Kindness 2013: is kindness also weakness?

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.

Freyberg's War CoverTen 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.

From http://public-domain.zorger.comThat 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


11 thoughts on “Kindness 2013: is kindness also weakness?

  1. What a wonderful tribute to what sounds like a fine man. I admire toughness, and I disagree with people today who might say that toughness excludes kindness.

    I remember reading a book years ago (when I was in my late teens), and the author had two women discussing men. One of the women’s older sisters said that the very first thing the women should consider in choosing a husband was whether or not he was kind. The women laughed dismissively. But many years later, they were shocked by how correct the sister had been.

    Kindness through all of life’s tribulations is truly laudable.

  2. No offense to the guys who show kindness, love and empathy but I have come across many guys in recent times, that seem to think showing emotion in a caring way towards others is simply wrong or not something they don’t want to do. It’s not wrong. It shows you have a deep and sensitive soul and that you can connect with others in a meaningful way. I am a Health Buddy for CSV in Association with BBC Radio Devon and I fear for the amount of people caught up in domestic abuse situations because the man won’t show kindness and compassion towards their other half. In my opinion, it takes a weak man to break a woman but a strong man to help her to heal. I know there are cases where the woman hurts the man, I just haven’t come across those recently in my volunteering role, so that’s why I am saying it from that point of view.

    1. I think most domestic violence reflects weakness on the part of those doing it. It has no place in life and society. In an ideal world, true kindness of the kind I’m exploring – reason, care, tolerance, patience etc – would, I think, probably stop it. Realistically, of course, these ideals aren’t attainable, but I think the onus is on everyone to try.

  3. Loyalty is earned and is not usually given freely. It has been my experience that strength, only when combined with kindness and compassion creates a loyalty unmatched by strength alone. Your post clearly indicates that. Freyberg’s men were truly loyal to their commander to the point that they would defend a stranger speaking on his behalf. Excellent post, Matt.

    1. Thank you. I was absolutely blown away by the support I got – all out of the blue. Some of them had known Freyberg personally – they included a soldier who’d been in his headquarters defensive troop. It really underscored the depth to which this man inspired people, and if I ever get the chance of producing a second edition (unlikely, but there is always hope) the experience will let me add a further dimension to Freyberg’s story.

      One of the more curious things I discovered about Freyberg, incidentally, is that he was a ‘frustrated’ writer. His main circle of friends were politicians and literati – Winston Churchill among them. He knew Rupert Brooke (who he helped bury in 1915) – and he was a particularly good friend of James Barrie, who persuaded Freyberg to write a book about his First World War experiences. He did – ‘A Linesman In Picardy’. It was never published. I spent some time, a few years ago, trying to track down the MS which I thought might be useful to have copied for a New Zealand archive. I discovered where it was, but wasn’t able to get any further. One day, maybe.

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