Kindness is a Skill

Imagine that I call you up one day (we're good friends, on first name basis for years and everything), and I ask you to build me a house. Of course, you're very willing to build me a house (because we're such good friends), but you don't know the first thing about it. But I implore you.

You are distraught because you don't know where to begin. It's not like you were born knowing how to build a house — that would be very improbable. It would be like if you were born knowing how to read or write a novel or public-speak or play the cello professionally. At any rate, you'd really, really like to build this house.

So you start from the beginning. Maybe you nail together two pieces of wood. But you've never wielded a hammer, so it's hard the first time. You practice nailing two pieces of wood together until it becomes easy, and then you build larger structures using more than two pieces of wood. After you've mastered that, maybe you try building a whole wall.

You keep building and practicing and eventually you build a house. And after you've built a couple houses, you become really good at it, and you build me a beautiful house and we become even better friends because you often come over and we drink tea and talk about books or just sit around.

But learning how to build houses was never easy. Remember when you thought you couldn't do it because you had no idea how to begin? When I asked you to build me a house, you could have told me, "I can't build you a house because I don't have the mind for it. I'm just not able to. It's not in my nature." A lot of people seem to take this attitude toward math and programming, that they'll never be able to figure it out, even though, like building a house, these things are iterative processes of learning that take time and effort. It's probably true that it's naturally easier for some people to build houses. But nobody was born knowing how to build a house. They had to figure it out, and figuring things out is hard. You can seek more skilled carpenters' and architects' advice, but at the end of the day, you still need to expend effort to develop your own house-building skill.

Now imagine that you and I are not friends and that we don't even know each other. Imagine instead that you believe you are selfish and kind of an asshole, but you wish to be kind. Sometimes you say terrible things and your behavior often benefits yourself at the expense of others.

But you feel guilty about the way you are.

You want to be kind.

But you aren't.

You look at your friends who are generous and who consistently stick their necks out for you in situations you'd probably just avoid, and you think to yourself, "Dammit, they are so kind."

"And I am not."

You feel even more guilty because you see other people being kind, and you're unsure why you aren't able to act that way. Is there something wrong with you deep down? Maybe you start to believe that it's not in your nature. And you feel even worse.

But maybe it occurs to you that feeling guilty about not being kind is like feeling guilty for not knowing how to build a house when your carpenter and architecture friends do it with such ease.

Maybe it occurs to you that nobody was born knowing how to be kind. (I mean, do you remember being a kid? They aren't always the nicest bunch.)

Maybe it occurs to you that learning anything when you know nothing is hard, but the more you build and practice, the better you become. The more you learn about what it means to be kind. The more you learn about what it means to empathize. The more you see the house instead of the two pieces of wood nailed together.

Maybe you begin to understand how being kind of an asshole is also a skill, and that being kind of an asshole more frequently makes it easier to be kind of an asshole.

Maybe you realize that kindness must be practiced, that kindness becomes easier, but greater kindness is always challenging.

Not because you're fighting against your nature, but because you're learning.