Why It's Sometimes Easier to Be Kind to Strangers Than Family

by Janet Arnold-Grych

“Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
—John Watson

Kindness is an extension of our core humanness, of our ability to connect to something beyond ourselves. In so doing, we expand our ability to come more fully into who we are. One might reasonably assert that we could most easily offer kindness to those with whom our long-form stories are interwoven—the members of our family. Families are, of course, messy, but even in the best of circumstances, it can feel more natural to extend compassion to those we barely know than those who know our middle names. Why is it that kindness is often easier at arm’s length?

I thought about this following a recent qi gong/tai chi retreat. Sitting in that big, silent room, one of our first exercises was to go around the circle and introduce ourselves. Among the 14 of us, struggle—large and small—was a common theme. There was a newly retired couple wondering about the next chapter; a young mother looking to rediscovery her identity; a woman who had lost her job and her direction; a physician trying emotionally and financially to redefine her practice to assist patients with end-of-life care; and a man who, each day, had to tell his wife of 50 years who he was, as dementia had erased him from her memory.

My heart felt as if it grew wider with each shared story. I recalled the plaque in the Kripalu stairwell: “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” In response, I found myself reaching out to my retreat companions across the weekend to listen or walk with them. With those we don’t really know, kindness often pairs with the simplicity of the present moment, of being able to offer compassion without entanglement or expectation. It’s an exchange without commitment to anything beyond the “now”; we interact, acknowledge each other, and part ways.

Among those with whom we have a close relationship, however, such interactions can be a whole lot messier, because they come front-loaded with history, assumption, and expectation. To mitigate that messiness, we sometimes end up pulling back. I know I am guilty of downsizing my efforts toward kindness to a sort of “give-and-run”: “Just wanted to drop this meal off.” “Just wanted to say hello, hope you’re doing okay, talk later.” Messiness averted.

That type of approach may be efficient, but it’s clearly one-sided, because the focus is on what the giver wants to deliver rather than what the receiver needs to experience. So, how to overlay an approach that is less self-centered and more kind?

Kicking this around led me to professor and author Brené Brown and some of her wonderful insights on empathy. (Here’s her fun animated video about the qualities of empathy.) Brown sees empathy as grounded in an ability to truly connect with another. If I am able to see another’s perspectives/emotions, and then draw on some slice of when I’ve felt a similar emotion—frustration, fear, sadness, etc.—I can more readily move into empathy with that other person. I can shift away from my expectation around how an encounter should go, and instead become more present to what that person needs. I can, in effect, become kinder. 

Sharon Salzberg writes, “Kindness is compassion in action. It is a way of taking the vital human emotions of empathy or sympathy and channeling those emotions into a real-life confrontation with ruthlessness, abandonment, thoughtlessness, loneliness—all the myriad ways, every single day, we find ourselves suffering or witnessing suffering in others.”

Opening to another’s perspective and relating just a bit to their prevailing emotions doesn’t mean entanglements or expectations will dissolve. It’s likely that sitting with your once-affable grandfather while he rants against his caretakers will still be difficult, as will comforting the sibling who doesn’t even think to ask how you are before launching into their sob story. Leading with an empathic view, however, can help kindness flow just a little easier and extend just a little farther—with those we love most as well as those we’ve just met. 

Find out Sharon Salzberg's programs on loving-kindness at Kripalu.

Janet Arnold-Grych is a yoga teacher and writer whose work has been published in Elephant Journal, Huffington Post, Third Coast Digest, and other outlets.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please email editor@kripalu.org.