“It’s free to be kind,” says graffiti on a hoarding of a building site.
The graffiti is written with a black marker, the letters are no more than six inches high. Only someone passing on foot would even notice the words.
It’s hard to imagine the writer often engages in graffiti – and writing on the plain white surface of the hoarding seems an odd way of expressing kindness – but what about the substance of the message? Is it free to be kind?
Kindness was at the heart of primary school education in the 1960s. At High Ham Primary School, it was expected that kindness would be accompanied by respect and politeness towards everyone. “Courtesy costs nothing,” was the maxim impressed upon us. Even those whom we disliked should be treated respectfully. Kindness, we were told, would make enemies into friends.
Our lessons in kindness probably owed as much to stories from classical civilization as to any Christian theology from the Diocese of Bath and Wells, to which the school belonged. Aesop’s Fables featured regularly in teaching and in reading. The most memorable tale of the efficacy of kindness was The North Wind and the Sun. The story told us that warmth and friendship were the most powerful ways in which to change people.
Miss Rabbage, our teacher, had been born in 1912 and had been a teacher in the 1930s and through the Second World War. We held her in great respect because our parents would have told us many stories of the times through which they all had lived. To come through those times and still to teach about kindness must have taken a great effort of will.
Sometimes, life would have been easier if there had not been those years in which kindness was inculcated in every pupil. Sometimes, to have grown up learning selfishness would seem to have been a better preparation for life.
Selfishness is tolerated. Selfish people are accepted as being that way. Should a selfish person act out of character and show signs of altruism, then it is thought something praiseworthy.
Kindness, on the other hand, is taken for granted. The gentle qualities taught by Miss Rabbage cause no-one to remark, no-one even to notice. However, no matter how kind a person may have been, one incidence of selfishness brings condemnation in terms stronger than would ever be applied to those who are selfish.
Looking after number one can sometimes seem a better choice because it is certainly not free to be kind.