When I was a new mother, I would be at the paediatrician’s every month either for a vaccination or a well-baby visit (don’t ask—the over-indulgences of new parents) or a worry-visit (the kind where you think it’s not a big deal but the baby’s grandparent makes you second-guess yourself). And every time I’d go, after a long wait or a short one, clutching a sleeping or crying or wriggling baby, my doctor would say “don’t worry, the baby is fine. You’re doing a good job. You are a good mother.” I’ve been a parent for several years now, and gone are the days of first-baby panic, the kind where you check them when they sleep to make sure they’re still breathing. But even now as I type this, my eyes well up because in the midst of those sleep-deprived, wild-eyed endless days someone told me everything was going to be all right, and that I was doing a good job with that baby. Not even mediocre, but good! It was one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me, and as long as I live I will be grateful for those words.

Kindness is something that has fallen through the cracks of our everyday lives. It isn’t to be conflated with nice—nice is when someone says they like your shoes or picks up their bag from the empty seat so you can sit there. Kindness is when you go the little extra mile out of empathy. Kindness is letting a frazzled mother with crying kids go ahead of you in the line. It’s slipping a stranger a tissue and looking away when they weep in public. Niceness is a permutation of good manners. You can be nice to someone without particularly caring about them or thinking about their lives. It’s useful for lubricating the cogs of society. But kindness takes heart, and that is probably why we don’t really practice it as much as we should.

It’s exhausting to empathise with everyone. It’s not possible to do it either. But often we forget to empathise with anyone, and that’s where a line needs drawing. You should be able to muster an impulse of kindness when it’s needed. In our strange world we are in each other’s faces all the time thanks to the internet and social media but we still don’t know a whit about what those people are really up to, because all the posts and photos and status updates are carefully curated slivers of wit meant for display purposes only. Like the beds in linen stores, you can look but you can’t sit on them. For all you and I know, those beds are probably two charpais put together with a mattress on top. For all we know, that cheerful Instagram post was put up by someone who had just stopped crying.

You don’t have to be best friends with someone to empathise with them. A visibly sad person is a sad person. You don’t need to know someone’s life history to understand how grief feels. It’s the same with joy, or anger or any other emotional situation. And kindness is possible only when we have the courage to reach out to someone and say I’m here, and you aren’t alone. We may be horribly embarrassed and awkward or just loath to put oneself out there. But once you get started, kindness isn’t that hard. Children know how to be kind even before they can talk—lots of children will impulsively hug a peer when they see them crying. Babies cry in sympathy when they hear other babies cry. And then we grow up to become people who don’t look beggars in the eye, who are suspicious of kindness because you think someone will only want something in return.

We’re so afraid of losing all the time. Losing power, losing face, losing prestige, money, the list is endless. And because we’re just scared, we shrivel up the best of our humanity because we think it makes us weak. So there are mothers-in-law who will never let their daughters-in-law decide what’s for lunch. There are the employers who won’t pay employees who want to leave. There are the people who drive past car accidents, slow down to gawp and drive off without offering to help. The nurses who don’t take your pain seriously, the kids who laugh at the new kid in class. A paediatrician meets hundreds of stressed-out parents a week. It’s nothing new to deal with anxious mamas. It’s probably really annoying to answer the same questions, day after day, week after week. But you don’t know when one small act of kindness will resonate with someone. You don’t know that when you stopped to help someone pick up their dropped books at college, you were helping someone who was at the end of their tether. We don’t need each other to say we’re so stunning in photos. We need each other for support, and kindness is the only way we can find that humanity.