“Kindness, we will argue in this book – not sexuality, not violence, not money – has become our forbidden pleasure. What is it about our times that makes kindness seem so dangerous?”
On Kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor
Kindness is dangerous, make no mistake about it. To be kind is to admit you care, exposing yourself to the surrounding bullies and giving them ammunition by which you can be hurt. This is why so many torture techniques are about raping the wife and killing the children to destroy the man. He cares and so his psyche breaks witnessing the cruelty.
The smallest act of kindness is revolutionary, an active protest against the insistence that this whole planet is full of people, animals and things meant only to be used to further our personal pursuit of wealth and power. With an act of kindness you dare to interfere with the Invisible Hand of the marketplace, threatening social chaos because you are not pursuing your own interests first and foremost. Of course we are a culture of smiles, but they do not reach our eyes. Too often the only purpose of our friendliness is to grease the wheels and make using one another a little easier.
“Goodbye cruel world.” Is the only way to escape this cruel world to die? Perhaps if we became a touch less cruel ourselves, the world would look a touch less cruel as well. Perhaps if in addition to selfish genes and ruthless competition we also filled our lives with thoughts of mutual aid and cooperation we would find our days proceeding much more smoothly, more filled with peace and contentment then they are right now.
When you feel caged in, hurt and vulnerable it is impossible to extend to another human being a warm, heartfelt acceptance. If inside you are feeling that you have been used and abused by others, you are not going to be able to greet other human beings in an atmosphere of trust. If you suspect every act of kindness has some ulterior motive, you are not going to be able to accept comfort from other people. Under these circumstances the interactions between human beings are ruled by fear which makes everyone wary, always on the lookout for the next insult, blame or threat. We see this everywhere; unhappy marriages, unhappy families, unhappy workplaces. That it is easier to sell someone something they don’t need if they are stressed out and full of fear is exactly why our media does all it can to keep images of carnage and pain, human cruelty and deception surrounding us at all times. The only kindness we accept is that of Hannibal inviting his guest to dinner.
In A Language Older Than Words Derrick Jensen writes, “I sometimes feel as though the tone of this book is not appropriate. I’m not certain the language is raw enough. My language is too fine, the sentences too lyrical, to describe things neither child nor adult should have to describe at all.”
By creating a culture devoted to material gain through individual competition we have also created a culture in which it is almost impossible to relax. Can you feel how, as a society, we are just getting wound up tighter and tighter? We all fear that if we let our guard down and expose our open and vulnerable side, others will take advantage of us. We fear they will use shared intimacies against us, fears that are often well grounded. While thankfully only a few people will experience torture, very few people will escape the devastating experience of having a trust betrayed by a friend or lover, by a boss or colleague, by a parent or sibling. We suffer when some intimate detail of our vulnerability, which we were courageous enough to share, is used against us. We suffer so deeply that we are quick to create a persona, a mask, that pretends we are not as hurt as we actually are. At first we use our mask as a band-aid but over time, as the scar tissue grows, it becomes character armor. We no longer even think about whether what we are about to say or do to another is cruel or not. We no longer notice when we are devastatingly cruel, carelessly flinging arrows and spears into the broken hearts around us.
We have become astonishingly cruel to one another as our capitalistic relations have become ever more brutal and exploitive. Coming out on top is the over-riding value; we must be first, best, brightest, and cutest or else the big machine of corporate power will chew us up and spit us out on the street.
The new management style that was all the rage recently well captures our social bankruptcy. In this breakthrough of business acumen the competition that dictates relationships between businesses was encouraged among the employees as well. The world of business is notorious for its dirty tricks and cold heartedness; ‘it’s just business’ we say, as we deny paying an insurance claim to the family with a child dying of cancer. The new management, following the same playbook, encourages backstabbing your peers by reporting their mistakes to their superiors secretly, negative office smear campaigns to destroy the careers of your competitors, and disingenuous reporting of other people’s achievements so yours stand out as unquestionably the best. Anyone recognize any of this? The logic is straight forward enough: the best businesses are those that out-compete all others, so the best employees are those that out-compete all others. Basically we have come to worship the CEO as asshole. In doing so we have come to prize the human being that can most quickly and thoroughly be an asshole to another human being as the highest achievement of personality and character.
We have become so fascinated by the gross power the abusive wield, that we have grown blind to the more subtle power found in acts of generosity and kindness.
True kindness, or the lack thereof, comes directly from how we see the world. There is not much more to it than that. The difficulty of the path in which we work on developing compassion is that we cannot change the way we see the world. Not directly anyway; the way we see things is the way we see things. We can fool ourselves for awhile, and others even longer, by trying to force ourselves into some regime of positive thinking or faith or groundless optimism but in the end, the world we see is the world we live in.
This is not to say there is no way to change the way we see the world, far from it. In fact it is more of a problem for the human mind that it is too easy to change the world we see into one we picture must be there. The contemplative arts are forms of training the mind to see what is really there beyond our fearful clinging and grasping. By calming the mind and letting it rest we discover a basic ground of goodness, we allow ourselves to become aware of the subtle delight that accompanies energetic, organic existence.
The world we have been taught to see by our immersion in the norms and mores of our dominate culture is one in which a dead, mechanical universe exists only to serve our needs. The non-human life we find on this planet is considered to be a kind of pseudo-life arising from mechanical chemical reactions. Non-human creatures only seem to have feelings, self consciousness and worth – much as women and children were considered to be for most of history. Only humans are really aware we are alive because we can talk to one another, although this condemns us to a lonely soliloquy. Around and around we go, stimulating one another in our echo chamber to ever greater feats of anger and destruction, stoking the fires of fear and justifying our injustices.
If what you actually see invokes respect you will naturally seek to treat it with the decorum it deserves. For the human being our most graceful acts and attire are reserved for those special occasions when matters of highest individual importance are unfolding; births, deaths, and marriages. We instinctively understand our value is the value of the unique individual. Extending this simple recognition to all sentient beings is an ethical ideal perhaps, but it is also little more than a simple recognition of the facts, namely, that before the forces of life and death all living things are equal. I am vulnerable to suffering, so must you be. At this level of being we are equal and this is simply the truth. Social and cognitive constructs do not reach here; in the silence there are no claims of revelation and salvation, status and domination. Here in our equality it is undeniably obvious that you and I, we have each been born of earth.
Recognize this and you recognize that no one has the right to tell you how to live or lord it over your innermost heart. No one else can give you the final answers to what this life is all about. Recognize this and you recognize the full implications of your choice to be cold-heartedly cruel or not.
Kindness is dangerous, make no mistake about it.