Models of Kindness

There’s a saying I’m quite fond of: “Never compare your insides to anyone else’s outsides.” There are a million variations on the theme, but the message is always the same: your internal experience and the outward behaviors you notice and find notable in others aren’t really the same process or a reasonable basis for comparison. They are the proverbial apples and oranges.

This is undeniable to anyone who stops and thinks about it for a second, but it’s one of those hard-to-appreciate banal truths that form the most sound basis for understanding reality.

Even when we know about this, and have some understanding of it, we’re still apt to get it wrong. Apt to look to exemplars of kindness like the Dalai Lama or Desmond Tutu and think “well it all comes so easy for them.” Even the less famous people you notice as exceptionally kind in your everyday life may have you thinking similar thoughts. “Well she just likes people a lot.” “He’s just really outgoing.”

It’s easy to get frustrated when seeing someone else demonstrate the kind of kindness you don’t have the strength to offer. To feel like you’re just not cut out for that whole kindness thing and let yourself off the hook. (It’s a bit off topic, but “that whole kindness thing” can be changed to many other variants: the running a business thing, the reading big important books thing, the being devoutly religious thing.)

We let ourselves mistake people doing things for them being easy for them to our collective peril. When we leave the responsibility to try to be kind or generous or and wise to others, we leave society a poorer place.

The path to a kind an generous world is not to elevate to sainthood — no offense to Catholicism — those few people who achieve some heroic standard of morally exemplary behavior. Rather a world permeated by kindness comes about from everyone making an effort everyday to be just a little kinder than they would otherwise be. For some, that means giving away the clothes off their back to the poor homeless woman they meet. For others that means only spitting on the homeless man rather than physically assaulting him. But both shifts are commendable and essential to moral progress in the world.

We must be our own moral idols and exemplars. We must learn to act kindly for its own sake, not so that others will look up to us as models of kindness. “There is nothing noble in being superior to some other person; true nobility is found in being superior to your former self.”

politics, world

The Protester’s Imperative

prakharA picture of pro-Tibet protesters in Paris

Be heard, provoke consideration, but never–never–be perceived as impetuous. The second the public at large sees you are a bigger problem than the problem you’re protesting about, you’ve lost.

These thoughts of mine were provoked in no small part because of the amount of coverage that recent protests along the path of the Olympic torch relay have provoked. Thus far, I’d say that protesters have done an admirable job of making their concerns heard without becoming the story, but they’re treading perilously close to that line.

Obviously, it can be hard to judge when you’ll become seen as a pest and not earnest citizens with a legitimate grievance. There are some people who see even the most minor protest as too big a bother and will, consequently, do their best to handicap the cause for which the protesters demonstrate.

It’s hard to judge exactly what’s accepted by the majority of people and what’s not. Surely, to the average American, “terrorism” is not a legitimate form of protest. If there’s one lesson from the late sixties and the early seventies, it’s that violent protest doesn’t work. Fights scare off the luke-warm and the merely curious, armed clashes and explosive used against Americans will mean you’ve completely lost the public argument.

Surely in some cases and in some circles, by some people, terrorism is considered acceptable. Al Quaeda is not completely without supporters who see their action as a justified means of protest and self-defense. Surely the violence of the IRA was accepted in at least some of the Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. So to was the terrorism of John Brown accepted, even fêted in some parts of America before the civil war.

Without a doubt, audience matters. Protesters who violate the sensibilities of their intended audience do a great disservice to their cause by acting dishonorably. Almost without question, black empowerment became less popular in America when the protests organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. gave way the militancy and violence of Black Panthers and other groups. By showing that their hand included guns and a openness to “any means necessary,” they scared off many luke-warm supporters. The militancy of those and other 1970s protesters is widely recognized as the cause for the conservative resurgence of the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Surely it’s no minor tragedy that China has a history of intransigence on the crisis in Darfur. Surely it’s no minor tragedy that China still refuses to acknowledge the role of the Dalai Lama as the representative of the Tibetan people. Surely it’s no minor tragedy that the Chinese have been one of the most crucial supporters of the military junta controlling Burma.

But it’s not out of the question that outrage about beligerent protesters could overwhelm people’s outrage about such tragedies. And if the continued irritation of extinguishers of the Olympic flame becomes the story rather than the tragedies for which they seek attention, I think that would be the biggest tragedy of all.

big ideas

The Triviality of Difference

Everywhere you look, especially as a teenager, the world is full of others. Of people “not like me.” And though teenagers feel this most intensely, few do not feel it regularly.

Just look at the latent antipathy that exists in this country toward Iranians. Or Arabs. Or Mexicans. Or even the French.

Surely these people are different from us. They live in different parts of the world. They look different. They sound different. Put face to face, we’d probably struggle to understand each other fully. And that’s ignoring language.

For all my years, I still don’t understand fully the people I’ve known since I was young. I don’t know my friends. I don’t know my family. Sometimes I don’t even know myself.

There’s a real and meaningful distance that seems to exist between “me” and “you.” And that’s assuming you’re someone I’ve met in some capacity. If we float in the same circles but don’t know each other by name that distance seems bigger still. If we’ve never seen each other, it seems impossible that there’s anything between us. And if we’ll never see each other we may as well give up entirely.

But before we lapse into nihlistic despair at the fact that we’re too different, I’d hope we could consider this. In his wonderful 1989 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the 14th Dalai Lama said:

No matter what part of the world we come from, we are all basically the same human beings. We all seek happiness and try to avoid suffering. We have the same basic human needs and concerns. All of us human beings want freedom and the right to determine our own destiny as individuals and as peoples.

I, at least, find this point indisputable. Surely there are people in the world who think that they want to suffer, but it’s usually in some search for a separate and durable happiness. Religious self-flagellation is the imposition of temporary pain in exchange for long term happiness when God is satisfied with one’s commitment. And though I find the practice unfathomably odd and barbaric, even its practitioners seek long-term happiness.

From the time we first recognize differences amongst people, they become an easy way to understand the world. To see that we exist, as people and persons, because of our differences. That they define us.

And though I’m not foolish enough to ignore all differences, I think it’s terribly important that we see the commonality that exists underneath all the superficial difference. It’s sometimes trendy in the West to evangelize against superficiality. But beyond popular culture and children’s feelings, this evangelization rapidly dies.

And that’s certainly unfortunate. I feel rather certain that if the anti-superficiality crusade went all the way to the fundamental commonality that the Dalai Lamas and others point out to us, we’d live in a much better world.