Another one bites the dust

My heroes are passing.  Studs Terkel died this past weekend, before the election but after the world series that wasn’t (no Cubs this year even though they had the best record in the league).  I can’t even begin to do him the justice other writers have.  I only cry, and read what they have to say.  Here is a good one: (TrackBack URL for this entry: you have never picked up one of Stud’s books, do it.  Consider it a light in the darkness.  

The unpopularity of kindness


I watched my son and his preschool group on the playground this past fall.  I saw a little boy filled with compassion, the only child who worked to not only acknowledge the tiny girl with Downs Syndrome, but to actively invite her into activites, and help her with her shoes.  His teachers commented on this at the teacher-parent meeting, and how the previous year he was known for not hesitating, running to hug any crying child and ask, “are you ok?”  He was 2.  This child, who seemed to wriggle out of the womb with a smile, who hardly ever cried, and can charm even the coldest stranger, this child who never takes a bad photo (he has even had photo development folks ask to copy his photo for their stands), I fear for him.  His greatest gift is that he has a well of instinctive compassion, and a skill for kindness.  He is a typical boy too- he competes with his brother from time to time, and has been known to recklessly throw a shoe at the cat in a moment of high enthusiasm to get her to pay attention to him.  But he feels instantly regretful, running up to her and telling her he is sorry.  I have cried at night when I have seen him earlier in the day rejected by another child, or treated with distanced curiosity by children who are not as open, enthusiastic, or kind.  He struggles with his impulsiveness and lack of focus (distractibility) to a degree that makes me fear he might be dyslexic (like his grandfather, and genetic links for dyslexia are becoming clear in research), or have attention deficit issues.  Yet at the same time he sings precisely in tune, and has lyrics memorized effortlessly.  He is altogether a normal kid, but for his outstanding ability for kindness.

I have given the notion of kindness a lot of thought in the past few weeks.  “Spontaneous/random acts of kindness” has become a hip bumper sticker, a phrase for talk show hosts to throw about; setting up the expectation that a single act gives an individual moral integrity, even authority–but the truth is, it does not.  Real kindness is not popular.  It does not make one popular, it is not profitable, it does not seek attention, nor does it offer clear long-term benefits.  There is no “sell advantage”, no advertising, that addresses real kindness.

It does not take the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, or any text to determine and instruct anyone on kindness, though they have been known to help.  I argue that our current dominant culture pressures us NOT to develop the skills of kindness, from a very young age.  When moral and religious texts are used to popularize hate and war, kindness is gone from the message.  When money, prestige, appearance, and being first- and only first- dominate all forms of media and symbolism, there is no kindness.  Token PSA’s reminding people to drive with caution, to learn to negotiate instead of fight, fall on deaf ears.  Any instinctual, social drive to be kind is quickly eradicated by fear.  Fear of failure, fear of association, fear of rejection.

My in-laws are on a trip through the Southwest right now.  In the snow with night falling, they found themselves in desolate northern New Mexico with a bad tire.  A young Latin man stopped, made sure they were o.k., and helped them fix it.  When Pops offered him money, he shook his head with a smile, thrust his hands into his pockets, and got into his car and drove away.  Enacting kindness is difficult, but accepting it can also be hard.  It can make us feel weak, vulnerable, or needy.  Accepting kindness, especially with grace and sincere thanks, even pleasure, is none of those things.

I read a recent study reporting that even very small babies had a way to intuit who was kind and who was not.  This has clear evolutionary advantages for babies, but might it also be a sign of the deep need for compassionate social interaction- that lasts until we die?  Critics of the technological revolutions of the 20th century claim the worst that has happened is that our humanity has been diminished, that we have become even less communal and more isolated, reduced to cogs in machines, or passively vegetated in front of one.  While this is certainly true to some extent, it has also offered new ways to connect to people.  It is not a balanced picture, and not in a vacuum, separate from the bigger context of what has been happening on a global scale.  We in the US have of late bought into innuring ourselves from criticism or self examination with desperate exclamations of “fight for freedom”, “we are the free world”, and lots of other catch phrases intended to salve the fears of struggling people, reduce complexity to simple ideas, and most importantly, obfuscate any ability to show self-examination or self-knowledge.  We are, as it has been said, entertaining, or “Amusing ourselves to death” (Neil Postman, Penguin, 1986). 

When we crawl out from the barrage of media, objects, and activities we immerse ourselves in, what do we have left?  Do we surface, heads above it all for a moment, and see family members?  Good and true friends?  Do we feel hope, a shifting quality about life that is not immediately tied to anything in particular, but is a force in our lives we can’t live without (Hope dies last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times, Studs Terkel, New Press, 2003)? If we see or feel none of this, then it is a desolate horizon we turn from, sinking again into the obfuscating madness. 

How do I value, encourage, and nurture the ability for kindness in my son?  This thing which comes so easily to him now, and is only beginning to cost him emotionally?  How do I help him feel connected when he is inevitably rejected, when he is discouraged, and when he is lonely?  How do I remind him that accepting kindness is often one of the kindest things we can do? Who will be there for him when I am gone?

Perhaps if anyone had asked these fundamental questions early on about the children who perpetrated the Columbine massacre, it would not have happened.  It is just an idea, and the backlash can already be heard.  We don’t want to think about preventative medicines, preventative social efforts, or the what if’s that implicate us all in what we do.  We want to toss change into the pickle jar for the cancer victim at the gas station, make the donation to the United Way, wave a driver in front of us in traffic and let that suffice for kindness, and feel good about it.  We don’t want to think about these actions as less than the very baseline of action we ought to have in order to live real kindness.  We don’t want to risk that fuzzy place in the social order we fight for every day, risk being seen as weird or unacceptable, or weak.  We don’t want to ask why we fear these things, or think of them as risks at all.  Self knowledge is scary, and sticking your neck out is dangerous, right?

Who hugs the old man who waits for his free Monday breakfast outside the Co-op diner, alone and set apart from the cluster of chain smokers huddled at the other end of the walk?  Who runs up and asks the woman waiting at the bus stop if she is ok, and why is she crying?  Who helps the old couple stuck on the highway in the snow to change their tire?  Who asks the little boy playing by himself in the sand what he is doing and what he likes?  Who helps the little girl with the funny eyes struggling to put her shoes on?  And WHY AREN’T WE DISCUSSING THESE QUESTIONS?

Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky

Imagine all the people

Living for today

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace

You may say that I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world

You may say that I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will live as one

–John Lennon, 1971