  5. Sorry, the above should read “or failed to plan a special experience for such days.”
    On the theme of being imperfect…

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  6. Kindness is a nebulous way of putting it. I would say there’s a trap of falling into virtue signaling by simply working for a charity (especially when it’s combined with an instagram account). I don’t think random acts of kindness really do anything without the right attitude.
    If I were to sum up kindness, I’d probably connect it to the Christian concept of ‘agape’ love, or ‘caritas’ if you prefer the Latin. This doesn’t necessarily have to be shown in random acts of charity, but is more an attitude which is outward facing and looks to act in the interests of the other. And it’s extremely hard (for me it was impossible) to develop this without God’s help.
    I’ve met women who genuinely seem interested in what’s going on in my life, are curious to discover what my interests and hobbies are, and conversation seems to flow – rather than being a series of questions like a job interview, desperately trying to avoid awkward silences. They are a delight to talk to, and they just seem so much more attractive. This sense of being outward-facing generates a kind of warmth which other people want to stand around. And you don’t necessarily have to be extroverted or a social butterfly.
    Without this outward focus, you just become an all-consuming black hole which is constantly seeking attention and interest from others. Relationships become purely transactional (‘what can this person do for me?’). I see this in a lot of women I meet nowadays. I feel like I’m only relevant to their lives so long as I can keep providing them with entertainment, and conversation feels like dragging a deadweight. As you’ll see from a lot of comments, this has led men to form very negative opinions about women.
    (As an aside, I feel that very few women these days actually know how to have a conversation, since they all seem to have the same ’20 questions’ mentality.)
    I’m not claiming to be perfect myself, often I feel like I just view others in terms of what they can do for me, but it’s something I’m working on.
    This seems to be connected with the work of the Spirit, which I think Bishop Barron explains well at the 5:45 mark:

    Of course, this is a common theme throughout Christianity, and appears in the Philokalia and other writings as well.

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