Editor's Choice

Radical Kindness: The Life-Changing Power of Giving and Receiving

March 22, 2019


Angela C. Santomero's new book calls on us to rediscover and re-engage with an essential human quality and knowledge we have within us—kindness.

Radical Kindness: The Life-Changing Power of Giving and Receiving by Angela C. Santomero, Harper Wave, 240 pages, Hardcover, March 2019, ISBN 9780062913364

A common theme that has run through the books we’ve covered over the past few years is the importance of bringing humanity into the workplace, and the idea that empathy and emotional intelligence are not finite resources within us that we either have or don’t, but that they are things we work on in ourselves and in the world, and that we build through practice. This is becoming even more important, we’ve read—and restated as much as possible, back to at least the mid-21015, with books like Humans Are Underrated by Geoff Colvin—because, in an era when information technology, automation, and AI are taking on the more technical aspects of our organizations, it is the most essentially human qualities, prosocial behavior and interpersonal skills, that are becoming the most important. Perhaps they always were, and we are simply waking up to that fact more now that machines are shown to do even cognitively demanding tasks as well or better than us.

And so, we’ve found ourselves looking more and more to books that focus on our humanity, and those human qualities so essential to our collective flourishing. We continue in that vein today with Angela C. Santomero’s Radical Kindness. Deepak Chopra writes more poetically of such qualities, and kindness in particular, in his Foreword to the book:


Kindness, along with its close companions empathy, compassion, and love, is an aspect of consciousness that cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be forgotten and rediscovered.


Angela Santomero met Mister Rogers the way most of so many of us across multiple generations had—through her television set when she was four years old. She writes of how, in the loving but bustling household she grew up in, the half hour she spent with Mister Rogers during the day always made her feel “seen” in a way that those going about their busy adult lives about her didn’t always. So many of us can relate. The show itself began in 1968, in an era of radical change and upheaval:


With a contentious war being waged in Vietnam and violent clashes over civil rights at home, Mister Rogers treated all children and adults who tuned in to his show or who visited his make believe neighborhood with tenderness, consideration, respect, patience, and empathy, and that’s something that could rightly be called radical or even revolutionary, in a period mired in discord. Kindness was at the root of all he did and said.


I think most of us learned a lot from Mister Rogers, even if much has, indeed, been forgotten. Unlike most of us, Santomero has more literally followed in Mister Rogers’ footsteps—working in children’s television and creating PBS’s Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (among others) based after one of the most beloved characters in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

But why the book, and why now? She explains:


I wrote this book because we are all suffering from a shortage of kindness, and it just might be time for a new revolution, for radical change. We’re impatient with others. We’ve stopped listening to voices we don’t agree with, especially when it comes to hot-button topics such as politics, religion, and parenting. We’re even unkind to ourselves. We don’t get enough sleep, we don’t eat right, we take on more responsibility than we can handle, and our self-talk (i.e., the endless self-criticism in our heads) leaves much to be desired.


Yes, yes, yes, and yes. She writes further of how:


Mister Rogers once said, “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”


Santomero opens that up a bit more. She believes the first way of being kind is to be kind to yourself, the second is to be kind to others, and the third is being kind to the world. She devotes a full section of the book to each of these practices, and it all begins with building on a foundation of self-kindness. Another foundation of the book itself is to take more seriously the words of Anthony de Saint-Exupéry, expressed through The Little Prince, that “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” It is a practice she calls “heart-seeing,” or seeing yourself and all people first with unconditional compassion.

This means it goes “beyond situational niceness,” which is part of what is what makes it so radical. Unconditional kindness is radical. It requires first being aware and taking stock of what is happening within our own self, our opinions, feelings, and attitude, our general outlook on life. It’s possible none of that is all that positive right now. Don’t despair further if that is the case, though. Simply paying attention to our inner life gives us more control over ourselves, how we react in stressful situations, and how we show up in the world, the importance of which we were reminded of in The Power of Agency. We can become more conscious of acting more consciously, and we act more conscientiously when we do so. Listen more closely, pay more attention, don’t rush so quickly to judgement, and take time and care in how you respond—to yourself, to others, to difficult situations, and to the world at large. We are reminded again, as we were in Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy’s No Hard Feelings, how much our emotions can inform our decisions—actually expanding what we perceive, improving the overall quality of our decisions, and even our reaction time—when we slow down to recognize them. It is also the only way to be in control of our emotions, and let them inform how we are acting, rather than ceding complete control to our emotions and becoming reactive to them. And, finally, it is the first step to being more attuned to what others are experiencing around you, and to begin stepping up for them in simple ways that has a contagious effect on the world both around and within you.

There is a common misperception of kindness as weakness, when, in fact:


The qualities you need in order to be kind (compassion, integrity, respect) are exactly the same qualities you need to be brave, strong, and successful.


Kindness is a choice we can make. Being impatient, inconsiderate, and mean to others are habits we can overcome. We can get so immersed in our own struggles that we fail to remember that everyone is suffering. If we can stay awake to the suffering of others, and “choose kindness over criticism and animosity,” we’ll be able to use our kindness and compassion as both a shield against such negativity, and a way to spread more harmony, peace, and compassion instead.

Santomero draws on other children’s tales often. She uses the witches from The Wizard of Oz to teach us a lesson about—and give us a strategy for—muting (while not ignoring) our inner critic and showing ourselves a little more self-kindness. That can also be helpful for dealing with the negative effects of “a cranky coworker or someone who complains constantly.” It might even work when dealing with some overly whiny kids. (I am really hoping it can work when dealing with some overly whiny kids.) She discusses how taking some time for herself, and not feeling like she had to be with her daughter at every possible moment when she went back to work after her first daughter was born (and, more importantly) learning to not feel guilty about it, helped her “be a better mother, not the stressed-out, distracted mom who felt guilty all the time.”

Santomero uses the example of Mister Snuffleupagus for Sesame Street to teach us how to see others with kindness, to see the good in others even when they are not acting good—perhaps even being expressed through negative emotions or bad behavior, which can in its own way be a signal of what that person needs to be well again. She also suggests we try to remember we were all children at one point:


By imagining others as children, you begin to see everyone as a pure, vulnerable soul, someone who, like you, is just trying to figure out where they fit in a world that’s often spinning too fast to care.


Be someone who cares, and who shows others that you care. 

Another theme we’ve found in the message of so many books—from heartbreaking narrative like Dopesick to, again, the personal development realm of The Power of Agency—is the importance of community. So it should be a surprise that “a radically kind life is a life of community.” That can and should be extended to those we don’t agree with. One of my favorite sayings comes from Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who wrote the wonderful line, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" in a biography of Voltaire to illustrate his beliefs. Santomero echoes that sentiment, maybe an inverse version of it, in Radical Kindness when she writes:


You can take action to support your political, religious, or personal beliefs without demeaning another person’s humanity. You can even object to the way someone is performing a role or job, and work to replace that person without being unkind. There is nothing unkind about advocating for a cause you believe in, provided that you don’t infringe on the rights and liberties of others.


We have the right to express our beliefs and opinions. What we don’t have is the right to oppress others or deny them their rights (including the right to express their beliefs and opinions) and liberties. That much is basic, but too often ignored today, when our politics are driven by antagonism and schadenfreude—both hostile reactions rather than deliberate constructive action.


Understanding yourself is an avenue toward understanding and showing empathy to others—“the catalyst that helps turn unkind reaction into kind action.” When we learn to foster that understanding, we can begin to heal ourselves and others in small, simple, and deliberate ways every day through deliberate acts of radical kindness, and living a radically kind and compassionate life. As Santomero reminds us:


One big gesture is nice, but a million little gestures over the course of a lifetime can have an impact that is vaster and far more enduring.


She offers thirty-two such acts to close the book, but you probably watched Mister Rogers growing up. It is a knowledge in us that simply needs to be rediscovered, and we can begin working toward that right away. Being able to choose your response in any situation—whether at home, at work, or to the state of the world—requires more knowledge and acceptance of ourselves, and of the world around us. Once we accept that for what it is, we can work on making it better—ourselves and the world. Mister Rogers once famously said (I believe before Congress, no less), “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” It has been suggested by many that, in a world of unspeakable atrocities like the one witnessed in New Zealand recently, that this isn't enough, that—for adults—it is naive and false comfort. And perhaps it is. As adults, we must be the helpers, and we can do this every day, because we encounter scared and fragile, suffering people every day. Or, in the words of the late true-crime author Michelle McNamara, related to a wider audience through her husband Patton Oswald after her death: "It's chaos, be kind."


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