If Tik Tok's 'Insta-Samaritan' is clickbait, then what is true kindness?

Acts that are anything but random

You wouldn’t think that quietly gifting a stranger a bunch of flowers would attract global attention. Neither would you think that a small ‘act of random kindness’ would create such a storm of controversy.

But these are precisely the outcomes that eventuated when Melbourne-based TikToker Harrison Pawluk, 22, posted a video of himself giving a bunch of flowers to a stranger – a woman named Maree – in a shopping centre.

The video – posted under Pawluk’s account @lifeofharrison – went viral and has been viewed over 59 million times.

@lifeofharrison I hope this made her day better ❤️ #fyp #foryou #foryoupage #viral #wholesome ♬ original sound – Harrison

Part of the pushback against this random act of kindness came from Maree herself, who spoke to ABC Melbourne about how she was filmed without consent, and how the encounter with Pawluk left her feeling patronised and “dehumanised”.

“He interrupted my quiet time, filmed and uploaded a video without my consent, turning it into something it wasn’t, and I feel like he is making quite a lot of money through it,” Maree told the ABC.

Her concerns were then championed by a flurry of social media comments, other Tik Toks and a swath of media articles. Pawluk – dubbed the “Insta-Samaritan” – was not the only target, with other “kindness” content creators also coming under fire.

Of course, some people defended Pawluk, saying he was genuinely trying to be kind rather than just generate views (and, therefore, money). Pawluk himself apologised for “what has happened” in regard to Maree but defended his actions, saying: “If I can inspire even one per cent of the people that watch my content to go out and do something good, I have done something that I believe is good for the world.”

From a spectator’s vantage point, the most interesting thing to come out of this furore is that everyone seems to be an expert on what kindness should look like.

What is true kindness?

A quick dictionary search of the word kindness reveals it to be: “the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate,” the act of being “helpful and caring about other people.” Other words associated with kindness include “gentle, charitable, sympathetic, compassionate, tender.”

It’s interesting that none of these definitions mentions the benefits to the kindness-giver or the potential for mixed motives behind their act of charity. However, this aspect of kindness is included in the Wikipedia definition: “without expecting praise or reward in return.”

And it’s also essential to Sydney Morning Herald columnist Kerri Sackville, who argues, “… these filmed acts of kindness are not kind at all. Kindness is compassion and generosity without the expectation of a reward, and these videos are designed to solicit clicks … Kindness is how we behave when no one else is watching.”

None of these definitions mentions the benefits to the kindness-giver.

So where did the idea come from that kindness should be selfless – acts done without expectation of personal benefit? One of the greatest influences in moulding our ideas about kindness is the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10: 25-37. Jesus tells this parable to an “expert in the law” who is “trying to test Jesus” by asking, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The story has become so ingrained in our culture that the phrase “good Samaritan” has worked its way into our everyday vernacular. The story has been explored by many famous artists, including Van Gogh and Rembrandt. The name has been adopted by medical centres, schools and organisations. And it’s even become the basis of laws.

So what does this foundational story tell us about the nature of true kindness?

Selfless

Acts of true kindness are indeed selfless, as Sackville and others correctly identified. They are not done for recognition or reward.

When the Samaritan helps the man who has been attacked by robbers in Jesus’ parable, he is by himself. He bandages the man’s wounds, transports him to an inn, and takes care of him there, all without telling anyone else. And when the Samaritan lets the innkeeper know about the wounded man, it is only for the man’s welfare. He asks the innkeeper to care for the man and promises to pay the man’s expenses. The Samaritan does not mention or boast that he rescued the man. Nor does he expect the man to pay him back. Jesus promotes this selfless kindness as the way to fulfil the second commandment.

“Kindness is how we behave when no one else is watching.” – Kerri Sackville

In Matthew 6, Jesus takes this selflessness even further. Here he teaches the crowds and his disciples not to expect an earthly reward from acts of kindness but to actively seek to carry out these acts in private. No one needs to know about our good deeds, Jesus asserts, apart from God.

Matthew 6: 1-4 says, “Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

The only reward that we should seek, this passage shows, are the unseen accolades from our Father in heaven.

Costly

Another key lesson from the Good Samaritan parable is that kindness is costly. While giving someone a bunch of flowers is a nice thing to do (when they are wanted and filmed only with permission), it’s not particularly costly in terms of finances, time, or emotional output. On the other hand, acts of kindness that make a real difference are usually far more costly to the giver.

This was certainly true for the Good Samaritan. It was true for the people we uphold as icons of kindness – including Mother Teresa, who spent her whole life serving the poor in the slums of India, and Oskar Schindler, who put his life and his money on the line by sheltering around 1100 Jews from the Nazis.

Aussies today are also prepared to wear the cost of true kindness – shown time and again in their response to fires, floods, and other natural disasters, as they dip into their bank accounts, send resources, and volunteer hours to help victims. It goes without saying among these helpers – just average community members – that kindness is costly.

Intentional

“Random” is not the word to describe true acts of kindness. Rather, the word “intentional” is. Real kindness is intentional.

To be fair to Pawluk, his acts of kindness were intentional in that he aimed to inspire others to do good things. However, the “good things” he aspired to set the bar of kindness way too low.

In the parable, when the Samaritan chose to help the Jewish traveller in need, he decided to set aside centuries of rivalry between their cultures. He moved past the disdain and prejudice he had endured and chose to help his enemy – knowing that his efforts may receive disgruntlement rather than thanks. His example of mercy is heightened by the fact that both a priest and a Levite had walked past their fellow Jew without stopping to help.

Similarly, Mother Teresa chose to devote her life to serving others through kindness. And for us, kindness is also a lifestyle choice. It’s not performing the occasional public act of kindness and then making snide, unkind comments on social media or being a difficult work colleague or family member. If the backlash against Ellen DeGeneres has taught us anything, it’s that false kindness can be spotted a mile away.

True kindness requires intentionality – deciding to be a kind person in all areas of our lives, public and private. As Herald writer Sackville rightly said, “Kindness is how we behave when no one else is watching.”

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