The other day someone suggested to me that the reason kindness has faded of late is because, in this day and age, it’s viewed as weakness.
I had to agree. It seems we value people who are ‘tough’, who can show ‘toughness’ by – well, you’ve guessed it, being able to discomfit others. At heart it is power – ‘I’m stronger than you’. Kindness, by this view, is the ‘soft option’. Not a new view, but I think it has become one of the factors that has de-normalised ‘kindness’.
I don’t see things this way. Kindness does not mean compromising self-respect or integrity, or being ‘weak’. Actually, it is a means by which people show strength and earn respect. I have a story about this.
Ten years ago I wrote a biography of Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg (1889-1963), who led the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Second World War. He was a huge man – 6’2” – who still carried the childhood nickname ‘Tiny’. In the course of a career spanning both world wars he received multiple wounds, was awarded the VC, the DSO four times, the CB, was knighted twice in further recognition of his service, and later raised to the peerage. He was brave as a lion, a fighting commander who led his men into battle. J M Barrie’s 1922 lecture ‘Courage’ referred to Freyberg’s astonishing feats off Gallipoli in 1915.
By twenty-first century standards he was an archetypal ‘tough guy’ – a real-life action hero. One of the people we think of today as ‘strong’ in all respects. And he was.
However, he was also very kind, in the true philosophical sense I’ve been discussing in the past few weeks – fair, tolerant and reasonable. He had a repute for it. He was always thinking of others. This extended to tolerance of attitudes that were typically Kiwi. Major-General Arthur Smith, Chief of Staff in Middle East Command, complained that Kiwi soldiers never saluted officers. ‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ Freyberg explained. ‘If you wave to them, they’ll always wave back.’
Yet tolerant kindness did not mean softness. Freyberg had boundaries, made sure people knew what those were – and was respected. He demanded results, including expecting his officers to show the same standards of personal courage as his own. That combination of strength and a philosophy of genuine kindness inspired people to follow him – the very best sort of leadership.
That was brought home to me when Penguin published my biography of him in 2005. Even as the book was getting a delightfully positive response from independent professional reviewers, New Zealand’s military-academic historical community exploded in a frenzy of hostility in our national media. They appeared to be falling over each other in their eagerness to deny my worth and skills in a field where I had published 30 books to that time, without financial support or affiliation, and on personal merit; and where I was paying their full-time salaries to write books competing with mine, through my taxes.
Normally I hesitate to dignify ‘publication rage’ by engaging it, particularly as not one of these academics – who included my former thesis co-supervisor – had the integrity to talk to me in person about it (nor have since). However, their wrong-at-every-turn assaults – which extended to denials of worth in all my work – included claims that were factually untrue and which made me look generally incompetent as a person. This overstepped the mark, and I was wondering whether to take the advice of my solicitor when my phone started ringing.
The calls all opened the same way. ‘Is that Matthew Wright? I’m one of Tiny’s men.’
Sixty years after the war – more than forty after Freyberg’s death – his soldiers remained faultlessly loyal, and were extending that to me. I had, more than one of them said, nailed Freyberg’s character. He was a great man by any measure. By rubbishing and defaming me, those military-historical academics were also rubbishing Freyberg. And the remaining soldiers of the Second New Zealand Division – Freyberg’s men – were not going to have any of that nonsense.
It told me just how great a man Freyberg was. And Freyberg inspired that lifetime respect and loyalty not by exploiting army command structures to assert power, but through the virtues I have been mentioning – thoughtfulness, reason, tolerance, intellect – and kindness. A remarkable legacy.
That experience, to me, reveals the power of kindness as a philosophy. And its incredible strength.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013