Tales of kindness are as old as humanity and exist in all cultures in some form or another. Here are a few understandings of kindness and encouraging perspectives to remind us that the way we treat one another is the way we create and continue our world.
Ubuntu is a Nguni Bantu word for ‘humanity’ or ‘human kindness’ that describes us as existing in relation to how we treat one another and that we are all one. It may sound familiar due to the adoption of the word as a name for an operating system, but the original South African concept shares roots in Zimbabwe and Malawi, and there are related words in many sub-Saharan African cultures and languages. The equivalent of the Nguni word ubuntu in the Shona language is hunhu, and both refer to the essence of humanity towards others. Instead of representing an individual trait, the understanding of ubuntu reflects a life philosophy and way of interacting with one another. If we are kind to others, we are kind to ourselves. If we are kind together, we are kind both to ourselves and others. Ubuntu refers to behaving well towards others or acting in ways that benefit the community. This concept of kindness relies largely on the connectedness between us as beings.
Karma is best known as “getting what you give,” but Karma theory as a concept, across different Indian religious traditions, shares certain common themes: causality, ethicization, and rebirth. The Westernized imagination understands karma in the aspect of causality—that if we sow kindness, we will reap kindness. This understanding is rooted in a reading of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, as in this excerpt: “Now as a man is like this or like that, according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be; a man of good acts will become good…. and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 7th Century BCE)
The aspect of ethicization is also related, in that good actions and ethics create good, ethical people. Karma in this sense is not a punishment or reward, but instead the reality, law, and existence of consequence. Adding this concept of ethics to the understanding of cause and effect add to our understanding of the importance of kindness in relation to karma. The third theme of rebirth may be more difficult to understand for those who are less familiar with the concepts of continual rebirth and cycles of reincarnation, but reincarnation is seen as a natural and necessary derivative of the concept of karma.
Islam has 5 pillars that form the five tenets of believers and fundamental concepts of Muslim life, one of which is charity. The Arabic word zakāt refers to alms-giving according to your means as one of these fundamental and compulsory acts. Sadaqah refers to voluntary charity given of free will. These two are not interchangeable concepts, but the fact that this multiplicity of concepts of sharing and giving show the depth and importance it plays in Muslim life. Islam has many aspects that encourage kindness, but as one of the 5 pillars of the religion, zakāt and the sharing of what you have with others stands as one of the most direct and defining of the religion.
Derived from the religious Hebrew word ‘commandment,’ mitzvah in common vernacular means a good deed, while the plural Hebrew word mitzvot are good deeds. It is now generally used to refer to an individual act of human kindness and is intended to build upon the Judeo-Christian value of loving thy neighbor through actions and not only in thought. There are a variety of religious mitzvot which refer to more religious acts. These include the Biblical mitzvot, which list hundreds of commandments, the Rabbinical mitzvot, which center around actions that perform the faith of Judaism, and the constant mitzvot, which focus on the monotheistic nature of Judaism. Beyond the religious understanding, the importance of being kind and doing good acts to one another is paramount and constantly reinforced.
This Italian phrase meaning “suspended coffee” is a cup of coffee that is paid for in advance so that the next person who asks for a sospeso or ‘pending coffee’ receives an anonymously sponsored cup o’ joe! Starting in Naples nearly 100 years ago, this concept has expanded and morphed to entire restaurants like Karma Kitchen. One chairman of a soccer team in Naples has said that he will leave a certain number of pending coffees at each team victory. Caffe sospeso is a growing cultural movement that reminds us that kindness can be spread in little considerations throughout our day and can have a big impact.
These aforementioned concepts are only 5 interpretations and manifestations of kindness around the world, and we’re just scratching the surface. Deep diving into the multiple meanings and internalizing the beautiful expressions can be a powerful way to build your own practice of spreading kindness. Know that in being kind, you are being human.