Kindness first comes up in the Big Book in its discussion of Step 3 and the problem of self-will (pp. 60-61). We read there that “Most people try to live by self-propulsion.” Each person is compared to “an actor who wants to run the whole show,” and “is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way,” convinced that, if they all did as he wished, the show would be great and everybody would be happy. “In trying to make these arrangements, our actor may be quite virtuous,” we’re told. “He may be kind, considerate, patient, generous; even modest and self-sacrificing.”
But is he really being virtuous? Does the fact that he acts kindly in a given instance make him a kind person? Not at all. Even the cruelest person can act kindly at times—especially if it serves his purpose. In acting kindly, our actor only appears to be virtuous. He’s motivated by a desire to have people follow his script and dance to his tune. In Aristotelian terms, he’s acting “according to virtue” rather than “out of virtue.” He’s acting “as if,” not in order to become “as is,” but in order to get people to do what he wants.
Not surprisingly, people see through his ploy. They resist him. The show doesn’t go very well. The harder he tries, the more he fails. He becomes “angry, indignant, and self-pitying,” which emotions confirm he was “acting” (in the fraudulent sense of the word) all along and not really being virtuous. It was all a façade. Hence the Big Book’s conclusion by way of a rhetorical question: “Is he really not a self-seeker even when trying to be kind?”
“Our actor is self-centered,” says the Big Book, and self-centeredness is antithetical to virtue. Indeed, all the virtues are geared to wean us away from self-centeredness, away from seeing everything primarily in terms of our own self-interest and, consequently, acting at the expense of everyone else.
Everybody thinks of kindness as a good quality. Yet, as a virtue, kindness is not easy to grasp. On the one hand, the term can be generalized to the point of making it nothing more than being “nice.” On the other hand, the term can be conflated with other virtues. The reason for this is that kindness doesn’t stand alone but works with a number of overlapping and related virtues.
Step 4 of the Big Book groups kindness with three of these virtues: tolerance, patience, and pity (compassion). Together, these four virtues are offered as an antidote to anger and resentment. As they become ingrained in our character, they enable us to see those who wrong us in radically different terms: as being spiritual ill. “Though we did not like their symptoms and the way these disturbed us, they, like ourselves, were sick too. We asked God to help us show them the same tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend. When a person offended we said to ourselves, ‘This is a sick man. How can I be helpful to him? God save me from being angry. Thy will be done . . . We cannot be helpful to all people, but at least God will show us how to take a kindly and tolerant view of each and every one” (p. 67).
Because they are what we might characterize as benevolent ways of looking at the sick and suffering, such virtues as tolerance, patience, kindness, and pity counter the perceptions shaped by anger and resentment, which are characterized by ill will.
Kindness is the least specific and broadest of the four virtues and can encompass aspects of patience, tolerance, and compassion, as well as of such virtues as gentleness, generosity, sympathy, understanding, considerateness, and courtesy.
As gentleness, for instance, kindness is a perception of vulnerability or need, and a consequent desire not only not to hurt, but to help, and to help specifically by the manner of one’s approach: mild, soft, tender. This is what makes kindness antithetical to anger. It also distinguishes kindness from patience and tolerance, which connote refraining from doing wrong more than actively working to do right. Kindness wants to help, to reassure and to comfort, and this makes it a virtue of the heart. In this kindness is like compassion, but its field of vision is wider than that of compassion, which is concerned more specifically with actual suffering rather than more broadly with need.
As a virtue, kindness is acquired through repeated practice over the course of our recovery. Thus kindness becomes the subject of Step 10 in the 12&12, where it is grouped together with three other virtues as laying out the path to good relations with all: “Courtesy, kindness, justice, and love are the keynotes by which we may come into harmony with practically anybody” (p. 93). Similarly, Step 11 of the Big Book suggests that our practice of kindness be one of the issues we examine in our nightly review of our day: “Were we kind and loving toward all?” (p. 86), while Step 9 suggests that we start the new day by “asking each morning in meditation that our Creator show us the way of patience, tolerance, kindliness, and love” (p. 83).
And Step 12 reminds us that “Helping others is the foundation stone of your recovery. A kindly act once in a while isn't enough. You have to act the Good Samaritan every day, if need be” (p. 97). To be kind is to be of service to those in need. And the need is to be found everywhere: in our homes, in our neighborhood, at work, at church, and in all our relationships and affairs. This makes the virtue of kindness central to working the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, whose overarching purpose for our lives is summarized in two words: “love and service.”
[Image: Felicia G., early AA member and author of “Stars Don’t Fall” in the Big Book. For Q&A about her story, please click on link. Felicia was sponsored by Marty M., author of the Big Book's "Women Suffer Too."]