Growing up, I never really thought about the term kindness, I was familiar with sharing and caring. Every time I think of those two words I think back to being in preschool and after kids had fought over a toy, the teacher would say, “What do I always say about sharing, class?” And we’d all in our sing-song voices reply “Sharing is caring, ma’am”. Sharing is a term that was constantly heard in my house as my brother and I fought over the TV remote as kids and the car as young adults. The concept of sharing and its importance to a good person was drilled forth into me. Thus, when I came across the word kindness I was enchanted it was another paradigm I could latch onto to believe I was a good person.

I like to believe that the people in my life think I’m a good person, they’ve told me that often. I know a few will read me questioning it and jump to inform me that I shouldn’t be mistaken, I’m a good person. Striving to be a good person, i.e, a kind, compassionate person is central to my identity; the desire to be one guides most of my choices. Now you must wonder, that’s a noble thing, isn’t it? What’s so bad in it? Once, as a teenager, I asked my mother, “Mom what would you like me to do with my life?” She replied, “I’d wish for you to be a good and happy person.” Yet, she often reminds me that there are boundaries to the kindness you show and although noble, it’s often not the best course to always be kind. The hypocrisy of her words had always annoyed me, but now as I reflect on it I have begun to understand what she truly meant to tell me.

During my journey to be kind, I’ve encountered situations where my kind acts have come to haunt me; even though I had only shown kindness to people who had asked for it. One cold morning, pre-pandemic, the coffee shop was packed and all but the chairs on my table were occupied. A man asked me if he could sit on it. I said yes, even though I wasn’t excited by the idea but the desire to be kind was greater. Soon he started trying to talk to me, and after making a few one word statements, I went back to my work, I didn’t want to be rude. Kind people always listen, isn’t it? Although I was taciturn, he continued to engage, seeing my new level of uncomfortableness, the baristas at the coffee shop asked him to leave. I forgot the incident, but I would see the man around campus often and I thought to myself, it’s a small campus and shrug my paranoia away. Until one day, I went off campus alone and saw that man there he again tried to approach me. I asked him to leave me alone, and decided to proceed home, soon noticing he was following me back to campus. Realizing I was in a dangerous situation I went to the police station where shortly after, he got arrested. The officers later informed me that he had been stalking me for days. My small gesture of kindness had led to me having a stalker. How could a kind gesture go so wrong?

I have had many similar incidents where I’ve smiled at a stranger and thanked them for their work, such as keeping the city clean and in reply they’ve asked me out on a date. Many times, my minutest gesture done with the desire to show kindness has led to my personal safety being threatened. This negative reinforcement has not only created a sense of fear in my heart but also caused me great despair. In the past 5 years I’ve been in the US, countless strangers have showered me with kindness, kindness which has led to my stay in the US to be a comfortable one. Therefore, I want to continue that cycle of kindness but often it feels that I can’t because I can’t be impartially kind and compassionate. I have to pick and choose to ensure my personal safety. Thus, it often feels “the ability to be kind is unevenly distributed”. As, most men performing the previously-mentioned acts of kindness would never have been in danger.

Due to my many negative experiences and now living in a city away from the safety of a college campus, I’m rarely able to partake in kind acts which forces me to feel an extreme sense of guilt. Whenever I see a homeless man on a relatively empty street ask for change, I always say “Sorry”, avert my eyes and walk away. I never want him to think I’m engaging in conversation nor that I have money, as I don’t want him to follow me home. Please, don’t think I’m making an argument towards being unkind or saying showing kindness always has negative consequences. Instead, I’m saying we can’t always be kind, nor show kindness equally. Our ability to show kindness is determined by our personal privilege. For instance, now that I have a proper job I without hesitation can buy my friend lunch if they’re short on cash but in college I couldn’t because I was always short on cash. Consequently, I think it’s unfair of us to judge others and ourselves if we are unable to show someone kindness. As they say on aeroplanes, first put on your own mask before helping others; It’s important to show ourselves kindness first so that we’re better equipped to help others when the opportunity arrives.

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Shivani Kohli

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