By Tim Porteus

I WAS presented with incredible insight this week after I had told a tale in a P6 class. After the session, as the children were heading for lunch, a girl from the class came up and said: “I think the moral in that tale is that we should be kind, but that it’s often not easy to do”.

It was a traditional tale in which the tables are turned on a selfish rich man who had shown no compassion, but then hoped for kindness when he was the one in need. In the brief discussion with this young person, we agreed that it’s easier to show kindness to someone who we believe truly deserves it.

She told me: “I think the woman in the story did the right thing but if I’m being honest, if it had been me I don’t know if I’d have been able to be kind like her, because I’d have wanted revenge. That’s the problem, I think, we always think about revenge first. It can make us feel better for a short while but really makes things worse, well at least not better anyway. I try to be kind, sometimes it isn’t easy, but I try. Kindness is like a seed we have to plant.”

I shouldn’t have been bowled over by this, for I know a 10-year-old can have wisdom that many so called grown-ups have forgotten. But I was deeply impressed by her reflection on the story’s message, and her honesty and integrity.

This conversation also revealed the power of stories to raise moral dilemmas and human issues without finger pointing or being preachy.

And she is right, it can often be very difficult to be kind. The world seems so full of stress, selfishness, anger and intolerance that there seems little space for kindness, except towards those we love and care about. On top of that, it seems increasingly difficult to survive, keep a roof above our heads and pay the bills. Kindness begins at home and often there is little energy, emotion or resources left to think or care about others we aren’t responsible for.

There can even be a real fear that if we show ‘too much’ kindness we risk becoming a doormat, being used or treated unfairly. We can sometimes watch a child being kind to another and it not being reciprocated, and the temptation then is to suggest kindness isn’t shown next time.

“We need to teach people a lesson,” is often the mantra which derails our instinct to be kind; another way of saying we want revenge. And let’s be honest: cruel, uncaring and selfish people can take advantage of someone’s kindness and revenge does often make us feel better, in the short term anyway.

But is the answer to allow unkind behaviour to frame the way we want to live and be treated? Do we respond to unkindness with more unkindness in return? So consequently, cruelty with more cruelty, intolerance with more intolerance, selfishness with yet more selfishness? Doesn’t this mean that we allow ‘the lesson’ to be that kindness doesn’t pay? As Gandhi is famously reported to have said: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

The truth is, kindness is not weakness but strength. It often isn’t easy and takes great courage. It doesn’t mean that people should not face consequences for their actions, or that people should be asked to forgive the unforgivable. But it does mean not allowing the unkindness of others to define how we are. We should not allow such acts to clip our butterfly wings.

What do I mean by this? There is a theory called the ‘butterfly effect’. In this theory, it is said that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could cause a chain reaction in which a hurricane could be caused on the other side of the planet. It is not meant to be taken literally, but to show that a very small act, although seemingly insignificant in itself, can have huge, unforeseen repercussions.

In this way, kindness is a butterfly. Small acts of kindness may have a huge effect that touches people beyond the knowledge of the person who displayed the kindness. Acts of cruelty and hate also have the same power; but all the more reason to flutter the wings of kindness so the wind more likely blows in the right direction.

In this way, our behaviour is a butterfly. The way we flap its wings can have huge unforeseeable consequences, either for good or bad, both for ourselves and others. When we are kind, we actually makes ourselves happier too.

So to make a real difference, we need only do tiny acts that are easily within our power, and as often as we can. A smile, a moment you truly listen to someone, a helping hand, holding the door open, trying to understand how someone feels, making a cup of tea, not meeting anger with anger, trying not to gain revenge but a change of heart and so on.

This is what will truly make up the index of a healthy and happy society. And all of us can be players in this, and beneficiaries of our own kindness.

David W Orr, a professor of environmental studies and politics, has said: “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of every kind.”

Great words, but that 10-year-old school girl already got this. Young people like her give me hope for the future.