There’s a risk that you’ll read this title and automatically interpret it as: “A Case for Being Nice to People: Why Everyone Should Be Nice and Not Be Mean.” You’ll bristle Yes, yes, we should be nice to people. Yes, yes, kindness is a good thing. But it’s so idealistic! What can possibly be said about it kindness that is new? Meanwhile, you might close your mind to any further remarks. Let me say there is no reason to be concerned about the same old general advice, or any advice at all. I have enough trouble figuring out how to be kind myself; telling others how to be seems positively reckless.
I believe kindness needs a reinvention if it is to play a role in fixing a broken world. It needs to be redefined. Kindness needs to be lifted out of the “be nice” and “do unto others…” box, where it remains off to the side to be spoken about and praised without ever being unwrapped. Lifted out of its box, it can be placed squarely in front of those of us striving to be “good people” while fearing all the time that we are not. There, it can be repackaged in bold and practical ways that do not call for saintly or angelic behavior out of line with instinct and temperament. A new look at kindness can actually loosen up some creativity in terms of the range of options we have in any given situation.
Kindness’s image is deeply entrenched. A quick search for “kindness” on Google Images reveals the popular, Hallmark view that most of us imagine when we think of kindness. There are countless pictures of the adorable and the nice: pink hearts, puppies nuzzling with kittens, a friend helping another across the finish line. Kindness is conceived of as good behaviors: being nice and not being mean. I think of this as Grandma’s version of kindness.
Grandma’s version of kindness all strikes Grandpa as too touchy-feely, all that warm fuzziness, all that being nice. Grandpa dismisses apparent beneficence by invoking self-serving motivations. Popular Discovery Channel documentaries that spotlight kindness in bonobos or chimpanzees reveal the tension between Grandma and Grandpa. Grandpa watches Bonobos grooming each other and asks: What is the ape going to get in return for grooming that other ape? Why would he groom his friend if his friend wasn’t going to groom him back? He concludes: If they get along it’s only because it’s a dog-eat-dog world and they need to get along for each of them to survive. Grandpa reasons that it simply is not possible that a human, no less a “junior human,” like an ape, would do something out of the “kindness of his heart.”
Grandma, however, never doubts that kindness exists, and she’s not the least bit surprised by the behavior she sees. She looks at the apes cuddling and smiles. It makes perfect sense to her. Aww, look at those little apes scratching each other’s backs. Look at how he’s nuzzling with his mommy.
So Grandma and Grandpa don’t see eye to eye. Grandpa sees Grandma’s view as weak and feminine. Grandma sees Grandpa’s views as cruel and harsh. Meanwhile, neither picks up on how they are defining kindness the same way, and in their conventional definition, missing the larger point.
Obviously Grandma, as I’ve drawn her, is a silly and chauvinist caricature. There are plenty of grandmothers whose tongues cut like knives and whose pocketbooks are used as weapons. And Grandpa likewise; he could be the caricature I sketched or he could be a sweet old man who paints bird feeders and lingers over his walker to hand out coins to hungry children.
But regardless of how they’re drawn, both Grandma and Grandpa (and maybe all of us) tend to think of kindness behaviorally. It has become something that is done, that vaguely follows the golden rule, that is about making some extra effort to be nice and not to be mean without expecting anything in return. This conventional understanding of kindness as behavior prevents insight into a perspective of kindness that is so common it often goes unnoticed: a simple sense of being of the same kind. The intuitive sense of being of the same kind makes it possible to be angry and kind simultaneously, a feat that simply is not possible if kindness is defined as being nice. I suspect it is this definition of kindness that the Dalai Lama has in mind when he says that his only religion is kindness.
On a surface level, a sense of being of the same kind happens constantly: the Jewish guy feels immediate kinship with the other Jewish guy at the party because they look alike and assume there’s something in common. The alumni from the same University that bump into each other on the cruise ship like each other immediately and begin reminiscing about favorite professors. Being of the same kind is a basic “you’re in, I’m in!” formulation that each of us goes through with everyone we meet and know. If someone is “in” then some form of kindness has been established, even if it’s entirely superficial, tribal and arbitrary, like having attended the same preschool or both being Jet’s fans.
On a deeper level, this intuitive sense makes empathy possible, though it is more difficult to recognize because no one is taught about kindness this way. Grandma teaches kindness like she teaches all other moral qualities, behaviorally, from the outside in. (Grandpa never teaches it because he thinks it’s weak.) In other words, little Johnny learns to do kindness (e.g. don’t hit, don’t be mean, be nice) without becoming familiar with the warmth of belonging or the cold of alienation. Johnny does not realize that he was being nice moments before when he and Bobby were playing together “on the same team” and that just seconds after Bobby took the ball Johnny felt isolated and opposed. Hurting, kindness was gone. It’s no surprise Johnny hit Bobby. With a behavioral understanding of kindness, what can Johnny learn from his experience when he is reprimanded for hitting? He winds up feeling guilty about failing his Grandma and hardens just like Grandpa.
Later in life Johnny is walking down the street, his head crammed with Marx, Freud, Darwin and the Bible, and if a homeless man asks him for money, he has a lengthy internal discourse about what to do. He considers whether the man is going to drink it away. He considers his own financial situation and the state of the global economy. He considers welfare and theories on income distribution. He is in a conundrum. Even if he gives, it is doubtful that his behavior is based on some intuitive recognition in the gut and heart of being of the same kind as the open palmed man in front of him. Probably it is based on a much more powerful sense of otherness. Johnny does not want to feel worse about himself. He doesn’t want to be heartless and cruel. So, he places a dollar in the man’s open hand being careful not to look at him directly nor to make physical contact. Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny registers the man’s swollen and discolored ankles, the pants that are tattered and too short, the worn out boots with no laces, but nowhere in Johnny’s internal dialogue is the thought “he and I are of the same kind.” No, rather, Johnny has no particular topic on his mind beyond “am I a good person?” Did I do a good thing? Had Johnny felt the being of the same kind definition of kindness, he might have seen himself in the homeless man.
Trying to live with the definition of kindness as a sense of being of the same kind is on one hand a pretty safe thing to do and on the other hand fairly frightening. The self-protective side is that I don’t need to do anything extra to be kind, that if I include all humans in my kind at least for now, that somehow spontaneously, actions that other people view as nice will issue forth. Maybe I will actually be kind. For example, the other day, I shocked myself when I interrupted my walk to work by stopping to help a woman I didn’t know carry a heavy box. Normally I would have not even noticed her struggling to climb over the snow while balancing the box in one hand and her work bags in the other. But, perhaps because I was working on this essay, I did notice her and I did help. The only conscious thought I had was that there have been times in my life when I could have really used a hand. I recalled the week before when I didn’t have snowscraper and I was caught in a snowstorm. So, I was like this woman, lacking resources and off balance, and the action spontaneously emerged. I found the whole thing very encouraging about my moral sensibilities and I was high on myself when I walked into my office. However, later than night I was rude to my wife when she came home from work. Perhaps my quota was filled?
The frightening part is that I cannot take refuge in otherness any longer. Like watching the bonobos and chimps on the Discovery Channel, I would sometimes look at people from an outside vantage point as though people were apes. “They” appeared to me so funny and so awkward. Look at them dance! Look at them build buildings! Look at all the things they can do! But what was I? There’s no way I can extract myself from being of the same kind as everyone else, and as that bald fact begins to dawn on me, it extends from casual interactions to dealing with my son’s tantrums to the Israel-Palestine conflict to the coworker gunning for my job. There’s just no way to escape it.
In working on this essay, perhaps I appealed to Grandma and Grandpa because I wish my own Gram and Poppy were still with me so I could have a conversation about kindness with them. I imagine Gram in the Jewish Home for the Elderly, slumping in her wheelchair with her tiny hands resting on its arms and her half open eyes peering out at me through her thick round glasses. If I told her I was writing an essay on kindness, she probably wouldn’t have too much to say about it. I would get a tight-lipped “That’s nice, Bubbalu,” or maybe an exasperated People could use that, Oy Vey. And my Poppy, I imagine him, sitting in his gray recliner, looking at me, his eyes large behind his black-rimmed glasses. What would he say? He was a gentle man. He would just smile and shake his head. “It’s a tough world out there, Michael, a tough, tough world.”