Kindness

I’ve been following online discussion of the Benedict Option, a hot topic in some circles. Briefly, it is a recognition that Christendom is over, together with a rallying cry to spend less time trying to impose a Christian vision on society by fiat and more on living out the Christian vision in our own lives. There’s much more to it than that, to the point of incoherence, but that’s the angle which interests me. I’m intrigued and occasionally heartened to see such an idea catch the attention of highly distracted people—there must be some power lurking within it—but I’m equally discouraged to watch it devolve into a common type of self-improvement thinking, along the lines of “If only the world could be structured in such-and-such a way … why, it would carry all of us along into becoming the people we ought to be, and with hardly any effort on our part!”

My reaction is usually a frustrated “Yes, those are all great things—so why not just incorporate some of them into your ongoing lives?” And in days gone by I would have just chalked it up to a general inclination to indulge oneself in comforting if-only delusions: “if only the world were different life would be better, and I’d be a better person … but ….” I’ve spent a lot of time fighting that inclination in myself, and especially in the beginning it was an important part of setting out on and sticking to a different path. But as I’ve walked the path, I’ve discovered that it isn’t a particularly heroic thing to do. The steps are fairly clear, fairly easy, possible to take in small and steady increments, and provide immediate, tangible rewards (although sometimes you have to learn to recognize them).

Over forty years as an adult I’ve tested, refined, and internalized a certain outlook, and the rewards are now abundant and lasting. I have no interest at all in systematizing what I know, especially since one big thing I know is that system has the power to turn anything good into something pernicious. And I’m happy to continue exploring my outlook in the company of family and close friends, blessing them as well as myself with its rewards, and hopefully imparting some of my thinking to them along the way, for them to consider. I’ve given up the idea that there might be One Way good for all, at least one I’m capable of conceiving and (even harder) articulating clearly. But I do think I’ve learned things that might be helpful to some people in some circumstances, and I’m always looking for ways to make them available to those who might benefit.

Every time I write about this I take pains with how I express it, to be as clear as possible that I am not talking about obligations but only opportunities. If I go on about how to craft a character that is more humble or patient or considerate or other-focused, it is not because I think it one’s duty or that it will somehow disappoint God if one doesn’t. I’m done with the weirdly comforting call-and-response pattern that Christians and their teachers have fallen into—”You are bad, bad people to have led God down again/Yes, we are bad, bad people to have let God down again.” Anymore I only see these things as available paths to a better, fuller life, and all I care to do is point out that not only can anyone avail themselves, but any level of effort will be rewarded and serve as a spur to further effort.

It’s not that these things aren’t recognized and discussed—quite the opposite—but for me at least the discussion almost always fails a critical test: “But … how?” It’s not hard to find teachers who correctly identify the need of the hour, shortcomings which are especially pertinent in our modern setting. And though they may be vaguer about it, they can usually cast a reasonably accurate vision for how things would be better if we addressed and corrected those shortcomings. But … how? This is where I find almost nothing but platitudes which can’t be acted upon. It is all well and good to tell me about patience, and my lack of it, and even how much better life would be for me and my acquaintances if I developed more of it. But … how?

I want to focus on the “how”—not telling you or anyone else how to proceed, but simply chronicling how I have proceeded in certain important areas, presenting myself not as a model but only an example, a concrete instance of specific efforts made by one person and their results for him. The point being only that it is possible to proceed—at the least, someone once gave it a try, and had some success. The specific efforts which worked for me may not work for you. But figuring out what to do—and then doing it—is an approach that I think is almost universally applicable, and I’m looking for ways to better encourage others to pursue it.

So, why do current treatments of this problem fall so short when it comes to the “But … how?” test? For me they tend to fall into one of two categories: either they focus on something which is achievable by normal people but will not lead to direct tangible results (e.g. read your Bible, pray every day), or on something which would provide direct tangible results if it were achievable, but achieving the goal is emphasized over taking steps toward the goal (be patient, be humble, be considerate, prefer others to yourself). Even the writer I’ve found most helpful on this score, Dallas Willard, falls short in this second way—although I don’t blame him, because he was only one man and the work he was able to accomplish in this area far outweighs this shortcoming. And I’ve managed to close the gap Willard leaves under my own power, working with stray bits and pieces he left in his wake and using his outlook to evaluate and fine-tune ideas I’ve found elsewhere.

Believe me, I understand how difficult it is to select an approach which hits the sweet spot, being both within the reach of folks with average skills and drive, and capable of producing the immediate tangible results that will reassure the practitioners that the approach is correct and motivate them to continue on. A few have worked for me over the years. Twenty years ago I was inspired to pray for humility, and was thereafter blessed (?) with ample opportunity to practice humbling myself, as well as to gain a deeper understanding of the role humility plays in a well-functioning community. Unfortunately, the rewards tend to be long in coming, and so exercising humility can feel more like being dutiful towards some abstract conception of Good Personhood than a practice that yields blessings in proportion to invested effort. Exercising patience, compassion, and curbing my tongue have also been good and have yielded more immediate benefits, but the scope is narrow and the benefits tend to be self-centered.

I’m wondering now if kindness might not be an effective concept for focusing character development. This occurred to me after watching the four-hour HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge this week. I wanted to watch it because of good reviews and Frances McDormand, who I like a lot as an actress. It was harrowing to watch, mostly because McDormand is uncompromising in her portrayal of .. uh … a difficult person, let’s say. And I’m sure there are greater depths than I am capable of plumbing—I’m not very good with fiction. But what struck me about the character Olive was that she was completely lacking in kindness, a flaw that ruined her life but also one she seemed barely aware of. Worse, she was married to Henry, an extremely kind man—who often suffered her contempt and anger because of his kindness—although she didn’t understand (until far too late) that it was his kindness that infuriated her.

To me the story was an excellent illustration (through Olive) of the damage that unkindness can inflict, both short- and long-term, on acquaintances and community and family and one’s own self. And (through Henry) of the ability of even small kindnesses well placed to redeem ugly and difficult situations. Kindness can be practiced at many scales, and paying a kindness will quite often yield a reward right away, in personal satisfaction and in the joy of others and in improved circumstances. It’s the sort of practice that can be tested easily, that one can gradually immerse oneself in as trust and understanding grows.

Best, it’s one of the few virtues remaining that is viewed positively by the world at large. Random acts of kindness, and all. While poking around I came across this commencement speech by the writer George Saunders, which hints at how deeply we respond to the idea as humans (emphasis in original):

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.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, it would be possible to object here: What an inadequate goal! Kindness on its own will hardly get you into heaven. And that’s exactly the objection raised in this response to Saunder’s speech from Jen Pollock Michel in Christianity Today, under the title “The Misguided Theology of Kindness”:

A thousand times and more I have hung myself on the accusation of selfishness, living with the burden of be kind, advice that would subtly seek to obligate me to the whole of humanity and will to find me guilty whenever I cannot appease their demands.

How we progress from “try to be kinder” to “obligate me to the whole of humanity” isn’t clear—some sort of slippery slope, no doubt. But fortunately there was One who resisted this sort of pernicious guilt-tripping:

But never in the New Testament is Jesus hailed as the paragon of unselfishness. As we see throughout the gospels, Jesus did not heal every person. Nor did he grant every request. In fact, our Lord routinely escaped the clamoring crowds to pray, to sleep, and to spend intimate time with his disciples. When an oppressed people cried out for him to become their political deliverer, he resisted their pleas.

Well, this is certainly arguable, but the more important point here is where Michel takes this line of thought as she ends her essay:

This could have been perceived as selfish. Some may have even considered it cruel. But Jesus remained fixed on pleasing his Father. “I have come to do your will, O God,” (Heb. 10:7).

We are better off, not with George Saunders’s advice, but with the wisdom of King Solomon, who, at the end of his life of study, concluded this about living life well: “Fear God and keep his commandments.” Honor your Creator first—and kindness to his creatures will follow.

Michel’s response is an excellent example of a tendency that dismays me, disdaining a modest but perfectly workable practice—try to be kinder—because it is so far inferior to a higher goal—fear God and keep his commandments—even though the higher goal fails the “But … how?” test and turns quickly into pious wishful thinking.

(As for “Honor your Creator first—and kindness to his creatures will follow”, I’d say the most famous counterexample to this was the rich young ruler, who Jesus did not contradict when he claimed to have always feared God and kept His commandments, but instead called him out in a way that indicates he fell a bit short in the kindness department. Meanwhile, I know plenty of people, myself included, whose modest, imperfect, but steadfast practice of kindness has glorified God and led to greater intimacy with Him.)

So I’m looking at kindness as a possible rallying concept, a practice that requires minimal initial commitment but has the power to draw the practitioner deeper, one that might even serve as a gateway drug for those whose faith is minimal or even nonexistent. More as it develops.

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One thought on “Kindness

  1. There’s a lot of stuff here!

    1) the “but how?” problem — this is a threshold that I fall over all the time with students in my current occupation (academic advisor). Most of the things we tell students are formulated very abstractly — “take initiative,” “be on the lookout for opportunities,” etc. We’re getting better at explaining how to break that down (“do volunteer work,” “read the paper,” “get involved somewhere,” “start writing,” “search for internships,” “write a resume in this way,” etc.) but still the fundamental problem is not answered for whom it doesn’t work, so to speak. There are always some who take that big advice and run with it and many who do not and do not seem to have the skills or inner capacities to tinker with the strategy to make it work. It’s as if life is a big car engine that they don’t know how to operate if the electronic ignition isn’t already working and no repairman is standing by.

    (It’s funny that I was already thinking of the rich young ruler by this point in your post, I find, as an example of someone who was doing all the right things but still couldn’t get his engine to turn over.)

    2) To me, a lot of the question raised in this post hangs on one dividing line between (much of) Xty and (much of) Judaism as they are commonly perceived (this is a big generalization, but potentially useful) — do we learn to do right by having the right sentiments, or is the act of doing right sufficient on its own and may executing it, over time, cultivate the attitude we wish to have? One thing that made me abandon Xty was the first notion in the church I grew up with — that you had to be doing charitable things for the right reason, with the right sentiment, in order for them to be charitable. After I lived in México for a year that position seemed to me to be fundamentally wrong — some acts (feeding hungry people) are fundamentally charitable and as people of faith, we should engage in them no matter what (what the government should do being a separate question). So when I turned to Judaism, one of its attractions was the notion that there is a law and right things to do, these things can be done, and when they are done, on the whole everyone’s lives are better (even if we may feel resentful or tired). Twenty-five years later, I’m somewhere in the middle, though probably still on the Jewish side of that division. My (Christian) mom told me at some point when I was a teen that in situations of conflict, I should simply always be the first to apologize. I shouldn’t even think about it, just do it. I think I started with that at some point in my twenties, and it was amazing how it changed my life. First of all, it disarmed people and often reduced their negative reactions to me. Secondly, it made me think a lot more about whether I didn’t, in fact, need to apologize. In other words, the act of apologizing at all times made me feel more apologetic. In essence, the dichotomy isn’t between feeling and acting, or between loving G-d and loving others; if we love G-d as G-d wishes to be loved, then we will love others as G-d loves them, benevolently. (In On Christian Liberty, Luther asserted that someone who was saved would not be able to avoid acting charitably, because the healthy tree cannot help but show its fruit.) The young ruler’s problem was not that he was executing the law wrong, but that he wasn’t (yet?) getting the takeaway. (The mitzvot are a very weird spiritual practice, and I don’t think that everyone really gets them, except for perhaps very experienced and highly observant people. It’s clear in Judaism that if all you do is say the appointed prayers, you are only executing the law on the most basic level — more is required. Still, saying the prayers is a necessary first step.)

    3) I very much take the point that kindness doesn’t always have the effect we wish (or can have effects we don’t wish — such as enabling potential laziness or sin in the recipient), but I think that measuring one’s commitment to being kind based on the outcome is a problem. (If I am kind to a student by giving him a paper extension, who then passes the class, that is not better or worse than having been kind to a student who gets the extension and still doesn’t pass it — the point is that I have acted in according with the wishes of G-d in extending charity. And who have I harmed through my kindness, exactly?) The point isn’t that kindness when directly applied changes others directly, (although it might) but that its practice changes me. And if it changes me, perhaps others will see that and want to be kind as well — but that’s a side effect, not the primary motivation. If it doesn’t change others, that failure doesn’t make me any more sinful than I would have been anyway, I think. It may be (grins) usefully humbling.

    4) re: whether we always need to be kind, I think it is so hard to know what would be kind in any situation that we are almost always in the dark. I do think there is a place in life for anger, and I am hostile to enabling certain kinds of behaviors that lead to the direct harm of others (drunken driving, for instance) in the name of kindness.

    5) Whether it is a useful rallying cry — I dunno. Some people’s hackles just get raised when you make a suggestion like this. For instance, to use a current example — I really don’t understand why, in a country with such food abundance, anyone AT ALL is hungry. There’s no need. We’ve got enough food for everyone and enough money to pay for it. But the argument that it is important to be kind to hungry children often seems to fall on deaf ears in the political sphere, anyway. Politics is certainly not about kindness, it’s about governance; but it seems like it covers some of the same territory as religion.

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