On Kindness

April 15, 2020 in Musings, Politics/Public Service, Speaking Up

I have a little bit of extra bandwidth at the moment because the pandemic is hitting me a lot less hard than many for a variety of reasons*, so, I thought I would expand on something I wrote yesterday. I said that now might be a good time to be gentle with each other and to practice the skill of kindness. I said that, because more than anything that’s what I believe will get us through this crisis.
COVID is a world changing event and it’s still very much in the early phases. It’s likely to get a lot worse before it gets significantly better and it will change everything about our world. It will change how we relate to each other. It will change how we understand community. It will change our beliefs about the powers and needs of government and social safety nets. We will lose people who are dear to us. We will lose people we don’t know well who have impacts on our lives we never anticipated. Distribution chains and the economics of business and government are going to be changed. Health care and the whole idea of lean, just-in-time processes are going to be completely different. We, as individuals, as communities, as nations, and as a world are going to be as radically changed by this experience as our forebears were changed by world wars, by the depression, by plagues…hell, by the fall of the Roman Empire.
I’m not going to make predictions about how those things will change us all because I don’t know what it will all mean in the longer run, though I have some thoughts. But one thing I do know is that, right now, at the front end of this, we need to be thinking about who we want to be in the face of this adversity. Do we want to be the rugged, individualist characters from a badly written post-holocaust book where only the strong survive, or do we want to be smart, caring, social beings who reach deep and learn how to take care of each other and to treat those in need as we would want to be treated ourselves? We can scratch and claw and express our stress with each other through anger and bitter words, or we can strive to be kind, to be gentle, to help each other be better.
I know which way I want to see us go, but I don’t know which path we will walk. I talk about practicing kindness as a skill, because I believe that it is exactly that. It is a group of behaviors that we can focus on and improve if we try. I am not by nature kind. I have a volatile, even dangerous temper, I am naturally impatient with people who don’t learn as quickly as I do, I can be petty and I have always had to fight with a tendency toward contempt. I have spent my entire life striving against those impulses that make me the worst version of myself. In times of stress that becomes simultaneously harder and more important and I have invested enormous time and intellectual labor in tamping down those impulses and teaching myself to turn to the techniques of kindness when I feel them. I often fail, especially in the first few seconds of a quick response, and because of that, I have taught myself to fight against that first instant reaction, to wait, and to think, to force myself into second and third thoughts. I have learned kindness, not as a first impulse, but as a thing to always reach for.
It’s not easy for many of us, and if you choose to try to practice the skill of kindness it’s quite possible you will fuck it up as thoroughly as I do from time to time, but the rewards are immense, both in terms of being able to look yourself in the eye in the mirror and in terms of building a better community of friends and neighbors. It is a skill that undergirds civilization and it is one that I know you can manage if you want to and aren’t already there. I believe in your ability to be that better person and in our ability to get through this all and out the other side as a better community and civilization. I believe that we can use this time of enormous fear and stress to grow and change and become better.
I know some of you are trapped at home alone and that your anxieties and depression are trying to eat you alive. I know some of you are locked away from loved ones you desperately want to see and hold and simply be with. I know that some of you are trapped inside with loved ones and discovering that maybe working away from home is better for your relationships than all this time together. I know some of you are trapped with people you don’t want to be with. I know that some of you are desperately afraid for your health, your loved ones, and your ability to keep putting bread on the table and paying the rent. This is a time of incredible uncertainty and pain and loss for so many. You all need us to be gentle and kind with you, and I know that even when you’re angry and desperate and wanting to lash out, you can see that we all need the same from you.
Be gentle, be kind, strive to be your best self. That’s how we get through this and come out the other side with pride in who we will become and how we handled the great challenge of our era.
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*Full disclosure because I do understand how fortunate I am and how that colors my thinking.
–I’m used to being home alone because I write novels for a living.
–I already sorted out dealing with Laura being home all the time because her sabbatical started 9 months ago.
–I’m less stressed out about the publishing industry being on fire, because my career was already on the rocks.
–My career woes do not jeopardize our being able to afford life.
–I processed my career woes and started putting a recovery plan together months ago.
–I adapted to my career woes, by embracing the idea of a joint sabbatical to rethink why I write.