Seeking Human Kindness

“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” ― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Is kindness “compassion in action?” While there are distinctions made between kindness, empathy, compassion and altruism, most people experience kindness as action.
With kindness we take our cognitive experience of kindly thoughts and act on them.  Regardless of our intentions, acts of kindness put those thoughts and feelings into the world.

You’ve likely heard stories of organized and “random acts of kindness,” – the Robin Hooders that replenish parking meters, the pay-it forward movements that pop up in coffee shops and restaurants, the upscale hair stylist who spends his Sundays giving free haircuts to the homeless, and the college graduate, Tommy Lukrich,  who traveled across the U.S. handing out $100 bills to generous strangers who help him. More recently there are kindness travelers like Leon Logothetis, who has driven across continents with the simple goal of reaching as many strangers as possible with acts of unconditional kindness in his Netflix series, The Kindness Diaries.

Amid the seemingly relentless bad news of the day, gracious and generous acts of kindness keep patching up the global social fabric in touching and often surprising ways. We’re often surprised because many of us have lowered our expectations of our fellow humankind. Too many of us have grown cynical and despairing. Perhaps some of us are a bit judgmental, even suspicious of these altruistic motivations.

Writing on kindness, author and Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg reflects the concern, “On the face of it, kindness can seem wimpy, a cop-out, an excuse to do just a little bit to try to make a difference when so very much needs to be done.” Indeed, feeding parking meters and paying for the next guy’s coffee in the face of headlines that scream 35 million people now enslaved across the world, can feel a bit pathetic.

Given the scope and scale of pain and injustice in the world, it’s important to remind ourselves of the millions of selfless, mostly “small” acts that take place every day.

Understanding Kindness

Author and lecturer Will Buckingham explores the question of why Western philosophers have had so little to say about kindness. Ethical philosophers, he writes, like to talk about duties and rights, they like to talk about utility and consequence, they like to talk about virtue and vice, good and evil, responsibility and obligation. These are big and impressive sounding things. But the amount of ink spent writing about kindness is, as far as I can see, rather slight.”

Buckingham points out that you have to look to Eastern traditions, most specifically Buddhism, to find in-depth thought on the nature of kindness with its “rich vocabulary of love and kindness.” These comparisons, says Buckingham, are both interesting and important because most Western philosophic traditions seem to relish precisely the opposite.

One of the most common derivations from Buddhist scriptures is the practice of metta. The original name of this practice is metta bhavana, which means “love” (in a non-romantic sense), benevolence, goodwill, friendliness, or kindness: hence ‘loving-kindness.”  Bhavana means to develop or cultivate.  The essence of metta – the practice of loving kindness – is that it is unconditional. When one practices metta, the acts of loving kindness benefit both the giver and the receiver.  The giver benefits not through the promotion of self-interest but through the pure desire for the well-being of others. To the critical observer of metta practices, these “selfless” acts seem impossible or counter-intuitive. Action, in the common Western mindset, is synonymous with personal advancement.

As many studies show, doing for others makes us happier. Beyond a sense of moral elevation, doing good (as we define it) has definite physiologic benefits. Darcher  Keltner, direction of the Social Interaction Laboratory at University of California, Berkeley, explains,” Our research and that of other scientists suggest that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of caretaking and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism—compassion, gratitude, love and happiness.”

Research shows the vagus nerve, responsible for the regulation of multiple body organs (heart, lungs, digestive system) can be stimulated through activities that include experiences of reverence in nature, sense of connection to others or a purpose, meditation, expressions of gratitude and “donating resources to others rather than indulging materialist desires.”
We are, according to Keltner, “born to be good.”

Kindness, I’ve discovered, is everything in life.       Isaac Bashevis Singer

I’d like more of us to think about kindness – the kindnesses we’ve given and received through our lives. For some, these memories recall a sense of warmth reminding us we are not alone in this world. Studies show that unless we’ve experienced some psychological trauma in our lives, we can cultivate greater kindliness. The more I think about the role of kindness in my life – and in the public sphere some key points emerge:

  • Beliefs enable and block Kindness. When we hesitate to reach out to someone in kindness, we can be sure there’s a belief blocking the door.  Working with the homeless for years, I’m particularly tuned in to the beliefs that stop people from helping – especially street people. “I’d give them something if I knew where it was going.” While I understand not wanting to contribute to someone’s alcoholism, the truth is we rarely know the story behind the face in need.  Assumptions and judgments play a big role in stunting our generosity.
  • Fear plays a major role in how kindly we act. On the macro level of our beliefs, we can trace many of our fears to a mindset that tends towards a world view of scarcity or abundance. Many factors contribute to fear (childhood conditioning, culture, direct experiences) and all are intertwined with beliefs.  Recently, surveys measuring the charitable giving of lower-income vs. wealthier Americans made headlines. Turns out those least financially able to give – give the most. Though sociologists don’t believe the wealthy are less intrinsically generous – their habits may be more circumscribed by economic self-interests and lack of exposure to those in need.
  • Humans have no monopoly on kindness. Studies of the pro-social behavior of animals have produced some stunning results in the last twenty years. While it’s tempting to assign moral intent to the seemingly altruistic acts of animals, scientists are largely withholding judgment. Baffling behaviors like that of elephant Grace, who sensing that her groups’ matriarch Eleanor, is dying, attempts to lift and push her back to her feet. She tries to get Eleanor to walk, gently nudging her.  When Eleanor falls again, Grace, in distress, shrieks. Finally, she stays by the dying matriarch’s side until night falls.  Is Grace motivated by empathy or some other moral emotion? While we don’t yet have the answers, understanding the natural world around us helps us to relate to our own moral universe.  Perhaps if we know that our morality may be a shared biology, we will act with more reverence toward all living things.
  • Our social sphere reflects our kindness. You’ve heard some variation of the quote, “The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members?” What a country, state, city, or municipality believes is reflected in public policies. Many people don’t like to think about “politics” and act as if public life is somehow devoid of it. The reality is that most of the essentials necessary for a healthy and prosperous life are  regulated (or ignored) through public policy. Do we believe that health care is a right? How about decent, affordable housing? The poor in Victorian England were largely dependent on the alms received from acts of kindness. They had no rights. When they became inevitably indebted, the property-protecting courts declared them paupers – and off they went to the workhouse.  Should acts of kindness be relegated to charity or should they be reflected in more equitable (kinder) economic policies?

Kindness is the only pragmatic response at this point in world history. Kindness and compassion are essential to our survival on this planet.  Nearly every social and ecological marker indicates the need for greater balance is urgent. Suicides and depression are at all-time highs. The U.S now has the greatest income inequality in the developed world.  And the inevitable impacts of climate change will need local and global responses that will stretch our definitions of responsibility and generosity to new levels.

Small acts of kindness may not save the planet, but they bind us to our common humanity. They help create a world that enables the flourishing of our most generous instincts. While this may seem impossible, even absurd, when looking through the lens of today’s headlines, without a new worldview we’re preparing for more of the same, or likely, worse.

Author Charles Eisenstein writes, In the darkest despair a spark of hope lies inextinguishable within us, ready to be fanned into flames at the slightest turn of good news. However compelling the cynicism, a jejune idealism lives within us, always ready to believe, always ready to look upon new possibilities with fresh eyes, surviving despite infinite disappointments. And however resigned we may have felt, our aggrandizement of me and mine is half-hearted, for part of our energy is looking elsewhere, outward toward our true mission.”

Louise Altman,  Intentional Communication Consultants
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