30 November 2008

An Ounce of Kindness

Photo #34: The kindness of strangersImage by elycefeliz via FlickrI read a blog post at Platonic Trip a while back that has stayed with me, kind of like a splinter that I just haven't been able to dig out. Its been irritating me beyond measure!

The gist of the post is that the writer was amongst a group of people approached by a man asking for money to buy medicine for his sick kids. Only one member of the group gave any money. The writer of the post outlined his reasons for not giving. According to his way of thinking the man asking for the money should have gone to the Church, or some Government agency to ask for help rather than bail up a group of individuals and try to emotionally blackmail them into helping him and his family out. The writer felt that there was no point in helping the man as he should have gone elsewhere to get the money he needed and drew the conclusion that kindness is a weakness and therefore not a virtue worth pursuing.

This post bothers me on many different levels.

I am not a fan of being approached by people in need asking me for money. It makes me feel uncomfortable. I like to have time to consider my options, to feel that I am not being taken advantage of. Giving in a face to face manner makes me anxious - I worry that I am not giving enough, or I'm giving too much, or I'm not being effective in my giving by giving directly to an individual. Given all this, I can relate to the fact that the writer of the post wasn't thrilled at being approached by the man asking for money.

However, his reasons for not giving seem shallow and badly thought out.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think it is a bad thing to not give money in situations like this. Many people are on limited or fixed incomes themselves and don't have spare for spontaneous giving. And the writer is correct, there are agencies and institutions in most countries that are set up to help people in just these circumstances. I'm sure the man in need could have visited them.

Perhaps he didn't know where to go? Rather than simply ignore him and his story, perhaps someone could have shown him a kindness and pointed him in the right direction to get help?

Was it really emotional blackmail appealing to the kindness of strangers in a time of need? I'm not advocating that anyone hand their life savings over to the first desperate sounding stranger with a sob story that approaches them, but surely, if you have a little money (time, food, other appropriate item) spare would it really hurt to share? Even if it does make you anxious or uncomfortable?

While his reasons for not giving disappoint me, the writer's conclusion that kindness is a weakness gobsmacks me.

Kindness is not the same as naivety. Its not blindly giving to everyone who asks, its not meekly accepting other people's bad behaviour, or unquestioningly believing whatever you are told.

Kindness is about choosing to make cups of tea for angry people because you know that your actions will make a difference. Its about being generous when you can do so, and respectfully saying no when you feel it is inappropriate or simply not possible. Kindness is about being strong and standing up for what you believe in, about being respectful and assertive. Kindness is about cultivating connections with others and building community.

Kindness would have to be one of my favourite virtues. It shows real strength of character.

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