Practical Philosophy

Be Kind to Each Other

If you accept that you are mortal. If you see all living beings as kindred spirits. If you understand the value of “the Golden Rule” and find it to be the the only path worthy of consideration. Then there is nothing left to do but be kind.

Kindness isn’t easy. And it’s not fun and light and uplifting all the time. Sometimes it’s the hardest of hard work. But it’s the best, sanest, most valuable course of action.

To really be good at kindness, to be skilled and able in all situations to respond with a kind response that is appropriate and doesn’t make you feel like you’re just faking it, is the work of a life.

But I know that it is work that is valid, and the only thing that feels worthy of all of my enduring effort.

I know that if I were to be told I’d die soon my fondest wish would be that I could experience the kindness of good friends and have the ability to extend as much kindness as I could back to them. When I look at it clearly, I find it hard to dispute this notion I jotted down on a sticky note well over a year ago:

After accepting his fate, he said: “There is nothing left to do but be kind to each other.”

Practical Philosophy

“Simple But Not Easy”

I don’t remember quite where I first encountered the phrase “simple but not easy,” but after a recent encounter it’s been stuck in my head. I believe deeply that all the important insights in life are simple. Really really really stupidly simple.

The reason the phrase is stuck in my head, though, is that there’s an often related, unstated, and wrong corollary that people think follows from the idea that everything is simple: that everything is easy. Things are not easy. At least not for many people in many situations much of the time.

How does one develop a reputation as a kind, generous, and admirable person? Well, by being a kind, generous, and admirable person. (Duh! It is that simple.) But how do I act kindly, generously, and admirably? You perform actions that feel kind, generous, and admirable. (Duh! It is that simple.) What about when I don’t really feel like it and I really just want to say the mean thought that’s on my mind because I’m tired and a bit fed up? Even then, especially then. I didn’t say it was easy.

We know what it means to be nice. We know what it means to have courage. We know what it means to forgive. We know what it is to help. We know what it is be present. We know what it is to love. When we don’t do those things, in most cases, it’s not because we don’t know how we would do them. Rather, we fail to demonstrate qualities we admire because they either aren’t easy for us to see, or they aren’t the easy or expected thing for us to do.

To really be the kind of person who is thought of as kind is an exceptionally hard task. It’s hard not because it’s not obvious how to be kind. It’s hard because it’s not easy to be kind to a lot of people a lot of the time. People have a habit of doing things we don’t like. And the easy reaction when someone does something we don’t like is to be mean. To meet what we perceive as their unkindness with our own. It is a hard thing to be kind when every impulse you have is to lash back. But it really is simple.

The core insight of “simple but not easy” is this: while we frequently want to blame our deficiencies on a lack of knowledge — thinking that we “don’t know how” to do the right thing — it’s typically actually caused by a lack of will. We tend to — for comfort, for simplicity, for the conservation of energy — do what is easy. But if we want to be proud of our actions, we should try to do what is simple and obviously going to make us feel admirable and proud. Not just when it is easy, but when it is hard. Especially when it is hard.


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.”


The Vulnerability of Kindness

Vulnerability is scary.

Whether you’re a wildebeest parching your thirst from a possibly-crocodile-infested pond or a person sitting in a room about to tell someone a truth that you’ve hidden for a while, it’s frightening stuff. Your heart races. Your skin shines. Your muscles tense. Your voice shakes.

The truth of a situation is naked. Vulnerable. Exposed. We spend most of our life trying our best to avoid situations where we must admit the truth, see the truth, or otherwise open ourselves up to things that scare us.

But we run from vulnerability to our peril. There is fundamentally no way out of situations that require vulnerability. We are vulnerable creatures, each one of us fundamentally unable to create the world we want alone. Something will always be different than we’d choose — whether it’s sickness, weakness, or an urgent need for help. We simply are not omnipotent.

We can try to escape this reality, but only by fleeing into vices that distract our mind from it. You can get drunk. Get high. Get distracted. Get fat. Get conceited. Get selfish. Get mean. Get quiet. Get isolated. But none of those gets rid of the vulnerability that caused you to seek escape. They only mask it.

Kindness is about saying things people may read as weak, or stupid, or weird. About doing things without any guarantee you’ll receive anything in return.

Coping strategies put a rug over over the hole of vulnerability. It superficially seems we’ve rid the area of that unsightly hole, but someday when we’re not careful that hole will catch us. And then we’ll be at the bottom of a hole with a huge rug and anything else that rug brought down with us. We’ll be stymied down there in the hole, wrestling with all that stuff before we can even think about how we can get out.

Kindness is hard. And it is fundamentally about vulnerability. About laying yourself open, if only the smallest bit, so that someone else can accept that opening. Kindness is about saying things people may read as weak, or stupid, or weird. About doing things without any guarantee you’ll receive anything in return. You simply cannot do those things while you’re scared of being vulnerable.

Opening to vulnerability requires tremendous awareness. It requires you to escape the invulnerable bubble of your regular stories and patterns and actually sit there and keep going as your pulse quickens, your mind races, and you want anything to not have to go through with this thing. But you do it, not because it’s easy but because it’s important.

There is, to my knowledge, no quick shortcut to empowering brave vulnerability. You must try and you must feel the horror and you must, sometimes, feel stupid and foolish for having made the effort.

But sometimes you will also feel stupid and foolish for having found the effort so hard, because no catastrophe befalls you. And sometimes great things come from the effort. And as those experiences accumulate, you get more comfortable. You’re better able to be open and fully present and kind in the world. It’s hard work, but I’m not sure any work is more worthy.


Kind Awareness

Fundamentally, nothing can respond to a stimuli it doesn’t perceive. Whether a robot car, a wolf, a rose bush, a person, or a rock. Not a single one of them can respond to things they aren’t aware of.

Bubbles limit kindness, primarily because they inhibit awareness. When you’re caught in your own story about how broken American politics are, triggered by the stupid bumper sticker you saw on an ugly, beat-up old car that shouldn’t even be on the road, you’re a lot less likely to notice the ducklings trying to cross the street in front of you. And you can’t brake for ducklings you don’t see.

Frequently, when I reflect on a time when I felt I was unnecessarily rude, mean, or harsh in either speech or action, I find that the reason is that I wasn’t really there for the encounter.

We are tremendously sensitive when we focus. Most of us can tell that another person is even slightly uneasy in a situation when we make the effort. We can tell in all the micro-cues something about their internal state that they probably wouldn’t disclose, and may not themselves be aware of. But we have to be paying attention to notice it.

And we have to be paying attention to notice how the reality of their reaction feels to us. If you’re not careful, noticing someone uneasy in your presence can set you off in any number of directions.

And we have to be paying attention to notice how the reality of their reaction feels to us. If you’re not careful, noticing someone uneasy in your presence can set you off in any number of directions. Maybe you yourself suddenly feel uneasy. And that can becomes its own cycle, spiraling toward any array of emotions, from fear to anger. None of which you formally choose. You’ll just later find yourself in one.

Awareness is an incredibly hard thing to cultivate. When you start trying, you’ll likely find yourself frustrated by just how little active awareness you have in a given moment. And that can becomes its own cycle, spiraling toward any array of emotions, from fear to anger. None of which you formally choose. You’ll just later find yourself in one.

But awareness of the present situation is utterly essential if you’re going to find a way to act kindly inside of it. So you must, if you truly aspire to be your kindest self, cultivate it. Call it mindfulness or presence or awareness or embodiedness or prayer or whatever you want. But work on it. Make it something you aspire to do, that you spend time getting better at.

Meditation in Tokyo

You can start now. Just notice your breathing. You’re breathing in, you’re breathing out. Don’t try to change your breath, just notice it passing in and out. When you notice that you’re no longer noticing it, return. Stay with your breath as much as you can. When you drift away, don’t fret or analyze — that takes you back into your bubble. Stay with the breath. In. Out. In. Out. It’ll go like that until you die, so you can always come back to it.

Breath meditation seems a bit dull, but it’s the simplest and best tool you have to cultivate awareness. Awareness that can stop you from suddenly waking up in a state of fear or anger you haven’t chosen. Awareness that can enable spontaneous kindness you can’t possibly imagine.


Puncturing Your Bubble for Kindness

You live inside your head. It’s fundamentally true: try to define who you are without including the large mass behind your eyeballs and you’ll flounder. But for most of us, most of the time, we live inside our head in a more casual sense. We’re caught up inside the machinations of our neuroses, missing most of what happens in the world.

The pattern is so common I may not even need to tell you about it. For a while, you’re paying attention to the things unfolding around you. And then one of the things you’re observing triggers some path in your brain — a memory, a latent idea, a thought — and you follow that path for somewhere between one millisecond and thirty minutes. Then you snap back to observing the present reality.

This pattern builds our bubbles. I’ve spent a great deal of time inside the bubble of my worldview. This bubble is more than just a given set of well-trodden mental paths. It is the environment around that, populated by all the triggers and loops that can pull you onto these well-worn paths. That environment defines borders around itself to keep safe.

Black and white photo of child hidden in fearFor me, one of these borders was that strangers were scary, complicated, and unworthy of my time. This was different than the quixotic “stranger danger” about which children are warned. And this wasn’t, though it may have had similar results, some kind of deep fear of social contact and an inability to cross the border. For me it was an unwillingness to give most people the metaphorical “time of day”; a deep conceit that defined most of the world as unworthy of my time and concern. So most people “in my life” were well below my radar.

Retrospectively I’d guess that it was safer for me, and my self image, to disregard people who might later shun me than to hope for something from them and not get it. It’s not the worst imaginable coping mechanism, but I don’t recommend it. This personal bubble with sharp boundaries, learned after years of training, is one of the primary reasons that I find kindness to be difficult.

People weren’t allowed in my bubble unless they’d proven to me that they were interesting and worthy of my time. It allowed me to conserve tremendous amounts of time and energy in the short term, but it closed me off to tremendous possibilities and powers that come with being open and kind as you move through the world.

The puncturing of the bubble that isolated me from the world has been a slow and on-going process. I’d say I’m wearing away at the bubble that makes it hard for me to be kind rather than that I can or am ever likely to remove it entirely.

But to be as consistently kind as I aspire to, I have to get through that bubble. It’s essential to be available and in the world to be kind to the people in it. It’s a slow process, but I think leaving the bubble makes a big difference.

Your bubble may be different. Maybe you don’t even have a bubble. But if you ever find yourself stifling an impulse to engage with a person you see before you, there are few better questions than “Why?” Why am I closing down? For me, the protective bubble in which I’ve lived so long is regularly the reason.


The Long Game of Kindness

Living creatures, by their nature, find it hard to think, plan, and act for the long term. For millennia life on this planet has survived because it acts, first and foremost, to do what it is best for it in the short term. This near-term greed allows living creatures to keep being alive, and that’s really their most important quality. Anything else they may or may not accomplish is secondary.

As I’ve been spending time thinking about why kindness is so difficult to do on a consistent basis, one of the things I’ve realized is that it has little benefit in the very short term. Surely there is some small short-term glow after an acknowledged kindness, but even that is rather fleeting.

And almost necessarily, to be kind you must also give up something else of value to you in the act. Whether it’s time, energy, money, or all three, kindness is never free. Definitionally, an act that is kind cannot serve your short-term self-interest. If it did it wouldn’t be an act of kindness, but of greed.

Kindness can have tremendous benefits in the long term. When it comes back to you, if it comes back to you, it’s almost certainly in the form of someone making for you the same trade that you made initially. They forfeit some short-term energy, money, or time so that you can have a better day, year, or life.

Aside from the expressed gratitude of the person to whom you act kindly you are unlikely to get much immediately from your kindness.

And it may be the case that you kick off a chain of kindness that doesn’t affect you, but has a positive effect for others. And while such a chain could come back to you, it’s never certain to. If it does, it will almost never do so immediately. Aside from the expressed gratitude of the person to whom you act kindly you are unlikely to get much immediately from any single act of kindness.

That is one of the central obstacles to kindness. As we move through the world, we’re characteristically short-sighted. We’re focused on the next activity, obligation, or event and not on the longer term questions of what will help others and ourselves to feel better and more satisfied as we move through the world.

We’re far more likely to bask in the warm glow of a received compliment than ask ourselves how we can increase the likelihood that we and others can bask in such a glow more regularly. While giving unprompted compliments on a consistent basis is almost certainly the easiest way that you can receive them regularly (people love to bounce compliments back) it’ll almost never cross our minds.

This shortsightedness has served living creatures well for thousands of years. But it makes kindness harder. The best way we can cope with it, I think, is just to be aware of the tendency. Awareness in itself doesn’t change anything, but it makes it much easier to see and change your behavior around this misplaced focus. If practiced regularly, awareness can shift your attention to the longer-term.

Another idea is to keep a memory vault of all the good that’s come of kindnesses you’ve done. Kindnesses done for you, or even those you’ve witnessed and felt were commendable can help. This vault may be light at first, and can be hard to fill, but remembering the long-term good that has resulted from short-term sacrifice can be a powerful way to be more aware of and ready to do similar kind actions.

Kindness is a long game. Maybe the longest of all. That makes it really hard for us bumbling myopic humans to do it all that well. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s worth learning to do. And well.


Why Kindness is Hard

I wrote last week about how important I think kindness is. And about how its truest form is a positve action rather than the mere absence of negative actions. That, and a few other things I’ve seen lately has lead me to get thinking a little bit about why this thing called kindness that we almost all agree is important is so hard to do.

Part of why kindness is hard is just the intractable and inevitable gap between what we wish we would do and the reality of what we do. No matter how much we think in idle time “I should do it like this” we’re always coming face to face with the fact that the way we typically do things is different than our ideals.

But I think there are more subtle and specific qualities of kindness that contribute to the problem. I intend to spend some time thinking and writing about them in the coming weeks.

To get the series started, here are some of the reasons that I’ve come up with:

I’ll write about each of those bullet points, one per week. If I find more they’re going on the list. I feel pretty confident I’ll learn something from the exercise, and I hope you’ll accompany me.


The Difference between Being Nice and Not Being Mean

If there’s one thing that I’m certain of its that there is a big difference between not being actively mean to someone and being kind to them. And yet for a long time I didn’t realize there was a difference. It not as though if you’d asked me if those two sequences of words had the same meaning I’d have said yes, but I didn’t really understand and appreciate the difference. I took a determinedly neutral approach to everyone.

And one of the outcomes of that approach was that people would tend to think I didn’t like them. I’d get that feedback intermittently, but consistently, once I got to know someone. And for the most part it baffled me. I’d laugh it off, but I really didn’t understand where they’d gotten the impression: I may not have formed an opinion about them, but I certainly didn’t dislike them.

But what’s started to dawn on me as I’ve gotten older is that we don’t have much to go on about other people. And neutrality isn’t the same thing as kindness. It doesn’t make people like you, or want to help you, and it certainly doesn’t get them thinking highly of you. And so, in the absence of another way to read it, neutrality is read — sanely, defensibly, commonly — as dislike.

In a fantastic and much linked, including by me, commencement speech the New York Times recently published, the author George Saunders talks clearly about the disadvantage of simply not being mean:

But still.  It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. 

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.

There’s is alway a sane, rational, and logically unimpeachable reason that you shouldn’t be mean. I’ve never doubted that. The Golden Rule explains it simply and clearly: you don’t want people to be mean to you, so you shouldn’t be mean to them.

But when I’d try to extend the golden rule to kindness, I always hit a cognitive block. Sometimes people just want to be left alone. Sometimes, as you cry alone in public, you want nothing more than to have no one acknowledge that you’re crying.

But this is, it’s slowly dawning on my, at best a weak excuse. Almost no one rebuffs an active effort to help. And in so many more situations the offer to help is welcomed. The likely worst outcome is that someone will politely decline.

I know nothing so thoroughly as that the habit of staying in the background and hoping thing work out for that person I see before me is going to be stubborn and hard to break — that’s how habits are. But I know, just as certainly, that being kind to people I meet— in an active, positive, involved way — is worth the fight.