"Try a Little Kindness"

The following blog post is taken from an ethics speech that Upper School teacher-coach-mentor Tom DiChiara delivered to students and faculty. He shares why he believes we can all become kind people simply by choosing to do kind deeds.

Many people use the words "nice" and "kind" interchangeably when, in reality, there is a Grand Canyon-sized hole separating the two.To me, "nice" means being agreeable and polite, while "kind" means acting from a place of benevolence, caring,and empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

I don't want to minimize the importance of being nice in today's world; niceness—or, as we call it at Landon, civility—is no small feat in an era when people, emboldened by the seemingly safe buffer offered by email, text, and social media, reveal their worst possible selves online.

It seems each day that the news explodes with examples of people seething with meanness toward their fellow humans, assuming the worst about individuals they have never met, and then viciously attacking these people based on mere assumptions. If you want to see humanity at its worst, there is an embarrassment of "riches" to be found online in the comments section of news stories and in Twitter and Facebook feeds, as people rush to pass judgment on individuals and topics of which they have very little knowledge.

At the root of all of this behavior is a complete and utter lack of empathy. And here's a hard truth: You have all the tools at your disposal to be a kind and empathetic person. You have peers and adults who model kindness for you every day. You have a character education program, the sole purpose of which is to teach you what kindness and ethical behavior are. All that is left for you to do is choose to use these tools. And, if you don't, it may sound harsh to say it, but you are consciously choosing to be unkind, to not care for your fellow humans. Is that a choice you are willing to make?

I went to an all-boys high school much like our Upper School, and when I left there I liked the person I had become—or, perhaps more accurately, was becoming. I wasn't perfect. I'm still not and never will be. But what I have to this day is a genuine desire to care for other people. And with that care comes empathy—a desire to see the world through the eyes of others; to attempt to understand their point of view without rushing to judgment and certainly without resorting to hurtful behavior; to give them the benefit of the doubt; and to assume that there is more that connects us than divides us. In short, I have a desire to be kind.

I came to Landon because I wanted to be a part of giving that same life-changing experience to the students here. Of course, my high school and the Landon-esque teacher-coach-mentors who worked there weren't solely responsible for shaping me. I arrived at that kindness through a series of fortunate events and positive influences, including in large part my family and friends. These are likely the same influences molding the young men you are becoming.

Here's the rub: I'm an old man, and we live in a much different world today than the one I grew up navigating. I didn't have an email address until college, didn't have social media until I was pushing 30, didn't purchase my first iPhone until I was firmly planted in my 30s. The pitfalls for all of you today are—to borrow a word from former Middle School Head Dana Krein—myriad, the temptations stronger, the ability to be unkind much easier than when I was a teenager.

The good news for all of you captive listeners is that I do believe I have a few small insights to offer into how to be kind and, of course, why it's the right move. A big reason for this is my son Chace, who recently turned 3.Because I love him so much, I want him to be the very best version of himself, which—as you might have guessed—involves teaching him to be a kind person. Now three years into this process, one of the fun little things I have found is that Chace teaches me about kindness almost as much as I teach him.

For example, about six months ago, I was driving Chace to school, and a car cut me off on Old Georgetown Road. To add insult to injury, the driver did so without using a blinker, one of my pet peeves. I didn't say a word, but I did sigh rather dramatically and shake my head.

Then from the backseat of the car, my son's voice came crystal clear: "Come on, dude"—the exact statement of frustration I had used countless times before, sometimes in response to drivers sitting at green lights because they were texting, sometimes because they were going straight from a "right turn only" lane to avoid traffic, sometimes because... you get the idea.

The "Come on, dude" was not yelled. It was not said with animosity. But it was an expression of impatience that my son had picked up from me. And he was now using it to voice a frustration with others he had also picked up from me.

My initial reaction was a desire to laugh. But it hit me in that moment that by laughing, I would be doing my son a disservice. In fact, I had already done him a disservice the 726 times I had uttered those three words under my breath to nameless, faceless drivers who would never hear me, who I would never meet.

As I said before, I try to be a kind person. And I had convinced myself that by not yelling at the drivers, by not gesturing in certain time-honored fashions, I was modeling a certain level of kindness to the captive audience in my backseat. My son's "Come on, dude" relieved me of those notions immediately.

Because kindness is not just being civil, caring and empathetic when you are staring another person in the face; in its purest form, kindness is doing those things when no one is there to see you do them.It may seem insignificant, this whispering under the breath of a non-malignant phrase... but that's the point. It's the little things that matter, that add up. As my high school cross country coach used to say, over and over, "Everything matters."

I don't think my cross country coach was a big Aristotle man (he was a math teacher, so Pythagoras was more his jam), but his "Everything matters" mantra was intrinsically Aristotelian.

In Nicomachean Ethics, a 2,000-year-old manifesto on the meaning of life that is both timeless and timelier than ever, Aristotle makes a strong case that happiness is the highest good for humans and that repeated virtuous behavior over the course of a lifetime is a means of attaining that happiness.In a nutshell: You are what you do repeatedly, and by choosing to do kind deeds over and over again, you can become a kind person.

That word "choosing" is an important one, because kindness is tough and you have to choose it. It's not always the path of least resistance. It is often a path that, in the world today, is viewed as uncool. And yet, it is the right path, and it all begins with the little things, the things that only you know you're doing. Because if you do kind deeds when no one is watching, when no one but you is holding yourself accountable, you're going to be kind when all eyes are on you.

And, if everything matters, that means the big things matter too. It's not enough to hold your tongue when someone cuts you off on Old Georgetown Road. It's not enough to be kind to your close-knit group of friends and to pretend that you don't see others. Everyone matters. And kindness means noticing when someone is hurting, when someone feels alone, when someone is in need of a kind word or an open ear or simply someone to sit with in the dining hall.

Being kind means stopping to think about what your actions mean, what all the possible repercussions can be, before you act. Ask yourself how you would feel if someone did the same thing to you. And be honest with yourself when you answer. We are all more alike than we are different. Think about that the next time you want to make fun of someone behind their back or to their face. Think about that the next time you want to exclude someone from a conversation or a group of friends. Think like a kind person, make choices based on those thoughts, and you will become a kind person.

Next time you have a conversation with someone who doesn't share your political beliefs, listen to everything they have to say with the intent to understand it; don't just sit there and wait for your turn to share your position.

Next time a friend of yours is on the cusp of doing something you think is wrong, tell him or her.

Next time you see someone making fun of a classmate, politely tell him to stop and suggest that he look at the situation from the other side.

Next time you walk the hallways, simply pay attention to see if there is someone—and it doesn't have to be one of your close friends—who could use a little kindness. Be the one to give it to him.

Next time you're behind the wheel and someone cuts you off, resist the urge to whisper passive-aggressive sweet nothings under your breath as the other car speeds away.

Choose to do these things the next time, and the next time, and the next time after that until they are who you are.

Despite some of the nauseating things going on in the world—whether thousands of miles away or right in our own backyard—we humans have an amazing capacity for kindness, for empathy. We just have to choose it, even when all the external indicators tell us not to.

You won't be perfect as you aspire to kindness. You are going to slip up along the way. I've had to choke down several "Come on, dudes" in the months since my realization that I was turning my son into a 2-year-old road rager. But I do keep myself from doing it, and it's a conscious choice each and every time I do it.

Chace, too, is not the perfect bastion of kindness 100 percent of the time. Just a few days ago, he said to me as I sang along to Weezer's cover of "Africa": "Daddy, please don't sing that." "You don't like my singing?" I asked. "No, I don't," he responded. He was perfectly nice, just not exactly kind.

And yet I feel hope that the things that are wrong with this world can be fixed if we all just start with kindness. I feel it when Chace hugs his best friend who is crying after her mother drops her off at daycare. I feel it when one of you sees a classmate going through a rough time and goes to a teacher to ask for advice on how best to help. I feel it when you talk about things that matter to you, like founding a program to help orphans in Honduras or putting a roof on a school for blind children in India.

The thing is, you don't have to go nearly that far to be kind. You can start right here, today. All it takes is a little courage, thought and action.