Saturday, January 23, 2010

Kindness: It's Where to Live

It is commonly accepted wisdom that every generation complains about the immanent decline of civilization. In fact, it’s a cliché to bring it up in the first place. I do so because I think it may actually be time to think hard about this.

Usually, there are ways to defend the new, even when you don’t like it. For example, those who condemned automobiles may not have imagined the great progress the internal combustion engine could bring to food distribution. Those who condemned the telephone may not have envisioned the way it brings people together from all points on the globe. In our own time, microtechnology spreads into every domain.

Those are big examples. They’re easy to discuss, and their virtues are easy to dissect and define. What about the smaller things, though?

Here’s a mixed bag of concerns: What about decorum in small spaces (airplanes, for example)? What about people with car stereos so powerful (and invasive) that they shake the buildings as they pass? What about individuals who stand outside of a building with a cigarette and, with disregard, blow smoke in the faces of all who enter? What about talking in the movies as so pervasive that now it is expected, to the extent that every film is prefaced with a short clip that tries to be funny and clever while telling you to keep your mouth shut once the movie starts?

These are behaviors my mother would have called crude. By that word, she described acts that no one who knew better would ever perform. Her assumption was that there is a broad population of people who do know better, and that those who behave crudely would, therefore, stand out from the rest. Their crudeness would be obvious to all and worthy of a raised eyebrow, which, in her case, was delivered as a means of informing someone that a line had been crossed.

My mother, who died young 15 years ago, would be in a state of fixed horror if she were to come back for one day.

Please don’t think I’m talking about manners here as if they were the showy artifact of a privileged upbringing. My mother’s position was quite practical: if you are polite and treat people well, they will treat you well and you will get what you want in life. It was equal part kindness and self-interest.

Isn’t that the basis of the Golden Rule? It’s not just about treating others the way we would like to be treated, and, therefore, the way we teach them to treat us. It’s also about getting our own needs met by harmonious interactions with others. It means understanding the nature of compromise and that sometimes you have to give up something to get something else.

Our lizard brains understand this. We can feel its truth. That’s why we say things like, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” In our hearts, we all have experience that supports the notion that the kinder we are to others, the kinder they are to us and the more likely we are to have peace in our lives. Collectively, that would add up to a peaceful society.

To go back to the examples I mentioned at the start of this essay – the telephone, the automobile, microtechnology – I happen to think they are all early signs of our demise. This is not because these developments were inherently bad, but because we have not been intelligent enough or kind enough to harness their energy for the greatest good.

When you add to this the Supreme Court's decision which seems to define a corporation as a person, values such as kindness and thoughtfulness feel greased, as if they are slipping from our grasp.

I may be setting myself squarely into old fogey territory, but this time I truly do believe the breakdown in social interactions is serious. It is symptomatic of our deeply held values of self first, the individualism upon which our nation was built. That virtue has decayed, however, and the assumption that strong/kind individuals make a strong/kind nation has been lost. Now we think individual means one who gets his way all the time and this often manifests with no concern for the welfare of others. The battle cry is, “No fair!” Fair in this instance means I get what I want when I want it or I’m pitching a nasty fit, and I don’t care who knows or who gets hurt. There is no shame, just blame. And now a corporate board gets to decide how to spend shareholders' funds to influence political campaigns through advertising, which in my opinion is the least honorable of all expressive pursuits.

There are, of course, many individuals who don’t fit this mode, just as there are a few birds that don’t fly south when autumn chills the air. But can you honestly say that things are going well for our society, that we are kind to one another in our daily lives, that our children are being raised with values that take the welfare of the community into consideration? Remember: there were probably many solid citizens who got wrapped up in the vortex when Rome imploded, too. Saying, “I’m not like that,” is not the same as saying, “We are not like that.”

Labeling my perspective as cynical is actually appropriate here, though not for the reasons one might expect. The Cynics were a group of philosophers in fourth century BCE Athens who valued virtue and non-materialism. They distrusted such things as common wisdom because they thought that taking on a socially accepted position whole robbed an individual of the opportunity to think about something and come to his own conclusion.

So I don’t mind being called cynical if it means declaring myself openly after giving the topics of civility and the future of our country serious consideration. I don’t mind a bit if it offers a chance for re-examination and re-direction of our social constructs.

If you disagree with me, though, all I ask is that you look around and come to your own thoughtful and personal opinions.

I believe crudeness in society is the sign that we are slipping down the other side of the bell curve. It happened in Rome. It happened in Mughal India. It happened in Ming China and the British Empire.

It is hubris to think our society is so brilliantly created that such decline will not happen here. Scholars and journalists alike have outlined for us the reasons why our society and ancient Roman civilization follow similar trajectories, for example. And about that word ancient: Rome reached its pinnacle only 2000 years ago. Think about how long human beings have inhabited this planet. Then ask yourself whether Rome was really all that ancient. Technologically, yes. But emotionally and psychologically? I doubt it.

The Romans’s brains weren’t all that different from yours and mine. Their daily life just looked different, which made their cognitive structures different. They may have had different thoughts from ours, but they had the same feelings as we have. It must have been a frightening and directionless time to be alive as once-mighty Rome slid into obscurity. No wonder the entertainment industry was the only game in town. It distracted everyone from questions they couldn’t answer, questions they actually dared not ask. Does that sound familiar?

The question I see is this: what do we do, given this understanding of the thrust of history?

What do we do with our moment in time?

There is nothing new under the sun. But we can have peace in our own lives. It starts in the kindness of each individual’s heart. Yours. Mine.

Kindness is the place to live when everything is crumbling around us.