Err on the side of Kindness
"When you speak, err on the side of kindness."
You might be wondering who I’m quoting here. A clergyman perhaps? Or clergywoman? if you can find one. A nurse? An artist? No, none of these people. This statement was made by an athlete, the great Kurt Fearnley, at the end of his final race, the Commonwealth Games Wheelchair Marathon no less, after driving relentlessly his body for almost two hours. Generally speaking, I subscribe to the notion that society would benefit from legislation prohibiting sports people talking in front of a camera but for Kurt, an exception could be made. He had been talking about how high his heart rate had been for the majority of the race. I gasped at hearing the number, being an athlete in a former life who could only aspire to be as good as this man, at the level of performance he was able to maintain.
So what were Kurt’s parting words of advice to the interviewer? He might have talked about how hard he had trained over the years to get to where he is, the sacrifices he has made, how the people around him would be sharing in his triumph, or how relieved he was to finally be finished. All of that is no doubt true but instead he finished the interview by saying, in all your dealings, “when you speak, err on the side of kindness.” I shiver went down my back, like a lightening bolt, as the remark stopped me in my tracks, I took a deep breath. Why would one of the greatest athletes this nation has ever seen say such a thing. Now, I should add here that I don’t, these days, watch much sport on television, I am no longer particularly interested in athletes straining sinew for temporary glory, other than the odd game of rugby. I am, after all, a Kiwi.
I was, however, intrigued by the thought of athletes with a disability competing at the same event as those perfectly formed athletic ephebes we are encouraged to worship, so I switched on the television. I was immeasurably more attracted to these athletes not gifted with perfectly formed bodies but who had made the decision to find a way to make the most of the hand they had been dealt. And so I found myself watching Kurt in his final race.
He didn’t have to mention this word, the one that stopped my breath, particularly on this day of triumph, and perhaps risk, in the eyes of some, his image of being the supreme athlete. I’m sure people have shown him this kindness along his journey, people would also have genuflected towards him, praised him, admired him, questioned him and rewarded him. Yet he chose to pick the very word that has embedded itself too, in my mind, since my brain surgery and sent me on a journey of discovering how magnificent people can be.
It’s not that I’ve suddenly found the ability to display kindness towards people, I did manage it, albeit in smaller doses, before my brain tumour manifested itself but it’s more that kindness, or Kindness, to give it an emphasis it deserves, has, since my surgery, become my currency. Before my surgery I would have said that words, yes Words, it may not surprise you, was my currency. That most certainly remains but Words has been usurped by the knowledge that the best thing you can do to people and for them, in any situation, is to be kind to them, in thought and in deed.
Kurt has probably known this for longer than I, I’m coming late to the party but for him to choose to sign off his career with those words made me think that perhaps within the maelstrom of modern sport, the cut-throat nature of the requirement to come out a winner by making others lose, is that there is a trait that manifestly and unambiguously smashes any notion that real character is defined by the ability to beat an opponent. He probably also worked out that peoples kindness helped him get to where he is and so was sharing a secret to his success. Perish the thought, one could almost base an economy, or even, if we were to get carried away with idea, a whole society, around it.
I have discovered an admiration for people with disabilities that humbles me into rethinking my humanity. I no longer look at a race, or a contest, or a game, through the prism of who is going to be best on this particular day. I looked at the start line and saw a man with no arms, a woman with one leg, a teenager with Cerebral Palsy, about to launch themselves, on hearing the starting pistol, down the track, as a symbol of what they have become since realising that they are not normal.
Kindness, Kurt reminded us, helps us get to where we need to be more than any other trait and all without having to make the other person lose. If we can stop and turn our preference for whatever action we feel at any given time, from anger, even righteous anger, rage, indignity, frustration, confusion, more rage, incredible sadness, or justification, into just deciding to be kind, we give ourselves a chance to let go of what was holding us back.
I almost can’t believe that a wonderful, powerful, successful athlete, at the height of his powers, would have the presence of mind to, from his position of triumph, call on us to just be kind. It’s a scene that I’ll play in my head for the rest of my days.
We, all of us, can justify taking a path that leads to vindication and few, certainly not me, would question our right to do so. My wife tells me to be kind to her and I’m an idiot if I ignore her, she’s smarter than me, sees things I don’t, so much of any wisdom I have is in listening to her voice. I admit to often falling short of it. I’ve realised how powerful it is to just be kind to as many people as you can. Kindness is more than just helping the ninety year old gentleman who couldn’t get across the road before the traffic lights changed, it’s living with the embedded mindset that we must be kind, that we must, if in doubt, just err on the side of it.
And, during a period where some other very fine athletes have sought to invoke Biblical references, somewhat incorrectly, I am reminded of another reference from the same text, as I attempt to reclaim some virtue in the good book, that cannot possibly be taken out of context, no matter how you might want to strangle the linguistic life out of it, and it’s this: a fruit of the Spirit (our Spirit, His Spirit, doesn’t much matter at this point) is kindness. Kindness.
Kurt nailed his race, and his opposition but the real sting, the final push, his most glorious moment, was to tell us all to just, if in doubt, err on the side of kindness and he did it better than any clergyman, or politician, or pseudo analyst ever could. He will no doubt be remembered for his gold medals, as he should be, and for his immense heart and his courage but I’ll remember him for a single sentence at the end of a superb race and a mighty career. If in any doubt, err on the side of kindness. It will get you and those you show it to, across the line.
Ka kite ano arohanui mai.