A Theory of Kindness: My Birthday Post

It’s my birthday today. My wonderful fiancé has a surprise evening planned for me, and I am truly giddy with excitement for tonight.

But, until then, it’s a normal day—I’m working, writing, thinking, as I continue my research and daily work commitments. It’s that last one that tickles my soul though…it’s not a normal day, right? So, I decided to post a few reflective thoughts. Another year alive has probably brought a touch more cynicism—that's to be expected, I guess—but my added year of life has also led me to believe, more than ever, in the power of kindness.

Kindness: it doesn’t mean less diligent, it doesn’t mean weak, it doesn’t mean idealistic. It’s a word about ethics, about disposition, about virtue. People who understand and practice kindness are the essence of true strength—they have the power to control their minds in work or at home, the wisdom to recognize the impact of kindness in stressful situations, the humility to let it seep into their emotions during memorable life moments.

A few months ago, I was picking up a loaf of bread—a delicious whole wheat quinoa loaf!—at this great French bakery by our apartment. I stop by semi-frequently, and, I suppose, enough to recognize some of the employees. It was late in the evening, and I was pretty tired from my day. I walked in, and one of the employees behind the counter predictably said: “Hi, how are you? What can I get you?” And I replied instinctively, without thinking: “I’m good, thanks, how are you?” followed by a pause. The employee gave a subtle, but noticeable, look of bewilderment. He then said: “Oh! I remember you—you are the person who always comes in, and asks us how we are, and then waits for us to answer.” He then goes and tells his co-worker that this is the guy who is always so kind—she turns around, smiles, and recognizes me—and he continues to tell me how no one actually waits for him to answer, and how much he appreciates it. We small talked for a second, he placed my bread in the slice machine (and also gave me a complimentary dessert!), I paid, and walked back home. It was the best compliment I had received in a very, very long time. But I did not do anything special—it was just kindness working its magic within the confines of the most routine, everyday action and interaction.

One of the websites I really love to read—when I have the time—is a blog called “Wait But Why.” The author generally picks topics that are often abstract, if not mundane, and breaks them down in rational ways. In his post about the life-spans of humans, he created a visual representation of a long human lifespan of 90 years. And, when, breaking it down by weeks, he writes:

"Sometimes life seems really short, and other times it seems impossibly long. But this chart helps to emphasize that it’s most certainly finite. Those are your weeks and they’re all you’ve got.
Given that fact, the only appropriate word to describe your weeks is precious. There are trillions upon trillions of weeks in eternity, and those are your tiny handful.”

You can read the rest of his post here (and look at his chart) about comparing the weeks of our lives to precious gems—it’s quite fascinating, if not eye-opening (and also a bit scary, too!). But, taking to heart his point about making the best use of our weeks, I think about how a theory of kindness helps us to do this. In fact, kindness is one of the most practical and significant characteristics in making each year great—and making each day, yes, precious. I think about how kindness contributes to my own self-happiness, such as feelings of personal joy with exhibiting kindness with friends and family, whether that a gift, or a simple smile or hug. I think about how kindness contributes to business success, such as how my brother, CEO of a large fashion company, shows kindness to his employees, which increases their morale and productivity. I think about how kindness can turn mundane moments into memorable moments for people in routine situations, such as my encounter with the employee at the bakery. I think the kindness shown by one of my mentors, that, no matter the situation, will find a way to inspire that student in a way that brings out the best in him/her. And, I think about how kindness is the greatest indicator of meaningful, lasting relationships: the people in our lives who bring us down, who show negativity, will eventually fade away, but the people who are kind—in all facets of life—are those who we remember and who help make our lives precious.

So, be kind today and everyday. Kindness is a trait; it is both inherent but also, I believe, learned and practiced. I hope, one (far away!) day from now, when I am no longer celebrating birthdays, that I will be remembered as someone kind—like my grandpa, like my mom, like my brother, like some my co-workers and mentors, and so many other people in my life. I thank you for your kindness, and I promise to continue my pursuit of lasting kindness, too.

With love,


P.S. I'll leave you with one of my favorite poems, about education, about fatherhood, about kindness, that my beloved English teacher shared with me almost a decade ago.

September, The First Day Of School by Howard Nemerov

My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go. My selfish tears remind me how
I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.

Each fall the children must endure together
What every child also endures alone:
Learning the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That worlds invisible and visible

Bow down before it, as in Joseph's dream
The sheaves bowed down and then the stars bowed down
Before the dreaming of a little boy.
That dream got him such hatred of his brothers
As cost the greater part of life to mend,
And yet great kindness came of it in the end.

A school is where they grind the grain of thought,
And grind the children who must mind the thought.
It may be those two grindings are but one,
As from the alphabet come Shakespeare's Plays,
As from the integers comes Euler's Law,
As from the whole, inseperably, the lives,

The shrunken lives that have not been set free
By law or by poetic fantasy.
But may they be. My child has disappeared
Behind the schoolroom door. And should I live
To see his coming forth, a life away,
I know my hope, but do not know its form

Nor hope to know it. May the fathers he finds
Among his teachers have a care of him
More than his father could. How that will look
I do not know, I do not need to know.
Even our tears belong to ritual.
But may great kindness come of it in the end.