Richard Bogartz: Why not more kindness?

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Thursday, May 18, 2023

“Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.” — Henry James

Kindness has been on my mind. I’ve felt there was something I wanted to say or some question I wanted to ask but couldn’t figure out what they were. I suspect deep down I began by wondering why people are kind. Here are some musings.

I was thinking about empathy and compassion as companion ideas to kindness. Compassion has attracted me for a long time because I find it prescribed in all the major religions.

It occurred to me that empathy and compassion are things of the mind. Empathy is sharing and understanding the feelings of another. Compassion is being sensitive to the emotion and suffering of another combined with a desire to help.

Then I realized that kindness, someone being kind to another, is action. It is something someone does, whereas empathy and compassion are mental. They are thoughts and feelings. We can observe kindness. Empathy and compassion are inferred from actions such as kindness, or from verbal reports of thoughts.

This thought-action dichotomy reminded me of my poem, “Acting”:

When loving

Is a feeling

Without a doing

It is only a dreaming

Of loving.

That was inspired by the thought of a mother, sitting in her baby’s room, rocking on a rocking chair, thinking, again and again, how very much she loves her baby, while the baby lies in its crib, squalling, because it is hungry and needs its diapers changed.

It occurred to me that empathy and compassion, if not accompanied by kindness, are also things of the mind that without a doing are only a dreaming. So far as the person who is in distress is concerned, what goes on in the mind of the compassionate observer probably makes no difference. What matters is what they do.

I included the word “probably” two sentences back because I’m not sure that thoughts don’t have effects. After all, I do believe everything is fundamentally consciousness, so I allow the possibility our thoughts affect the world in ways we aren’t aware of. Many believe that prayer works. Note that if thoughts do affect the world, then my poem is wrong.

Why are we kind? And how broad is the “we”? I’ve seen too many video reels showing kindness, often life-saving kindness, by dogs, cats, elephants, dolphins, horses and gorillas, to limit kindness to humans.

A young elephant sees a human being swept along helplessly by a rushing river and swims after the human on an intercepting arc that produces a lifesaving rescue. I don’t know what sort of mental events in the elephant I should infer, but the elephant’s action leaves no room for doubt.

Kindness. Dogs rushing into water to save floundering people. Cats moving toddlers away from dangerous windows or steps. A horse that pulls a fallen man away from his collapsed wheelchair, lies down next to him to enable him to struggle on to the horse’s back, and then stands up to transport him. A huge silverback gorilla that cares for a small child that has fallen into the gorilla’s enclosure. Dolphins carrying humans back to their ship. Kindness.

What do these animals understand? Feel? In humans, kindness is a giving. At its highest it is giving without thought of receiving. Compensation is out of the question. It is an overflowing.

A woman for whom I’ve been doing some informal life-tutoring complained about being too bored, too often. I suggested she find some people to help. She agreed, saying she knew how good this can make you feel.

I began by wondering why humans engage in kindness, but in the light of the kindness of animals, and how we feel so good after being kind, I think I’ve moved to wondering why we need Henry James to tell us in triplicate that kindness is important, and why we don’t seize every opportunity to be kind.

I suspect egoic devices like greed and fear may be the villains that interfere with what might be our natural tendency to overflow with helping.

Greed whispers, “I need more. More and more. More is never enough. A bit of giving could impoverish me.” Fear says, “I must stay away from the poor and needy. They are likely infectious or criminal or will harm me in some way I cannot imagine.”

Resist greed. Shut down fear.

Be kind. Do kindness.

Richard S. Bogartz is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.