I titled my post today (ok, I actually wrote this several days ago so I didn’t have to worry about it today!) with two adjectives that usually don’t hang out together much. I did this on purpose. (In my classroom, this is where I would grin and tell my students, “It’s almost like I planned it.”) Language is important, and contrasts bring attention to the uniqueness of the individual parts. I’m going to use the contrast between being unapologetic and being kind to explore both words and what they mean to me.
I started with Merriam-Webster online dictionary. They have quite a lot to say about the word “kind.” It is officially defined as “affectionate, loving, of a sympathetic of helpful nature, arising from or characterized by sympathy of forbearance, to give pleasure or relief.” But Merriam-Webster also has a definition for English Language Learners, which says “having or showing a gentle nature and desire to help others, wanting and liking to do good things and to bring happiness to others.” And there is a third definition, this one for students, that says “wanting or liking to do good and to bring happiness to others, showing or growing out of gentleness or goodness of heart, considerate.”
I hadn’t previously thought about the word gentle, which came up frequently. But thinking about the relationship between “kind” and “gentle” also leads me to a handful of other words that maybe aren’t so positive. Kindness sometimes is perceived as passive, enabling, or permissive. Kind people get taken advantage of. Being kind is being soft. I don’t agree with all of these associations, but it’s important to acknowledge that they exist.
I’ve written about kindness in my classroom before; I’ll very briefly relay that story to you. After a class period marked by several swearing shouting matches, a threatened fight, removing a student from my room and very little chemistry, I asked my fourth block students how to show kindness in the chemistry classroom. Over half my students wrote “be quiet.”
Another classroom story: last week I had a student who surprised me by staying after class to help me put the chairs up. I commented that this was a very kind thing for her to do. She looked at me and said, “It’s Christmas. Being nice is allowed right now.” Our societal and cultural views and expectations of kindness matter, to the point where they dictate that kindness is seasonal.
So let’s turn to the word “unapologetic.” According to Merriam-Webster, unapologetic is defined as “not apologetic : offered, put forward, or being such without apology or qualification.” The English Language Learners category definition is “not feeling or showing regret or shame.”
Unapologetic is an interesting word because, to me, it implies that someone feels like there is something I should apologize for or temper in some manner. Being unapologetic means defying the feeling that you should be apologetic in the first place.
When I think of unapologetic, I think of words like outspoken, bold, firm in my opinion, uncaring of others’ reactions to me or my thoughts. Being unapologetic seems to preclude listening or compassion. I don’t necessarily agree with all of these, but I’m going to take all of this apart in a moment.
“Unapologetic” and “kind” really do seem contradictory at first, and not in a productive way. In fact, they seem downright contradictory. An immediate question that comes to mind is this: why would anyone feel like they have to apologize for being kind? Being kind is a positive thing; and if you don’t feel like you should apologize, then you don’t have to be unapologetic. And a second question: if you’re being unapologetic, can you be kind? So let me take a stab at answering both of these questions.
The first question expresses a feeling of surprise that being kind is something worth apologizing for. Read the following conversation, and think about if it feels familiar.
“[Insert some mean comment about another person here]”
“That’s not a very nice thing to say.”
“Oh come on, it was just a joke. Lighten up.”
And at that point, there are several options. The person who stood up for kindness can continue to argue about it, subside into silence, or fake some laughter to fit in. What would you do? Would you have said anything in the first place? I think we’ve all been in a situation like this before, where we chose between being kind and being cool.
To answer my first question: yes, I have apologized for being kind. I have been made fun of. I have been told that I’m too nice, that I spend too much time thinking about other people, that I will get taken advantage of. I have been brushed off as not serious enough, not hardcore enough. This has been expressed to me at various points throughout my life by my friends, peers, colleagues, and students.
The second question is about the combination of unapologetic and kind; is it even possible? I think it is, but only if we strip some of the untrue associations from both words.
I actually really like the English Language Learner definition of unapologetic, the one about not feeling regret or shame. In that way, being unapologetic is first an internal process. I will not feel bad about being kind, and I will not be not afraid to show a kind heart to the rest of the world. Being unapologetic about being kind allows me to be genuine and authentic in really important ways.
But being unapologetic does not mean that I shout my opinion to everyone whether they want to hear it or not. It means when I hear a joke that I thought was mean, I point out how it could’ve been hurtful, refuse to participate in the joke, and then I let it go. Even as I refuse to be pressured to be “cool” by agreeing with the joke, I refuse to pressure other people to agree with me. Instead I can model different kinds of humor, different kinds of interacting.
I also think I have to reject some of the connotations of kindness. Being kind does not mean being permissive, especially in my classroom. Holding my students to high expectations is the best thing I can do for them. I can be strict in terms of classroom management and still be kind. Being kind to myself also means knowing when to say no and not let people take advantage of me. Being kind requires balance.
I remember my mom telling me when I was really little that when I held our cat, I had be to gentle and firm. These words are contradictory, but I think we’re more used to hearing those together. This is what I mean by being unapologetic and kind. I am firm in my own belief, but I am gentle in sharing this. Being unapologetic does not preclude listening or caring about another person. It does not preclude compassion. In fact, I think being unapologetic about being kind brings out the best in both of these two characteristics; they balance each other in their contrasts.
And for a sense of levity in an otherwise serious post, and because it’s the holidays, the yin-yang image at the top is made from sugar and chocolate powder. Yum. 🙂
Your homework today is going to be a little bit different. Instead of a question, I’m going to give you a challenge. Demonstrate unapologetic kindness. And instead of sharing you answer to the question, I would love it if you shared your story of how you demonstrated unapologetic kindness.
Many good wishes to you all on this last Sunday of 2016.