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“How beautiful a day can be when kindness touches it.” This quotation caught my attention because its so relevant to where much of our angry nation finds itself today.

It also prompted me to consider all the unkindness we witness from the nasty and crude name-calling of our rapidly degenerating political system to the stories of selfishness and crimes against others.

I recalled a time 50 years ago (can’t believe I just wrote that) when it seemed that people for the most part treated each other with respect and kindness. I suspect that like me, you were brought up to respect your elders and show compassion and empathy for those less fortunate. In other words, to treat them with kindness.

While vestiges of that era remain in some regions and communities, I sadly see us as a nation headed in the opposite direction. It’s become too easy to insult and degrade others behind the safe and comfy shield of social media.

Which parents today take the time and effort to instill qualities of kindness in their children? Do you think the young ones learn a sense of caring in schools? So how do we as a society make kindness toward each other the norm?

The most dramatic example of positive effect one person’s kindness can have on another for me was in the enduring Broadway musical Les Miserables when paroled convict Jean Valjean steals silver from a church table after the kindly priest had taken him in and fed him.

Police soon nab Valjean on the run and bring him back to the sanctuary to confirm with the merciful bishop that the silver items had been stolen. Rather than honestly tell them yes and see Valjean returned to prison, the bishop tells officers he had indeed made a gift of the silver, and added two candle holders. The priest then tells the stunned Valjean he must use the gifts to become an honest man.

That single act of kindness touched Valjean’s soul, changing him from a thief on the run into an honorable and kind man whose accomplishments over the remainder of his life provided jobs for many, as well as enriching the lives he touched until his passing in old age while kneeling in prayer before the candlesticks he’d saved.

So what exactly is kindness in a person and how does it differ from being nice to others? While not mutually exclusive, there is a fundamental difference between the two. I’ve seen it said that being nice is when one is polite to others and treats them well where being kind is actually caring about others and showing it in action and words.

In other words, it is possible to be kind to someone even though you may not be overtly nice to them and, at the same time, one can be perfunctorily nice but not necessarily kind.

I’ve also read the explanation that a kind person possesses good self-esteem, which helps make them loving and giving from the natural kindness of their heart and because that’s how they expect to be treated themselves. Meanwhile, overly nice people often can be starving for approval, which also can mean they are easily taken advantage of or even mistreated.

Writing for the BBC in 2015, David Robson tells of Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire, who explored the phenomenon of “paying it forward.” That’s the philosophy of being generous to a stranger in hopes they will pass such kindness on to another in a domino effect.

Mann tried paying kind deeds forward for a couple of weeks while observing how recipients reacted. She wondered why it seemed so difficult to both give and accept kindness, Robson wrote, and if it would really pay off in the real world, or if we’re just too cynical.

That resulted in her book Paying It Forward: How One Cup of Coffee Could Change the World. Mann’s interest in human kindness began with a post on her Facebook feed. An American friend had visited a drive-through coffee shop and discovered the person ahead in line had paid her bill. “It made her day,” Mann said. Mann was intrigued by the potential, that a single act of kindness could “have a knock-on effect, like the butterfly effect,” and send out sending ripples of good will.

I’ve done the same thing on a whim. It made me feel good. Perhaps you have too. I’ve also seen this Kindness Effect happen on the streets after stopping to allow sidestreet drivers into traffic. In most instances, they wave appreciation and within a mile or so, they too were pausing to wave others into the flow. So I have no doubt kindness can be contagious.

Choosing kindness goes beyond the nature of many normal people by embracing an empathetic attitude toward others. The concept is biblical as evidenced by several scriptures. For instance, Ephesians 4:32 says Jesus admonished us to be kind, tenderhearted and forgiving toward each other.

Sarah Cy wrote about the difference in being nice versus being kind in a 2017 essay published by Publishous of Australia. “Christians love to proclaim: ‘God is love!’,” she wrote. “They’re right. God is love. And in 1 Corinthians 13, love is described as patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not rude, selfless, not easily angered, and ungrudging.

“’Nice’ never shows up on that list. But ‘kind’ does. The difference between niceness and kindness is like the difference between tolerating and embracing, political correctness and love, appearance and reality.

“Unlike niceness, which is focused on outward consequences (a desire to not ruffle feathers or to minimize conflict),” Cy wrote, “kindness comes from inside (love for others and desire for their well-being). Nice people donate money to a beggar. Kind people invite the beggar home for lunch.”

So maybe—just maybe, mind you—if we each take stock of our lives and resolve to become kinder toward our fellow men and women in every way, its contagious nature will kick in.

And, who knows, that might help restore this vital human quality, along with respect for the truth that since we are sharing our temporary lives together, there’s a valid reason we should treat everyone as we want to be treated.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master’s journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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