The real social network: kindness

Humanity's age-old social network, which we benefit from and which we extend to others, is fueled by kindness. Researchers now believe that kindness is a powerful, self-reinforcing force.

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
A refugee child from South Sudan waited last year at a registration center in Kakuma , northwest of Nairobi, Kenya .

Rugged individualism isn’t a myth. All around the world people take charge of their destinies, pursue their dreams, cope with setbacks, and build better lives for themselves, their families, and their communities. That individualistic impulse – part determination, part self-control, plus a willingness to sacrifice present gratification for future gain – fuels progress. Long may it wave.

But whether he or she knows it or not, every rugged individualist benefits from a social network. Henry David Thoreau famously went solo at Walden Pond but could drop in on his mom two miles away in Concord for a hot meal. Daniel Boone craved “elbow room” but was no lone wolf. Politician, businessman, and married with 10 children, he would have had legions of Facebook friends. If you are a do-it-yourselfer, you’ve probably gotten unsolicited assistance from another DIY’er while you were both staring at plumbing parts. And even survivalists need tips on what to pack for the apocalypse.

A Monitor cover story (click here) introduces you to a remarkable individual. Peter Ter has had the personal strength to survive incredible adversity, but he is quick to point out that he has thrived in large part because of others. Mr. Ter was a “Lost Boy,” one of 20,000 young Sudanese who were separated from their parents in a brutal civil war in the 1990s and wandered the East African borderlands until finally given refuge in Kenya.

The plight of the Lost Boys gripped the world’s imagination. The journalist Ellen Barry, now with The New York Times, visited the Kakuma Refugee Camp in late 2000 and described the extraordinary migration these young men (and some women) were preparing to make. Most had never ridden in a motorized vehicle; now they were boarding flights for Chicago or North Dakota: “Heads down, barefoot except for shower thongs, the departing boys file into the aircraft as grave as spacemen, sometimes without even looking back at the friends standing five deep against the barbed wire.”

On landing in their new world, they tasted snowflakes for the first time and marveled at the wonderland of supermarkets. They learned English and math and got jobs. Over the years, these young people were extraordinarily successful in integrating into Western society. Stephanie Hanes’s profile is, in a sense, a check in with the Lost Boys 13 years after their great migration. 

Ter is aware of the power of internal resilience and external kindness. “Being strong is part of my nature,” he tells Stephanie. “But I am talking with you today because people I didn’t know helped me survive.” On page 28 you can find a “map of kindness” that shows those who have befriended Ter, and those whom he befriended, in his journey from Kakuma to graduate school at Brandeis University.

Kindness begets kindness, researchers now believe, because kindness is its own reward. That’s encouraging – as long as we are aware of the trap of “telescopic philanthropy,” that trait Charles Dickens wrote about in his novel “Bleak House” in which faraway causes can seem more compelling than close-up ones. 

There are lost boys and girls in every community, put there by broken families, poverty, or bad choices that have been made. Just as they need to locate that individual spark that gives them strength, they also need their own map of kindness. Which is where you and I come in.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at

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