Looking around today you would think that this world is beyond help. No one seems to care about anything but their own survival and grabbing as much for themselves as they can. The self-interest principle behind free markets has indeed changed our world where kindness seems to be in short supply. Yet we are still the captains of our fate for the most part and the rules we play by are malleable, not fixed in stone.
I wrote an earlier piece that expressed concern for how, as a nation, we no longer seemed to care about something as simple as being nice. It’s a subject that can’t be ignored for any sustained period, so here’s my continuing effort to show my support for KINDNESS
Back on a cold winter day in 1974 I drove about 15 miles to the nearest package store in my 1959 Oldsmobile Super 88. Back then I was a product of the hippie-style youth culture, complete with the signature markings of long hair, bell-bottom jeans and a worn and weathered coat I purchased from the local Army-Navy Surplus store of the time. Once I picked up my six-pack of Old Milwaukee (unable to afford the more premier beers of the time) I jumped back in to my classic automobile only to find out the battery had gasped its last on this frightfully chilly night.
Stuck without a cell phone that had yet to be invented and no jumper cables of my own, I spotted what I thought would be a kindred spirit who could give me a hand. He was about my age and he too had the signature markings of our hippie youth culture, the one that conveyed we were all brothers and sisters opposed to “the man” trying to impose their inhumane, materialistic world on us.
To my delight he was not only willing to help but had his own set of jumper cables. After the Super 88 started up I thanked him and was about to put it in reverse to leave. But my kindred spirit turned out to be not much more than a profiteer of sorts. “I’ll be glad to take five dollars for that boost” he said, giving no indication he wasn’t serious. In mild astonishment I asked, “What?” Did he really just ask me to pay him for what I perceived as a kindness? It’s not that I didn’t mind paying him a little something for his aid, had I had it to spare. But jump starting someone who was caught with a dead battery had always been considered a courteous gesture. Not something you expected a layperson in front of a liquor store to charge you for.
It caught me off guard. I only had a dollar left after my beer purchase and told him so. Thinking there was still a measure of kindness in him that would refuse to take my last dollar I heard instead, “that’s fine, whatever you got.” I grudgingly gave it to him along with my deeply sarcastic, “Thanks BROTHER”.
THE TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGIN’
The term culture shock comes to mind when I think of this incident. People our age, dressed as we were didn’t take recompense for simple acts of kindness. People like us protested the exploitation of the profit motivated free market crowd. It turns out that this would be my first encounter with a neo-liberal – one who believes you can use the free market to help other humans while making a tidy income for yourself. I’d like to think however that a neo-liberal would not have deprived me of my of last dollar for rendering this much-needed and much appreciated aid.
Don’t get me wrong. The guy could have been much more mercenary – a neo-conservative. He could have offered his services up front with the expectation of getting paid and refused to help me when I told him all I had was a solitary single. I would have been okay with this especially if I saw him driving a service truck of some kind that indicated he was in the business of rendering a service to stranded motorists. It was, as they say, “jus’ bizness”.
But he wasn’t a recognizable businessman and if I could have afforded it I would have called Triple A or someone similar to help me get back home, out of the cold so I could get my buzz off of my cheap beer and an unfinished joint. Had I not been a college student living on a bare-means income from a part-time job I might also have had some extra cash to offer him for his services. But I was still living the life of the 60’s Woodstock generation, the one that truly hoped to make this a “kinder, gentler world” to live in. One however that was slowly beginning to change into that for-profit world where the wealthiest one-percent now control 40% of the nation’s wealth. Today, the six heirs to Walmart founder, Sam Walton, alone have a net worth equal to the combined wealth of the bottom 30 percent of Americans.
It’s often difficult to distinguish between the “generosity” of neoliberals and the self-interests of free marketers
KINDNESS IN A CAPITALIST SOCIETY
I have nothing against businesses or making a profit from your labor. Having a degree of wealth is also something I’m not opposed to. I majored in Business my first year in college before finding the social science fields more attractive. I worked as an independent handyman for nearly five years before I realized it took more time and money to invest in a successful venture than I was willing to risk. It is those who take such risk that are to be commended for making a success of their efforts and in so doing providing jobs for others who lack the fortitude and aptitude to go it on their own. But must everything become a marketable commodity? Have we forgotten how to simply be kind without thinking how we can gain monetarily from it?
I worked in customer service for most of my adult working life, first in my capacity as a care giver at an institution for the mentally handicapped, later as a home repairman and lastly as a warranty manager for a new home builder. Kindness was expected in dealing with clients and customers lest we face negative public reactions or a drop in business. Being kind came naturally to me as I’m sure it did and still does with most people. But when people “went off” on me for reasons they felt justified for, my demeanor had to remain kind and considerate to their concerns. They were after all expecting it from the fees they paid me and the people I worked for.
That natural kindness built into my DNA would wear off eventually as over time I began to see the darker and uglier side of people and my business sense of kindness often couldn’t conceal the lack of genuineness of my concern. I understand people’s dissatisfaction when their expectations aren’t met. I too express such dissatisfaction when I am disappointed with a product or a service. But I’m pretty sure that I have never treated people as objects of scorn for my personal disappointments.
Even if I found myself headed in that direction I often corrected myself before I said or did something I couldn’t take back. But how difficult that is when you personally become an object of scorn from those who stereo-type you in today’s viral political environment. People who support a woman’s right to an abortion are despicably called baby-killers and those who assert their 2nd amendment rights are often unfairly portrayed as gun nuts.
We don’t reason with or meet people halfway in such matters and it has become a sign of a society that scores low on the kindness scale, losing our way in how we cooperate with each other to achieve a common good. The extreme ideological elements within politics today tend to circle the wagons and declare that it is our way or the highway. The gridlock in Washington today that has given us the government shutdown stems from such rigid views of a handful of extremists who insists that something most other people have come to grips with and are willing to make it work is NOT going to happen, even if it means that people’s wages are lost, the economy turns south and our national security is threatened. THEY are willing to make us all sacrifice these hardships so they can score points with their ideological clan. But I digress.
Kindness, genuine concern for others, is hard for most people to extend beyond their own clique of family and friends. But it is perhaps one of the most important human attributes that needs our attention the most as our world grows smaller and we rub elbows with the diversity that now makes up our community. We can’t resort to some past vision of who we were, thinking that that stagnant image was never going to change. There’s nothing wrong with having feelings of nostalgia but we cripple our ability to move forward when we lock that nostalgia into some legal concept that cannot be violated.
BE KIND EARLY AND OFTEN
In one of the best commencement speeches I believe I have ever read, short-story writer George Saunders encouraged the class of 2013 to strive for kindness above everything else, including success in their chosen fields.
If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously – as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.
Still, accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.
So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now.
Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers … but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been.
PUTTING SELF-INTERESTS IN PROPER PERSPECTIVE
I’ll conclude by revisiting my entrepreneur-minded acquaintance at the liquor store nearly four decades ago. Was he symbolic of the change we have since experienced, where kindness no longer seems to dominate our actions, being replaced in too many instances with a profit motive mindset? Do we not have it in us any longer to show kindness when it cost us little in time and energy?
Can we not incorporate more genuine compassion in how we deal with people and achieve goals to coexist, not only in our social lives but in our businesses? Should our role model be the neo-liberal values of the World Bank or the World Trade Organization who help people only if they have resources they can extract as payment for such kindness? Or should we offer our services as an investment that will alleviate human suffering and thus plant the seed to prevent the antagonisms amongst different cultures. Antagonisms that foster only death and destruction from acts of unkindness.
We need not clutch so desperately to the belief that there are no free rides but see instead that when we give out of kindness those who receive it will give back in kindness, more often than not and often in greater strength than they received. As George Saunders thoughts on kindness convey in his commencement speech to the graduates of Syracuse University
There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.
It’s a wisdom that has existed since the dawn of man yet one that seldom seems to stick long enough to have a lasting impact. Seek out those who promote this wisdom over those who promote the more self-serving principles of the market. Yours and the lives of those you touch will be richer and fuller for it.
Kindness has consequences
P.S. My older brother, who I admire greatly even though we don’t totally share similar views on religion and politics, sent me the George Saunders commencement speech in an e-mail. I have posted it as a document on the screen of my desk top so that everyday when I sit down in front of my computer I am encouraged to read that speech to remind me that today is another opportunity to perform a simple act of random kindness