Kindness 2013: the many ideas that lead to kindness

I’ve been posting for a few weeks about the importance of kindness. Especially in this day and age. And we all know what kindness is….don’t we?

Well, I figure yes – and no. Let me explain.

MJWright2011In most ways kindness is obvious. It’s about doing things for other people, altruistically, with no reward for yourself other than the feel-good factor of knowing you’ve helped someone. It can be as small as a smile to a passing stranger; or as large as you like.

But to me it’s more than that. Kindness is underpinned by many related ideas, including ‘thoughtfulness’ – making sure you don’t do something to somebody that is unkind, even by accident.

In order to be ‘thoughtful’ we must also understand what people are doing, and why. That draws in ‘compassion’. Understanding’ also demands ‘reason’ – we have to be able to think our way through the issues. It demands ‘tolerance’ – because if we allow ourselves to see somebody else as a threat to our own ways or self-esteem, we are likely to lose ‘reason’, ‘understanding’ and ‘kindness’.

To me both ‘understanding’ and ‘tolerance’ also demand ‘abstraction’; an ability to step back and not allow the emotions that cripple our kindness – anger and revenge, mainly – to intrude. More on this anti-kindness pitfall in a later post.

Kindness, in short, is a word that encompasses a philosophy; a philosophy of care, of compassion, of thought, of reason, of tolerance, of abstraction and of understanding. Particularly, of understanding the human condition – for if we understand that, then we can know and avoid the pitfalls.

All these things are the tools that make kindness possible – reliably, often, as an everyday part of life. They also surprisingly difficult to do, for reasons which I’ll explain about in a subsequent post.

And yet I can think of people who do this, right now. And there is a fictional character who does all these things too.

Spock.

Not the 1960s Spock of Star Trek (1965-67), but the multi-dimensional Spock of the later movies, the elder Spock of the 2009 re-boot especially. The difference was specific; in the 1960s, Spock was prisoner of an emotionless Vulcan biology in which his ‘human half’ had to be allowed to shine through. A contrived character. But by the 2000s, Spock had become a much more developed character, and his emotionless approach had become something else – a philosophy. Vulcans were violently emotive; they had to find ways of controlling their destructive side. And where does a philosophy of calm logic, science, abstraction from emotion (especially anger, if you’ve seen the movie) and reason lead us? By Spock’s rules, it is to kindness.

What do you figure? I’d love to hear from you on this one.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013 

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12 comments on “Kindness 2013: the many ideas that lead to kindness

  1. Kerry Dwyer says:

    “Kindness, in short, is a word that encompasses a philosophy; a philosophy of care, of compassion, of thought, of reason, of tolerance, of abstraction and of understanding. ”

    This is it! – this is true and meaningful. Unless we understand and tolerate our fellow beings we are getting nowhere. With understanding and tolerance comes compassion and kindness. Without these we may as well go back to the cave. Greed and envy destroy tolerance and compassion and lead to unkindness.

    I am not sure about Spock. For me he was kind but without warmth.

    • Absolutely! In my own circles, I often see the way envy leads to unkindness, in the academic history field, here in New Zealand. It’s intellectualised and given a gloss of ‘respectability’ by the context, but the underlying emotion and intent is always obvious. And that sort of ,loss of human perspective occurs all over the world in many, many ways – begging a general question: how can people who, for the most part, are decent and nice individuals – with friends, love for family, and a healthy regard for all the things we regard as virtues – turn into angry, vicious and avenging crusaders? They’ve lost perspective on what counts – the compassion and tolerance. I’ll put some thought into this for a future post in this kindness series – I think it’s important.

      • Kerry Dwyer says:

        People change and react differently to different situations. I am not sure that it is the lack of human perspective or the return to something deeper something more primordial. Look at how humans behave in crowds for example. People interviewed after riots and vandalism or other aggressive acts say that they don’t know what came over them, they couldn’t control themselves. What happens in football crowds?
        I am no psychiatrist but I do know that it is not straightforward. If you (one) are in the office and ten people are complaining about the boss, their partners or their mother in laws what do you do if you feel differently? Chances are you join in anyway or keep quite. That is a minor effect of a crowd.
        I am not sure how ‘civilised’ we are, nor how to define what being human is. Sometimes it seems to take very little to revert to a baser instinct.
        Sorry – I am rambling on your blog and I am not even sure what my point is here.

        • Feel free to ramble away – to me, you’ve got an excellent point – it’s the issue of crowd mentality, of ‘following the pack’ because it’s easier, because it buys acceptance and so forth, Raises some interesting questions – like, where does ‘pack mentality’ actually lead (London ‘football riots’ springs to mind, actually…) Does this sabotage paths to kindness? Maybe.

          • Kerry Dwyer says:

            Yes it does lead to things like riots and other violent acts. This in turn sabotages kindness. I think we can see that pack or crowd mentality leads to either wonderful or terrible things, we don’t know. But then we need to consider specifics rather than abstracts. How people react in given situations. I don’ think it is predictable. Many people are lost and will fall under a charismatic leader. Some like to lead and others follow – is this taught or natural.

  2. Great post but I’m not sure I agree with the premise that understanding and tolerance demand abstraction. I see things more as a jumble, a dynamic process, in which as Leonard Cohen states, “It’s the light that let’s the cracks in” and is it still possible to do right by another without a selfish agenda or motive because our own emotions got tweaked or our personal buttons pushed (that’s a rhetorical question). Rumi says, (paraphrase) “When the totality that I am and the humanness that I am meld then I am whole” and in that I see the paradox of the compassionate heart/reactive response as being possible to co-exist, all on a continuum that encompasses what you’re talking about through to to the dichotomy of things existing together in mystery. Lastly, where is the switch to “think” these things through and act rationally? Or fall into group mentality and go along to belong or feel acceptance? Or is the conditioning happening spontaneously? If I speak from what I know and that’s all I can speak from then honestly, I don’t have answers and am okay embracing many differing possibilities.

  3. Lemuel says:

    I agree with you that understanding the human condition is the key. I think one approach came out of the work by Ernest Becker. I’m a huge fan of his pulitzer winning ‘The Denial of Death’, which argues that much human behaviour can be attributed to symbolic attempts to transcend the individual’s physical mortality. He calls these attempts “immortality projects”.

    “Immortality Projects” vary from the obvious such as religious beliefs, to biological (reproduction) loyalty to a community such as nationalism or sports, political ideals that outlast the individual (think communism, capitalism, enviromentalism), to leaving a mark on the world in some way such as amassing a business empire, leaving an academic legacy, anything that all that lasts for longer than the physical body. Becker says it is this force that drives people and will convince them to sacrifice their life for something such as a country or an idea.

    When these “immortality projects” clash conflict is often the result. Those seem to be the moments when otherwise rational people can lash out at others. i think that the key to kindness is recognising that all individuals are fallible, face different challenges and are all searching for a way to make their matter matter – to justify their existance not just at the moment but for eternity. Once able to recognise this in both others and yourself I feel that it becomes easier to be sensitive towards the different opinions of others and in fact to reach out and support them, regardless of your background and beliefs being the same or different.

    • I agree. I hadn’t actually thought of people that way; I’ve put a lot of thought into the way that definitions of self-worth become tied up in such a way as to provoke unkindness, anger and hostility from people who are otherwise probably pretty decent. But you’re right – much is driven by the notion of transcending the mortal in some manner.

      Reflecting on that, it occurs to me that one of the lessons of history is that the people who actively try to produce their ‘immortality’ via some legacy or impact on the mortal world, usually fail. Whereas those we remember, all too often, emerge without their own intent. I am thinking of Winston Churchill – possibly the greatest Englishman who ever lived – who was a dab hand at re-organising history to better suit himself after the fact, but whose actual deeds were as much a product of circumstance and event as of intended ambition. He stood up against the Nazis in the Second World War not because he particularly wanted to leave a personal mark on the world, but because of his belief that their tyranny had to be stopped at all cost. In 1940 he genuinely didn’t know whether he could do it, and the fame that followed when he did was a side effect.

  4. Great point. Understanding that we do not know what others are going through at a given time, who they are, or where they’re from, should make us stop and think before we act or speak. Compassion and the desire to understand should be our first emotions.

    • I think you’re right. It’s often true that somebody might scowl or appear brusque because they’re distracted by a personal crisis. And it’s certainly important for us to think of them.

  5. KM Huber says:

    “It demands ‘tolerance’ – because if we allow ourselves to see somebody else as a threat to our own ways or self-esteem, we are likely to lose ‘reason’, ‘understanding’ and ‘kindness’.” What a truly beautiful sentence, Matthew, cogent in thought and lilting in rhythm. Beyond that, it seems the key to kindness. You know how much I admire these posts. Thank you, Matthew.

    Karen

  6. […] he was also very kind, in the true philosophical sense I’ve been discussing in the past few weeks – fair, tolerant and reasonable. He had a repute for it. He was always thinking of others. […]

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