There is a wonderful line in Charlie Mackesy’s 2019 book, “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse,” and it goes like this:

“’What do you want to be when you grow up?’” asked the mole.

“’Kind,’ said the boy.”

If there is one word that could sum up all the Works of Mercy – both corporal and spiritual – it would be that one. I have heard so many people of late bemoan the fact that very few of us seem to be kind to one another anymore. Angry words, personal attacks on social media, and violence in general are some symptoms of a lack of this virtue. And yet, kindness is the beginning of compassion, and compassion is at the root of everything merciful.

Charlie Mackesy isn’t the only one who says so either. In the book of Wisdom (12:19) it is proclaimed, “Those who are righteous must be kind.” And for those of you who remember the late Father Frank Holland (a priest of the Diocese of Burlington), you will also remember something he repeated quite often: “If you have a choice between two actions, the kindest one is usually the right one.”

So how, in a culture that seems to have forgotten kindness, do we go about finding it again? I believe it’s important to rediscover two things – humility and the ability to listen.

Let’s begin with the second one, listening. Now this can be difficult for a couple of reasons. For starters, it means that we need to stop talking. Really, just stop for a moment. Resist the temptation to get your own point across or have the last word. There will be plenty of time for that later, but for now, let someone else have their say. And this involves more than sitting on your hands and struggling to keep quiet; this is something quite active and deliberate. The best definition of good listening that I’ve ever come across is this: “Listen to understand, not to respond.” Notice that you don’t necessarily have to agree with what is being said, but at least hear it. As my husband says (almost daily!): “I’m not looking for agreement, just understanding.” If you learn to do that, when the time does come to make a response, chances are good that it will be a more thoughtful and useful one.

Humility gets a bad rap in a culture that seeks to self-promote at every opportunity. But in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “Humility means seeing ourselves as God sees us: knowing every good we have comes from Him as pure gift.”

Gratitude — which is what we can’t help but experience when we realize this — is also a component of compassion. It is just about impossible to be self-centered and grateful at the same time, and gratitude has a lovely habit of spreading out from its source to others. Seeing as God sees reveals to us the needs of others and inspires us to act.

It enables all of us to grow up to be kind.

—Originally published in the Winter 2023 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.