Kind people go beyond what's expected of them. They go beyond the easy response to offer the best of who they are. They do it without expectation of something in return. They do it because of who and what they are and their vision of the world they want to live in.
Most people would tell you I am a nice person. I was raised to be nice. "Be nice" was my mother's frequent mantra. [...] My mother, while generally nice, was not especially kind. Nice allowed her to keep her distance from most people and avoid connecting or interacting at more than a superficial level. She was almost always civil, but effort and warmth were generally absent for all but the closest friends or relatives, and sometimes even then her kindness was restrained. A string of losses from early childhood on had taught her not to trust or hope for too much, or to set her sights too high. She lived with a deep regard for safety and a persistent fear of more loss. With my mother as my model, I learned to be cautious, reserved, and nice.
But some years ago, I realized that wasn't enough. I wanted to be more than nice. I wanted to abandon lingering fears and set my sights high. I wanted to be kind. There's just something about kind people. By their actions, or sometimes by their mere presence, they make us feel good. They give us hope for the world. To me, being kind meant knowing at the end of each day that I had helped, that I was offering the best of who I am, and that I had perhaps made a difference. And it also meant spending less time looking for threats or failings and more time recognizing abundance and compassion. I saw that my life would matter if, at its end, people said of me, "She was a kind person." I could think of no greater eulogy. So I aspired to be kind, and frequently I was. But just as often, I was impatient, I was snarky, I was judgmental, I was indifferent or simply oblivious.
Being kind—truly kind—is hard. Nice requires little effort. I can be nice while also being indifferent, critical, and even sarcastic. But I can't be kind and be any of those things. Being kind means caring. It means making an effort. It means thinking about the impact I'm having in an interaction with someone and endeavoring to make it rich and meaningful—giving them what they need at that exact moment, without worrying about whether I get anything in return. It means letting go of my judgments and accepting people as they are. Kindness requires me to do something my upbringing discouraged—it demands that I reach out and that I take a risk.
Nice doesn't ask too much of us. It isn't all that hard to be nice; in fact, it's easy. It's also benign. Passive. Safe. One can be nice without expending too much energy or investing too much of oneself in others. One can be nice without taking risks. Nice is holding the door, smiling at the cashier; nice may even be dropping a couple of dollars in a homeless person's hand if we do so without looking him in the eye and saying a genuinely caring word. Kind is asking how we can help, offering our hand, jumping in without being asked, and engaging in conversation that goes beyond the superficial. All of these actions have an element of risk: we might be rebuffed, ignored, or disrespected.
Years ago, I had the pleasure of knowing Dr. Dale Turner, author, speaker, theologian, and extraordinarily kind man. He always carried with him and handed out little green cards with two simple words printed on them: "Extend Yourself." I've carried that little card in my wallet and had those two words pinned beside my desk for nearly three decades. It seems to me that the phrase "Extend Yourself' captures the essence of kindness. It also highlights the difference between niceness and kindness.
A life of kindness is not something that I live only when it suits me. I'm not a kind person if I'm kind only when it's easy or convenient. A life of kindness means being kind when it's neither convenient nor easy—in fact, sometimes it might be terribly hard and tremendously inconvenient. That's when it matters most. That's when the need is greatest and transformation dances at the edge of possibility. That's the time to take a deep breath and invite kindness to dance.