Don Bosco put loving kindness at the heart of his way of working, and he was following a long tradition in doing so. Buddhism uses the word “metta” for loving kindness. The original Judaic scripture uses the word “chesed” (pronounced hessed) and even Homer, writing in about 800BCE, used the word “agape” which was later adopted by Christians to describe loving kindness. This cardinal virtue of the Catholic Church, often described as charity, is a natural healer, a builder of relationships and a sign of God’s love alive in people. So, isn’t it surprising that such a vital virtue is under threat in our culture and even in our family lives?
Our culture favours the rugged, independent individual, the soloist hero who needs no other person. Our homes and families can become so busy and fragmented that kindness is overshadowed by personal success. The business world takes can take a narrow view of work leaving kindness in the shadows as an optional by-product of the workplace. Those who help others are often seen as “soft”. Helping a friend who is struggling, for example, will often raise eyebrows before applause from others. Empathy is being overwhelmed by competition or success, and kindness could become a forgotten virtue.
But just because kindness is in the shadows does not mean that it is absent, far from it. Our experience is full of acts of random kindness that make life worth living. Motorists breaking down on the road, people short of bus fare and those involved in accidents all witness to the existence of a web of loving kindness beneath the surface of our busy lives. Here is just one example:
These acts of kindness seed our lives with hope and yet they rarely make their way into the newspapers that prefer to sell themselves on fear and disaster. Even in our conversations we tend to focus on what went wrong during the day and are less likely to name and celebrate the goodness we have received. We focus on fear and in so doing we depart from the preventive system of Don Bosco and lose ourselves in a network of fear that he described as a repressive system. That repressive system, operating in our culture airbrushes kindness from life and leaves us all poorer as a result.
Yet psychology tells us that loving kindness activates the same parts of our brain that sex and chocolate stimulate! Not only that, kindness reduces the effects of ageing, depression and improves immune system strength.[i]
So whilst being kind to others has seriously positive effects on an individual, it can also create a stronger sense of belonging and of community. The second part will only be true if we learn to focus on the positive, the kindness and the understanding that we experience each day.
Which means that we need to notice that kindness has been shown. Remembering the experience and perhaps talking about it later avoids us airbrushing it from our own lives. That remembering of loving kindness brings it from below our personal radar and allows us to share it with family and community. In time we will learn to see loving kindness and share it more easily with others and perhaps resist the competitive fear that stalks many of our lives. Don Bosco created a space called the oratory which was safe from the competitiveness of the streets and businesses of a chaotic area of industrial Turin. Within the oratory he created a home, a playground, a school and a church for young people. It was a school of kindness where the young people themselves received kindness and learnt to give it in equal measure.
Today that oratory atmosphere is needed more than ever. Every family, school and workplace can become a seedbed of loving kindness. This kindness is not for wimps - it takes courage to be kind because it makes you vulnerable. You may be laughed at or exploited or even attacked. Yet kindness challenges our individualised culture and can transform it from within. This is especially true for those who carry authority in the family, the school or the workplace. Terse, top-down instructions tend to create repression and resistance whereas kindness creates community. With community comes energy, self-sacrifice and healing. With repression, resistance and fragmentation are the long term results.
Don Bosco’s spirituality challenges every culture to build life around loving kindness. Partly that is because it works - it brings people to life. But more importantly Don Bosco realised from his early experience that in giving and receiving kindness he was in touch with the love that moves the world, a love which Christians call Father. Don Bosco saw this Fatherly love everywhere and in the most ordinary acts of kindness, smiles and gestures of understanding. Recognising that God was so close allowed Don Bosco to be cheerful and optimistic about even the most wayward young people.
Ten tips for putting kindness at the centre of your life
1. At the end of the day remember the good things that have happened.
2. Allow yourself to be cared for and praised by others and say thank you.
3. Notice how good and patient people are around you even if they sometimes aren’t kind.
4. When people get into a moaning session distract the focus to make it more hopeful.
5. Tell people you appreciate them and praise them often.
6. Don’t let your timetable become so rigid that you can’t help out a friend.
7. Forgive other people for not being perfect and trust them with a fresh start.
8. Risk being kind to someone who seems a bit scary.
9. Pray for those who are having a hard time.
10. Be gentle and kind to yourself when things go wrong.
[i] Motivation, Altruism, Personality and Social Psychology. Michael Babula 2013