It was nearing the new year, and I knew I wanted a different kind of resolution this year: one that pointed more towards who I am rather than what I do. Instead of trying to “do more,” I wanted to “be more.”
Being on the brink of adulthood has given me a new perspective on the knowledge and experiences of my parents. As I tried to figure out who I wanted to be in the new year, I turned to them, asking what the single quality they worked hardest to impart to their children was. Maybe, I thought, this value would be something on which I could focus in 2019. “Kindness,” they answered, emphatically, joyfully, confidently. I, of course, could have guessed that answer, but realized only then that I was never clear on who should be the recipient. I had always understood their trained value as kindness towards others — but soon found that in the midst of chaotic college life, kindness towards others often comes at the expense of kindness towards myself.
When children, especially young girls, are taught the value of kindness, it is often before they have the opportunity to develop a true identity to run parallel. As such, they quickly begin to entangle real, personal value with a capacity to be kind to others. If their parents value kindness so much, they will, it seems, only be valued if they are kind ceaselessly and at any cost.
This compounds for young girls, who grow up with the added social expectations that come with a female identity: compassion, attentiveness and warmth. Before they have a chance to decide for themselves, they are taught to conflate female value with a capacity for kindness.
Like most other girls, I grew up in this way. Who I am, then, has become defined by how much I can give to others. If I am not always abundantly kind, I find myself thinking I am worth little. I have been subtly and accidentally trained to evaluate my self-worth based on the ease, time, attention and loyalty I can bring and show to others. That is dangerous and self-destructive.
I am also beginning to realize that kindness can become a defense mechanism against insecurity. When I can’t be the smartest, the most confident and the most successful, I fall back on kindness. Kindness can be unwavering and it does not depend on my place relative to those around me. It distracts me from feelings of emptiness because it demands that I turn outward rather than inward.
Kindness has a value that cannot be articulated. I believe that not just because it is what my parents and teachers have taught me, but because I have seen what happens in the absence of kindness. Bullying and sabotage and resentment are all products of a scarcity of kindness. That is not who I want to become. But kindness for appeasement and status is not kindness at all — not to others, and not to oneself. In fact, calculated and superficial kindness is the result of a subconscious training that one’s personal value is intrinsically tied to their capacity to give. So, if being more deliberately kind to others and myself and focusing compassion where it is needed, appreciated and reciprocated, will make it all more genuine — even if slightly less abundant — I have found my resolution.
I do not, in any near or far-off future, intend to abandon my trained instincts of compassion. Nor am I trying to devalue friendship, loyalty and generosity. Kindness will always be my most pressing and focused goal. It should not, however, be the end-all of self-worth. We value intellect, but also sleep. We value success, but also pleasure. And so, in the same vein, we should value kindness, but only as long as we make a pointed and focused effort to value a certain kind of selfishness. Not harshly and definitely not unkindly, but in a way that draws healthy boundaries to preserve a selfhood that often gets lost for many people, young women especially, in an ever-so-valiant effort to be known as kind.
Shayna Elliot | firstname.lastname@example.org .