Literature which teaches us about Kindness

Literature being one of the principle mediums for shaping our understanding of individual and collective psyche over the past few centuries of human development, it plays an inherent role in our concept of what ‘kindness’ is; how we as people interpret, use and respond to kindness in our day to day lives; how it effects our relationships with others, and how it literally characterises us to be who we are. In name of Random Acts of Kindness week, here’s HC Durham’s top picks of books which teach us about kindness:

1. Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven

If you’re ever in the mood to face your own mortality and/or have a good cry, anything by Mitch Albom should sort you right out.

This particular book is a personal fave, all about Eddie, the maintenance man at an amusement park who dies whilst trying to save a young girl’s life. On his way to heaven he meets five people whose lives have been significantly impacted upon by his own, each of them with a lesson to teach him: forgiveness, atonement, and that there are no ‘random events’ in life – everything is planned.

If the book teaches anything, it’s to consider our relationships with other people – be it family, friends, or someone you bump into in Aldi – because we are all inextricably connected.

2. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Woo up the literature degree. Dickens’ novels aren’t exactly renowned for their morally complex characters (being a raging critic of Victorian sociality can only lend you so many nice people to work with), but there’s a few things to be learnt from this redemption story.

It’s all about Pip, who has an unexpected windfall and becomes a bit fixated on a girl called Estella and 1800s hedonist culture, abandoning his unconditionally loving family in the process.

Bit of a **spoiler alert**, but we basically find out that Pip’s secret benefactor is the naughty-but-nice criminal Magwitch, who, eternally grateful for a kindness Pip had paid him years previously, becomes determined to give Pip a good life. The ultimate moral of the story is less, ‘be nice to everyone just in case they end up a millionaire and remember you in their will’ and more about learning what’s important. We see Pip progress from an innocent lad to a bit of a d*ck, but his love interest Estella learns an equally important lesson:

Raised to be Miss Havisham’s revenge plot against all men (and I quote - "Love her, love her, love her! If she favours you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces—and as it gets older and stronger, it will tear deeper—love her, love her, love her!". Yep.), she eventually realises that she actually does love Pip, she doesn’t want to exploit and manipulate anymore, and there’s mostly an overall happy ending.

3. Danny Wallace, Random Acts of Kindness

Aw this one is nice. Brought to us by author, comedian and radio DJ Danny Wallace, it’s 365 pro-tips to basically be nicer, including ‘send your compliments to the chef’ and ‘hug someone you don’t normally hug. Extra points if it’s a stranger’. Just an easy and heart-warming read from the same guy who did Yes Man.

4. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Two days shy of the anniversary of her death, we come to Harper Lee’s classic novel about a man who defies his community, reputation and friends to stand up for what he knows is right. Two of the central themes are courage and compassion, but kindness in a time of desperation plays an equally important role.

Atticus Finch is appointed to defend an innocent man accused of rape, and must consequently face the contempt of his town.  Told from the perspective of his daughter Scout, there’s a bit of a sub-plot going on where she learns what kindness is from both her father’s humble determination, and from the town’s elusive Boo Radley.

Although the novel is famous for its themes of racial injustice and social inequality, it also has a massive focus on the good vs. evil debate and the moral nature of human beings. According to ‘The Guardian’ it’s the book that every adult should read before they die and although it’s tough to take on the emotional front, it’s worth the hype.

5. Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, Chicken Soup for the Soul

Literally just read it and weep. Teaches you that everyone has a story, and some stories aren’t very nice – so really, we should try to be.

6. Rupi Kaur, Milk and Honey

The emphasis is on a bit of self-love and self-kindness, but her focus on human relationships gives a perspective on both the individual and their interactions with people. The ultimate lesson lies in the poem which lends the collection its title:

how is it so easy for you to be kind to people he asked

milk and honey dripped from my lips as I answered

cause people have not been kind to me