‘Dammit, ya got to be kind’

One of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, sat at his desk when writing, under a sign the letters of which were emblazoned in deep black and read: “Dammit, ya gotta be kind!” And not only Vonnegut – we all acknowledge the blessings of kindness. Marcus Aurelius, emperor-philosopher, once said: “Kindness is humankind’s greatest delight.”

And certainly there has been much agreement on that principle, at least until our modern times.

Today we seem to lack a simple generosity of heart. We have given up on kindness, except for that one day out of 365 days, hopefully referred to as “Random Act of Kindness Day.” My how such a day trivializes the gentle concept of kindness – one act of kindness during such a day over an entire year? Kindness should be a way of life, reflected every day in all of our interactions and permeating all of our behaviors.

It is a tough slog – the social sciences have convinced us that any act of kindness is really a strategy designed to maximize our own personal gains. According to such a doctrine, kindness is narcissism in disguise. We are kind because it makes us feel good about ourselves – kindness is deflected egoism. Or an even darker interpretation might be more Machiavellian – that an act of kindness conceals a raw quest for power; a means to other ends.

So for most of us in a corporate, capitalistic climate, rivalries and competition prevail. This leads to social anxiety, estrangement from one another and isolation of the self. Theodor Adorno once suggested that even though our distance from other people may make us feel safe, it also leaves us with deep regret, as though loneliness is the inevitable price of unreflective narcissism.

One of the significant pleasures of kindness is that such acts re-connect us with others. When wisdom is analyzed, one of its critical dimensions is acknowledging our dependence on one another – our lives must always reflect such a profound truth.

In their book On Kindness, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor cite the rather sad story of John Stuart Mill, the great liberal philosopher who learned about unkindness from his father, James Mill. While preaching love, his father treated his son with contempt. At the age of 20, his son fell into deep despair. With no help from his father, he rescued himself by reading William Wordsworth’s poetry, giving Mill a “greatly increased interest in the common feelings and common destiny of human beings.”

Many experts suggest that one problem we face today is that people generally love themselves to the exclusion of caring about and for others. I would argue that it is a stronger feeling than that – it is self-hatred that has brought us to this point in our lives. When I meet a mean-spirited individual, I immediately assume they have experienced virtually no kindness in their own lives. The result is a rejection of the person’s authentic self.

Phillips and Taylor quote Donald Winnicotte, who once wrote: “A sign of health in the mind is the ability of one individual to enter imaginatively into the thoughts, feelings, fears and hopes of another person.” Being kind means that we have fully and imaginatively identified with others.

In his book The Gift Relationship, Richard Titmuss writes about blood donors, who when asked why they donated blood to a person they would never meet, many observed that people who are ill cannot get out of bed to ask you for a pint to save their lives, so they came forward hoping to help somebody. These donors had to imaginatively identify with someone who was ill. Titmuss concludes: “Donors were simply enacting a fundamental truth, that to accept and love oneself one must accept and love strangers.”

From all accounts, kindness is the mortar, which can create a large, concrete entity – the family of humankind. So Kurt Vonnegut’s admonition rings true: “Dammit, ya gotta be kind.”

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