Sunday, March 22, 2009

kindness for free

There seem to be people in this life who are inclined to kindness. I don't much care what tendrils and wisps of circumstance brought them to this point, but I enjoy such people and even admire them. Their efforts inspire me to make similar efforts. However halting the efforts -- theirs or mine -- still these are efforts I admire, efforts in whose company I would prefer to live. Teachers, maybe; doctors and nurses, maybe; ministers, maybe; firefighters, maybe; mothers and fathers, maybe ....

But in considering the tableau, in sorting out the kind from the unkind, things get sort of difficult to nail down. It seems that everyone has the capacity for kindness. Whether they exercise it or not is another matter.

I was listening to a lefty lecture on the car radio last night, and some fellow was making a nicely-woven argument about capitalism's fallout. He spoke of the shoe company Nike, which moved its operation out of Ohio and over to Indonesia. In Indonesia, workers were paid 18 cents an hour, had no health benefits and lacked industrial protections. If someone got hurt, s/he was simply replaced with no thought of the one who got hurt. Shoes that cost $7 to produce in Indonesia might cost $70 when they reached the United States. There was a greedy unkindness about it all ... but naturally the unkindness was papered over with capitalist nostrums about free trade and the free market and other sorts of 'freedom' in which a limited number of people participated.

Doesn't the average sort of kindness invariably run into its mirror-image unkindnesses -- leading teenagers and others to cry, "unfair!" and otherwise wring their hands? It may be very hard not to be angry with the self-centered and manipulative unkindnesses that take advantage of kind behavior. Teachers, for example, may be extolled for their 'selfless' service, for the good efforts they offer to the society and the world, and yet, in the country where I live, they are routinely paid as if their services were less than extraordinary or truly beneficial.
Doctors, by contrast, are paid quite a lot and may feel they 'deserve' it.

It may be hard not to expect some kindness in return for our kindnesses. Kindness, I think, presupposes a willingness to do something for others that may exact a price from ourselves. It is hard not to ask, "When do I get mine?"

And that, for my money, is the fly in the ointment of ordinary, altruistic kindness -- the supposition that we are doing something for someone else and the added hope, however secret, that we will get something in return ... perhaps a little kindness.

This is the challenge for those inclined towards kindness. Yes, it is nice to be nice and yes, it is more pleasant to be in the company of kind people, but so long as the expectation remains threaded through such kindnesses, disappointment is bound to follow. And such disappointments may suggest that a savvy, manipulative, defensive and self-centered route would be preferable.

But it's a conundrum for the person inclined towards kindness. To become a savvy, manipulative, defensive and self-centered twit is diametrically opposed to the kindnesses anyone might find preferable. It is to become what you dislike. It feels slimy to excuse unkindness with 'free market' litanies. But also -- when some honest examination is missing -- it feels sort of slimy to excuse and prop up the ordinary versions of kindness.

For those inclined, I think some examination is worth the price of admission. Maybe it's true and maybe it's not, but anyway it might be worth investigating honestly: Kindness works a lot better when it is given freely, with no expectation of return. It is as if a friend said to you, "Pass me that wrench, will you?" and you just picked it up and passed it without a second thought. No moral or ethical or philosophical or intellectual or emotional adjuncts need apply. You are kind because you are kind. You are five-feet-eight because you are five-feet-eight. Self and other don't enter the picture.

It may be hard to examine what is widely praised. Assumptions cling like body odor. Agreements are so pleasant. Kindness is good ... and yes, it certainly is. But, without going all 'Buddhist' on it, who says so? If we want to make peace with ourselves, don't we have to answer the question if we don't want to be stuck in a world of disappointment?

Sure, there is a secretive, raging gnome in the corner asking, "You mean give it away for free?!" And that's exactly what I mean. How can you be free otherwise? Isn't kindness free? Aren't 'you' free? And isn't being what you are easier than being what you hope to be?

Kindness, of whatever sort, is more pleasant than unkindness. But for those with a desire to escape their disappointments, you can't do much better than to follow the advice Gautama offered:

"It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern."

Gautama offered his advice for free: As a free man, what other choice did he have?

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