I don’t know exactly how I came to be this way, but I think it was through some study of world religion and philosophy and just a lot of thinking. I’m an introvert, so thinking is what I do. I believe that kindness is the ultimate behavior in humans, and somewhere about the time of my mid-30s I set my mind on becoming kind, truly kind, and I mean I really set my mind to it.
Sometimes, it costs me greatly. I’ve been bullied in work and in life, and you might think that might sway me to be a little less kind, but it really hasn’t. The bullying just made me remember how awful it feels to be on the receiving end of meanness, and I became more determined than ever to be kind.
Now, I’m no saint and not nearly where I would like to be. I know I need to work harder. I’ve lost my temper a few times and been mean to people, but the anguish and regret I feel after behaving that way are so great that I’ve been able to, for the most part, remain kind to people and animals consistently.
I think my realization about the importance of kindness first started when I studied world religions. I grew up within a fairly strict Christian religion and believed in my early life that my religion was the “right” religion, but I always wondered and questioned which rule I was supposed to follow. Was it “an eye for an eye” or was it “turn the other cheek”? I always, even as a child, liked the “turn the other cheek” much better.
Then, I learned that every single major world religion, in one way or another, has what Christians call “The Golden Rule” or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The wording varies, of course, but the idea is the same. I thought to myself “If most people on the planet are teaching this same basic rule, there has to be something to it.”
Over time, through my experiences with people and becoming a farmer and dealing more with animals, I have begun to believe that I’m “right,” in as much as I believe anyone can be “right,” about the value of kindness. As I see how people and animals respond to my behavior, I’ve grown encouraged, strengthened, and more determined.
But, of late, I’ve been questioning my life’s philosophy, which is never fun.
I tend hang out on social media too much because I work online and blog, and the angry back and forth has been wearing me out emotionally. On top of this, we’ve seen some aggressive moves by our political leaders, which seems to serve only to turn both sides against each other more. How long can we keep this up? What can we do to find common ground? How can we get to where we can be kind to each other?
In the last few weeks, I began to question whether or not I’m doing the right thing as a person and a mom in emphasizing kindness in our home. Is being kind really that valuable and important? Should I be teaching my boys to “turn the other cheek”? Am I just setting them and myself up for failure in a culture that admires bullying if it “gets things done.”
Then, the universe gave me a sign.
Last weekend, on the way home from grocery shopping, I was driving the back roads home in my husband’s pickup and turned on NPR. There was a program on about “tit for tat.”
You’ve probably heard the expression “tit for tat,” which just means giving back what you get. If someone’s mean to you, you’re mean back, and if someone’s nice to you, you’re nice back. It’s a classic concept, but scientists, mathematicians, biologists, and philosophers have studied “tit for tat” more deeply.
In 1984, a political scientist name Robert Axelrod published a book called The Evolution of Cooperation, in which he asserts there’s a great advantage to cooperation and kindness.
It turns out that being nice first actually works both as an offensive and defensive strategy. It doesn’t work all the time, but it’s consistently the most effective strategy. Researchers continue test Axelrod’s theories using computer simulations, and it’s true, there’s a great advantage to being nice first.
Researchers have applied this to various examples in human history, from the Christmas celebrations on the western front during World War I to politics and business negotiations. If you’re mean, you can bet the other side’s going to be mean back, and the whole thing will escalate. But, if you’re nice first, usually, the battle ends.
I’ve seen it in my personal life as well. I’ve seen my husband be so kind to a grumpy cashier at the grocery store that the cashier’s mood will completely transform. I’ve had a cashier at Target thank me for being so kind to her. She told me it made her day easier. Guess what? This made my day better too!
And one of our friends, who was, at first, a little critical of the way I “spoiled” our chickens admitted later that it’s much easier to do things like health inspections and wing feather clipping if you’re chickens will come right up to see you. It really is easier to care for chickens when they trust you and feel safe.
Learning more about “tit for tat” and the power of being nice first has helped me remember that we should all aim for kindness in our interactions with each other, with animals, and with our planet. It’s not always easy, but it’s highly effective. I know it makes me feel better about myself as a human being. I’m going to remember that it’s our human kindness that will get us through though times.