The Problem with Kindness

There is a gulf between the secular and the religious parts of our lives. In sacred settings we talk about kindness as something valuable and orthodox. At the office, at home, in our neighborhood, in our relationships, and in our friendships, we challenge its value in daily life. I’ve found myself with this bifurcated attitude, and I’ve wondered in passing how the two could be reconciled. After all, what is the benefit of a cloistered kindness? Moreover, many of us, far from having support networks, find ourselves in networks of harm where we live and work and try to play: How can we find the strength to face this world’s lack of kindness? I intend, here, to present a non-exhaustive sketch of how the topic can be pursued from a Buddhist perspective that considers secular viewpoints.

Once during an intense period of contemplative practice a few years ago I had a shocking experience. I had been spending time meditating in a small Theravada monastery out in the country. Its abbot was a jolly old Mahasi-Abhidhamma monk with a radiant generosity and wisdom that inspired me to advance in my practice. The results at that time were impressive: peace, gratitude, a sense of belonging, and a sense of lightness. One day the rain was coming down hard, and I just sat there staring out the doorway, content with only the ticking of a clock and the trickle of chatter in Burmese coming from the porch. Later in the day, after I left, I made a trip downtown to buy something. I parked my car and walked down the sidewalk lined with shops and restaurants. 

And then, out of the blue, I heard some unexpected dialog: “Would you f*** that piece of s***?” asked one of the girls walking in the opposite direction, pointing at me. “That trash? No way,” replied her friend. At the time, I was in such a state of solid tranquility I was barely affected by what they said. It was only until years later that I started to process their words.

More people can relate to these kinds of onslaughts through personal experience than would meet the eye. It feels like it’s easier than ever to be cold-hearted and cruel to our fellow human beings. The consequences for doing so are negligent at best, assuming such behavior doesn’t actually generate benefits. A column entitled “Harvard’s Kindness Problem” from the Harvard Crimson published in October of 2018 seems to accurately summarize the current zeitgeist:

Any kindness we exhibit on this campus is selective. If and only if you can advance my social status, get me a job, or pose as my attractive friend in Instagram photos, I will deign to treat you nicely. Otherwise, a mere smile, “Hello!”, or even acknowledgment of the space you occupy is too much to ask. Entitlement seems to be a one way street that serves to allow us to neglect and de-prioritize any action that seemingly doesn’t meet our immediate self interest. Although treating people with respect and acting cordially may create a healthy social ecosystem, our self-centeredness prevents us from valuing that.

A comment to the article on the publication’s website adds some context to its points: 

There is an odd flavor to this column of having observed Harvard students at a distance but not exploring why they act as they do. Many people have had the experience of being savagely criticized for holding a door open for a woman, or even holding an elevator door open for a disabled person. Many adapt by no longer offering such help.

To be fair, there are Harvard students (and students of every other school) who aren’t described by the article. It’s inspiring to read stories about students who care for others and try to tackle the challenges facing the world benevolently. And, yes, there is a context for people’s actions that might humanize what we perceive as negative in daily life. But the column is insightful insofar as it gives us a window into how some think about kindness, or the lack thereof. 

There are a number of religious reactions to the issue. One says that, far from trying to root out the problem, we should bear it, and even humanize the perpetrators: “Endeavor to be patient in bearing with the defects and infirmities of others, of whatever sort they be; for you also have many failings which must be borne with by others… If all men were perfect, what should we then have to suffer of others for God?” (“The Imitation of Christ”, Thomas a Kempis, Chapter 16). A Buddhist version of this advice, related to the development of bodhicitta, asks us to view all beings as our “mothers”, who have shown us kindness in countless eons. It’s not “beneficial”, this view might say, to focus on the lack thereof. Faced with cruel people, we respond with patience, tolerance, and even love. 

While it is valuable for certain forms of spiritual cultivation, my heart doesn’t buy into this theological tendency. And I suspect you may agree, having seen too much of a broken world. I prefer the (admittedly activist) vision of Thich Nhat Hanh found in his essay “The Human Family”: 

It is the individual who begins to effect change. But in order to effect change, he or she must have personally recovered, must be whole. Since this requires an environment favorable to healing, he or she must seek the kind of life-style that is free from destructiveness. Efforts to change the environment and to change the individual are both necessary, but it is difficult to change the environment if individuals are not in a state of equilibrium. Efforts for us to recover our humanness should be given priority. 

His vision is internal and external: to use a Buddhist metaphor, we should both wear leather sandals and try to cover the ground in leather where less careful people will get hurt. He couches his vision in a courageous diagnosis of modern times: “Our society is sick. When we put a young person in this society without trying to protect him or her, he or she will receive violence, hatred, and fear each day and get sick” (from his essay “The Roots of War”). I doubt anyone reading this will have a hard time relating to what he’s saying. But how exactly do we train ourselves? And how exactly do we help the world? 

The Pali tradition provides a useful form of internal training. In meditation we develop wisdom-based equanimity. We build a kind of spiritual armor from contemplative practice and philosophical inquiry that primes us to interact with a damaging world. The practice of the four brahmaviharas (metta being one of them) could be employed as an “internal antiseptic” against all kinds of latent and emerging negative spiritual influences. (In fact, Nyanaponika Thera calls them “the great removers of tension, the great peace-makers in social conflict, and the great healers of wounds suffered in the struggle of existence. They level social barriers, build harmonious communities, awaken slumbering magnanimity long forgotten, revive joy and hope long abandoned, and promote human brotherhood against the forces of egotism“.)

And what about helping the world? This is, of course, where things get messy. Kindness doesn’t always “work”. It’s not a fix-it-all laser beam that just has to be shined at someone to fix them and the trouble they’re causing. Sometimes we’re restricted in the kindness we can show; other times it’s just hard to do so. It would seem that spiritual strength and analytical equanimity are prerequisites to anything we might do. And if the world were simpler, slower, and less polluting, people would be happier. If people had the time to reconnect with themselves, they would be happier. If medicine focused on wellness rather than isolated categories of disease, people would be happier. If people had less debt and more financial stability, people would be happier. I could add a million “ifs” here. But I think we should try to address the problems. We should discuss them. We will find that kindness gets easier if we do.

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