The Virtue of Kindness

Felicia G.,

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."]

Big Book"So we clean house with the family, asking each morning in meditation that our Creator show us the way of patience, tolerance, kindliness and love." – Big Book, p. 83

"Courtesy, kindness, justice, and love are the keynotes by which we may come into harmony with practically anybody." – 12&12, p.93   

Life Recovery Bible"Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up." – Proverbs 12:25
"[C]lothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience." – Colossians 3:12   

"Deeds of kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments." – The Talmud   

Buddha "It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice." – Buddha

"Act with kindness but do not expect gratitude." – Confucius

"Be kind to everyone, for we are all fighting a hard battle." – Plato   

"Kindness is ever the begetter of kindness." – Sophocles

"No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted." – Aesop

"Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness." – Seneca   

St. Basil
"He who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love." – St. Basil   

Henry Burton"Have you had a kindness shown? / Pass it on; / 'Twas not given for thee alone, / Pass it on; / Let it travel down the years, / Let it wipe another's tears, / 'Til in Heaven the deed appears – Pass it on." – Henry Burton

William Wordsworth
"The best portion of a good man's life: his little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love." – William Wordsworth   

Samuel Johnson
"Kindness is in our power, even when fondness is not." – Samuel Johnson   

Adam Lindsay Gordon
"Life is mostly froth and bubble, / Two things stand like stone. / Kindness in another's trouble, / Courage in your own." – Adam Lindsay Gordon   

Mother Teresa
"Be the living expression of God's kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile." – Mother Teresa   

Alice Childress
"Life is just a short walk from the cradle to the grave, and it sure behooves us to be kind to one another along the way." – Alice Childress   

Kahlil Gibran
"I have learned . . . kindness from the unkind." – Kahlil Gibran

George Eliot"A friend is one to whom one may pour out the contents of one's heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that gentle hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.” – George Eliot  

Walter Savage Landor
"Kindness in ourselves is the honey that blunts the sting of unkindness in another." – Walter Savage Landor    

William Arthur Ward
"A warm smile is the universal language of kindness." – William Arthur Ward   

William Penn"I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again." – William Penn

Henry James
"Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind." – Henry James   

Albert Schweitzer"Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate." – Albert Schweitzer   

Abraham J. Heschel
"When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people." – Abraham Heschel

Albert Einstein"The ideals which have guided my way, and time after time have given me the energy to face life cheerfully, have been  kindness, beauty, and truth." – Albert Einstein  

Dali Lama
"Our primary purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them." – Dalai Lama   

Barbara De Angelis"Love and kindness are never wasted. They always make a difference. They bless the one who receives them, and they bless you, the giver." – Barbara De Angelis   

Debbie Macomber
"Be an encourager. Scatter sunshine. Who knows whose life you might touch with something as simple as a kind word." – Debbie Macomber   

"The mouth should have three gatekeepers: Is it true? Is it kind? And is it necessary?" – Anonymous   

David Weedmark
"Treat each person as if their heart was breaking. More often than not, you will be right." – David Weedmark   

Liz Armbruster
"To err on the side of kindness is seldom an error." – Liz Armbruster   

Eric Hoffer
"Kindness can become its own motive. We are made kind my being kind." – Eric Hoffer  

"Perhaps the only legacy worth having is to have been known as a kind and compassionate person." – Anonymous

Henri-Frederic Amiel
"Kindness is gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us." – Henri-Frederic Amiel   

"It’s OK to be angry. It’s never OK to be cruel." – Anonymous

William John Bennett
"A kind and compassionate act is often its own reward." – William John Bennett

Sylvia Rosetti
"Genuine kindness is no ordinary act, but a gift of rare beauty." – Sylvia Rosetti   

Lewis B. Smedes
"Kindness is the power that moves us to support and heal someone who offers nothing in return." – Lewis B. Smedes

"If you can’t be kind, be quiet." – Anonymous  

Steve Sjogren
"When one person shows kindness to another person, God shows up." – Steve Sjogren 

Leo Buscaglia"Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around." –Leo Buscaglia   

"If you’re helping someone and expecting something in return, you’re doing business, not kindness." – Anonymous   

Ashley Brilliant
"Be kind to the unkind; they need it the most." – Ashley Brilliant   

Catherine Pulsifer
"Even when you are hurt, being kind to others will help the hurt." – Catherine Pulsifer   

william frederick faber
"The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves." – Frederick William Faber    

"Sometimes miracles are just good people with kind hearts." – Anonymous    

"If you have to choose between being kind and being right, choose being kind and you will always be right." – Anonymous   

"In a world where you can be anything, be kind." – Anonymous   

Anonymous"Even the strongest hands can lose their grip, the greatest of minds can become cloudy and the biggest of hearts can break. So be kind, just always be kind.” – Anonymous 

PTP123"Kindness grows into a virtue when we practice it repeatedly until it becomes impressed in us as an abiding habit, a fixed part of our character, a stable or settled disposition to be kind. We are then kind toward others as a matter of course, even when circumstances may not be propitious or when others are unkind to us.”    – PTP123   

PTP4"Kindness is a perception of vulnerability and 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 gentle touch 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. Patience and tolerance are virtues of omission. Kindness, by contrast, is a virtue of commission. Kindness wants to help, to reassure, and to comfort, and this makes it a virtue of the heart." – PTP4   

Practice These: Kindness - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Practice These: Kindness - Mark Twain

For more PTP123 passages on kindness, see pp. 23-24, 29, and 54. For more PTP4, see pp. 23, 29, 72, 73, 74, 264, 277, 383, 386, 388, 424; and gentleness, 316; as way of seeing, 75, 400, 401; a virtue of the heart, 402; corrective of anger, 399, 403, 426; practicing, 74; relation to other virtues, 403, 405; vs. unkindness, 29, 326. For more Big Book and12&12 passages, click on and search kind and its cognates. See also “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” in PTP's YouTube channel, Audios & Videos – The Language of the Heart. 

Additional Resources

  1. “Being Considerate: The Virtue of Kindness,” chapter in How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad: Living a Life of Christian Virtue, by James S. Spiegel

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