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Redefining kindness

The art of being kind - cover

The art of being kind—or how to demonstrate that kindness, contrary to what society often claims, is not a weakness but an ethical quality. This is no easy task but Stefan Einhorn, an oncologist at Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm, makes a very convincing point in his book The Art of Being Kind.

Stefan Einhorn begins by observing that kindness has a relatively bad reputation, and is often likened to weakness, simple-mindedness or just plain stupidity. Einhorn, however, defines kindness as a form of intelligence: “kindness as I understand it […] is not the fruit of stupidity but rather of common sense”. It is a quality that enables us to live according to an ethics of the heart by taking the well being of others into consideration. Kindness redefined then as “the art of being human among humans”, gives it new depth.

Being kind is nevertheless not as easy as one might expect because we often find ourselves in situations that require thought and wisdom before acting. Is it possible to always keep one’s promise at all costs? Is lying to save a friendship acceptable? If laws and rules are by definition meant to be respected, they obviously do not always indicate the right thing to do, and may even lead to action that is incompatible with the reality at hand.

In his experiences as a doctor, the author has time and again faced dilemmas, sometimes monumental ones, in which he has had to choose between “doctor-patient confidentiality” and saving a person’s life: “Imagine […] that you are the doctor, and you are treating a woman for breast cancer. […] She refuses to tell her younger sister, with whom she has not had any contact for several years. […] If the younger sister does not get this information, she is at real risk of becoming seriously ill […]. If you tell the younger sister, the chances of preventing the illness are considerably greater, but you would then be breaking the law and risk being reported to, and condemned by, the disciplinary board (not to mention causing the older sister to be furious with you). What should you do in this situation?” This example shows that kindness requires common sense and good judgment.

Stefan Einhorn suggests 5 tools to help guide us in this art:

  1. “Ethical principles, norms, rules and laws […] indicate how we ought to act”;
  2. “Our ability to reason” that helps us avoid doing harm;
  3. “Our conscience, which acts like an inner compass”, it is our “super ego” (our “inner voice”) that guides us;
  4. “Our capacity for empathy” that helps us discern how to “do good” and what the other person’s needs are;
  5. “Our fellow human beings, who we can use as a source of advice, and as sounding boards”: do not hesitate to ask the advice of others before deciding on your own—it can be considered an honour for the other person to have been consulted!

The author’s point is supported with concrete examples that make it lively and convincing. In addition, this book provides the confirmation that not only do others benefit from our acts of kindness but we ourselves do too, because “no one can help another person sincerely and not help themselves: it is one of the most beautiful compensations in life”. This book gets the reader to think before acting, to take the time to think about the implications and consequences of one’s action, but it aims mostly at making us aware of the ethical responsibilities we all have.

“It’s a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘Try to be a little kinder’”, he writes in the last chapter, referring to Aldous Huxley. And yet…

And how could we not mention this golden rule that he has endorsed: “treat others as you would like to be treated”.

Let’s give this some thought…before acting.

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  1. k Aug 14, 2011 1:16 pm 1

    I really liked this video. The point he made (as an experiment) that it is not only what we say but what we do was very interesting too and I believe it is correct.
    But there are a couple of technical issues to keep in mind in this context.
    1) We should do good no matter if we benefit from it or not! That is even if we suffer from doing good we should continue doing good.
    2) To have a “metacausal intention”, which prevents us from stopping doing good if the person we try to do good to shows ingratitude.
    3) Etc.
    In general I think if one does not take into account such principles there are always some big flaws in that ethical practice.

  2. H.K Aug 15, 2011 10:59 am 2

    Thank you for sharing this video ! I can’t wait to read the book!

  3. star Aug 16, 2011 4:36 am 3

    The hardest test is to be kind to those who have wronged us because there is no incentive in it…this is fighting our imperious self…

  4. tig Aug 17, 2011 1:28 pm 4

    Thank you for this article and this video.

    About tools 2) and 3) I think it definitely depends on ones education of thought.

    “Our ability to reason” that helps us avoid doing harm;
    > well if you haven’t had the chance to get a right education of thought, then your reason might be faulty and you won’t behave in accordance with strong and right principles.

    “Our conscience, which acts like an inner compass”, it is our “super ego” (our “inner voice”) that guides us;
    > again, without a right education of thought, our conscience might not work properly. In certain situations it will ring the bell for nothing, and sometimes it will keep quiet whereas it should alarm us that we’re acting badly. The conscience needs to be educated so it can do its job based on correct divine and ethical principles.

    Also I think one needs self-confidence to put into practice those tools. For example, I may have a conscience working well but I often do the mistake to ignore it – I don’t trust myself so I don’t listen to myself. And it’s just afterwards that I realise I was actually right!

    I agree with you, the hardest test is to be kind with those who have wronged us. I guess we need to fight step by step, starting by people who are kind with us and then going deeper.

  5. SM Aug 21, 2011 9:02 am 5

    @ star: it is interesting that you used the word “incentive,” because that is exactly how I force myself (at times successfully and not so much at other times!) to be kind to those who don’t seem to appreciate it, because I feel that I have a huge “incentive” to do so: the is no material reward! In other words, when I am kind to someone and I’m immediately “rewarded” by their gratitude or returned kindness, I wonder if that has diminished the value of my action (in that it wasn’t very hard) or that I am already compensated for it. But when the person is ungrateful, indifferent, etc., I am reminded about what it is like to be kind to someone, be wronged by him in return, and continue kindness out I’d a sense of duty. And my “incentive” is the pure spiritual reward. That said, this is a LOT easier said than done!

  6. k Aug 21, 2011 2:16 pm 6

    In relation to star’s comment:
    What is even more difficult is to be kind to those who *are* wronging us (that is they are presently doing wrong to us).
    I think this is a very subtle, but extremely important point (that is, the present tense of this wronging) and I have only recently noticed it myself when reading a spiritual book (that is I noticed the tense of the verb).

    Now let us look at a situation were we have been wronged (i.e. in the past): I think the difficulty to be kind to that person is in particular when that person is (still) satisfied with his/her action and has no regret whatsoever. So in this case, there is a resemblance with the situation of being currently wronged, because when the person who has wronged us does not have any regrets, then in a sense we also feel that we are currently being wronged.

  7. L Aug 24, 2011 12:31 am 7

    Very interesting and so true indeed, but at the same time a hard principle to work on, specially when others dont do us good.

  8. NN Aug 24, 2011 4:46 pm 8

    Thank you for this article and video!
    @Tig I agree with you about ones education of thought. I think “our ability to reason” is important, because I sometimes let emotion get into the mix of things. For example, when I do an act of kindness sometimes I just do it because it’s the right thing to do, but if I don’t see that in “return” I can’t help sometimes but to have a negative thought. For instance, if I hold the door for someone and there is no response, I might say that person doesn’t care and what happened to people doing nice acts for one another. I feel like I start to judge others.

    For the most part I try to do good to others but it upsets me when I don’t see others also doing kind acts, and by me having a negative thought and getting emotional, I feel like it defeats the overall purpose of my act. This is my biggest struggle.

  9. SM Sep 01, 2011 5:50 pm 9

    @ NN

    I know this is much easier said than done, but who cares what other people do? Why should it have any impact on how we act if they choose to act incorrectly? So long as we are not allowing ourselves to be taken advantaged of (and basically following the well-established rights and duties principles), why should we keep score of whether others are doing the same?

    I don’t think getting emotional or having negative thoughts when confronted with ungrateful people defeats the overall purpose of your act. As we heard in Prof. Elahi’s recent lectures (assuming one subscribes to those views), we are souls; that is a very profound pronouncement and puts things in perspective. It highlights the transient nature of this life, and emphasizes the long-term consequences of spiritual actions. And another thing Prof. Elahi said was (and I’m paraphrasing) even if you put ethical principles into practice just once, that one time “counts.” We all have negative feelings and thoughts all the time. Who among us can claim to be able to completely control his/her thoughts and never have a negative thought. It is virtually impossible unless you have gained complete control over the powers of your self, and I don’t think any of us are there. So I would not sacrifice the benefit of putting an ethical principle such as kindness into practice for the fear that it may generate a negative thought. Because if and when it does, it is simply another opportunity to struggle against that negative thought and grow even more spiritually.

  10. Juneone Sep 05, 2011 4:20 pm 10

    Some useful points are made in this article. But in line with many of comments here, the real challenge is being kind in situations where it doesn’t feel “good”. I think most people won’t have a problem being kind to people that we like, or in situations where someone seems extremely vulnerable (like tending to someone who is sick or dying). The challenge comes to be kind to the cranky neighbor, or the unfriendly store attendant …etc. This is the more complex circumstance, where understanding our bi- dimensional nature, and our reason for being becomes so helpful.

  11. tig Sep 06, 2011 3:47 pm 11


    I agree and disagree.
    Indeed the usual situations where we tend to “forget” to be kind are when we’re facing people who might be unfriendly, who are wronging us etc.

    But I also find it very difficult to keep being nice with people close to me. Why? Because I’m even more exigent with them and so sometimes I can be less patient with a close one than with a stranger, just because I know him/her and exactly know his/her personality, what he’s doing etc.
    It might not be directly related to kindness, but I think it’s part of it, and I’d say it’s more subtle than we might think.

  12. NN Sep 06, 2011 4:22 pm 12


    Thank you for your response. I guess I never really thought of it that way, and I shouldn’t care what others think or do. I should be focused on trying to help others any way I can, but also as you mentioned too, not being taken advantage of. I am actually trying to shift my perspective overall in this subject, and not trying to over analyze an act of kindness. If my intention is right from the beginning nothing else should really get in my way.

    @Juneone you also mention something that is true, and sometimes it can be difficult if you see someone already in a bad mood and you think it’s better to avoid that individual and not get in their way. If our intention is right and we do the deed not worrying about the other person’s response will push us to do kind acts no matter who is on the other side.

  13. Sam Jul 16, 2012 5:56 am 13

    What a wonderful article and presentation by Dr. Einhorn. Truly fascinating! I truly enjoyed the experiment he performed towards the end of his talk reinforcing that our behaviors have a more profound impact on others than words.

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