Bryan Gould: Kindness is truly the key to our survival

As President of the Council of Trade Unions Helen Kelly devoted her life to persuading people to treat each other kindly. Picture / Paul Estcourt
As President of the Council of Trade Unions Helen Kelly devoted her life to persuading people to treat each other kindly. Picture / Paul Estcourt

In what proved to be her last television interview before her untimely death, Helen Kelly explained that her antipathy to Donald Trump was because he was "so unkind", and she went on to say "I want people just to be kind."

This was more than simply the dying wish of a good woman. In identifying "kindness" as the quintessential human virtue, she expressed a central truth about our world.

We all know what "kind" means. "Kindness" is a virtue we all recognise. It is so much part of our lives, if we are lucky, that we are inclined to overlook its importance.

Kindness means being gentle, being thoughtful, being compassionate, being tolerant, being generous, acting with goodwill, wanting to please and to give pleasure, thinking of others - we can all elaborate on our own definitions. But kindness is unmistakable when we come across it - and, whether directed to each other or to animals, it is always welcome and gives us pleasure when we do.

It is the highest and truest expression of what it means to be human. It recognises our special responsibilities as humans - those that arise because, by virtue of our intelligence, rationality and accumulated knowledge, we understand more clearly not only the joys and opportunities of our existence, but also the pitfalls and the precariousness of that existence.

Those responsibilities are owed first to our fellow-humans. We understand that to live according to the model Tennyson described as "nature red in tooth and claw", where we each compete with and seek to do down everyone else, is a recipe for disaster - for pain, loss, suffering, for - in a word - "unkindness". We need look only at the tragedy of Aleppo to see where that leads.

"Kindness", on the other hand, invites us to recognise and celebrate our common humanity - the one quality we can all be sure of sharing at the moment of birth. Who can tell at that moment what fortune has in store for us, what qualities we will enjoy or lack and what use we will make of them? The one thing we know is that, in that state of ignorance, we would willingly enter human society only on the basis that we all started off entitled to the same level of respect and basic rights by virtue of the common humanity we all share.

The failure to treat each other kindly can lead only to more conflict, unhappiness and unfairness, more distress and disappointment, to more resentment and violence, to a society - even for those members of it that do best - that is literally unhappy with itself.

A society that accepted that kindness was the basis of our relations with all others we come across would obviously be a happier place - but it would also be safer place. It is surely now becoming apparent that we have limited time in which to learn some pretty important lessons.

Photo / Brett Phibbs
Photo / Brett Phibbs

We now know, or should, that by virtue of the knowledge we have acquired, we are now uniquely able - if we so wish - to destroy ourselves. The means of doing so are clearly available. Nuclear weapons, chemical and biological warfare, are no longer the stuff of science fiction but are current realities and are increasingly likely to be deployed - as they have been already.

And those willing against all rationality and common sense to use them can readily be identified. Think only of a Donald Trump - yes, him again - with his finger on the nuclear trigger, or of a Kim Jong-Un playing the big man, or of religious extremists convinced that destroying the world will guarantee them a place in heaven.

If we go on as we are, being unkind to each other, playing up our differences, competing against each other to the nth degree, ignoring our common humanity, it is only a matter of time. It is not the survival of the fittest, but survival pure and simple, that is at stake.

Our special responsibilities extend not only to our fellow humans. If we get it wrong, we destroy not only ourselves but all other living creatures and the planet itself.

By virtue of our achievements, and our knowledge of the world, however, we have a chance to recognise these dangers, and to learn the lessons we need to apply if they are to be avoided. We need to rise above what some may see as our natural instincts, and to achieve a more advanced state of existence based on an elevated understanding of our true situation.

We cannot afford to let the accidents of evolution determine who and what survives and what does not. We need to intercede, to take a hand in shaping our own evolution, to recognise the responsibilities we owe, by virtue of our superior knowledge, to all our fellow-creatures.

We need quite consciously to educate and train ourselves, starting with our own immediate communities, so that we treat each other better, with common humanity.

Helen Kelly, having devoted her life to persuading us to treat each other kindly, got it right on her deathbed as well - perhaps even more right than she knew. Kindness is not only the key to our happiness and success as a species but to our very survival as well.

New Zealander Bryan Gould was a Labour MP in Britain during the Thatcher years.

- NZ Herald

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