Why Be Kind?
At an urban train station thick with people in the middle of their daily commute, an old man sleeps uncomfortably on a bench. People ignore him for hours until a photographer captures a moment that would otherwise have gone unnoticed, and a story unfolds: a monk administers the Buddhist rites for the dying (called 'phowa') to the homeless man, (whom everyone else thought was drunk). Given the expression of the onlookers, the picture shows how strange and powerful kindness is in this day and age. To me, this is one of the greatest pictures I have ever seen. It sits on my desktop to remind me how random, rare, and important kindness is. I wish sometimes that I were like this monk, that I could stand as passionately simple in my reflection of a universal truth.
Since 1991, I have studied in about a dozen or so schools of spiritual thought and philosophy, both academically and practically. I have spent more time with "big questions" than most people do in several lifetimes. I received an academic degree in philosophy, and considered a life in first the Catholic and later the Anglican priesthood. In my late twenties I lived in monasteries and meditation centers all over the planet, and almost took monastic vows as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. I have lived amongst observant Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim people in India, China and Southeast Asia. I have prayed in temples, mosques and synagogues. One might assume that after all of this praying, meditating, and studying that I would be qualified to speak about life, relationships, or love. In truth, I have exactly ZERO to offer you about how to love, how to be in relationship or anything else like that. Sure, I have a few pithy things to say about business in today's society—but they are largely conjecture. In most of the articles I post in this forum, I am speaking purely from my experience as a former corporate strategist—which means even less in this context.
I realize that perhaps LinkedIn is not the ideal venue for soul-searching. However, I sense a need to hear more about real human experience, and for writers—myself included—to speak from their deepest heart, because that is where the truth resides.
Like most thinkers, the tendency I have is to tout a conceptual understanding of love, or to rely on concepts to explain human nature. In reality, there is only one law to understand—and that is kindness. You might be a billionaire, a genius, or a brilliant this-or-that; you can even be a psychologist or spiritual teacher—but if you are not kind, then you fail the most basic litmus test for evolved behavior on this planet. This is not complex. We are immersed in vulgarity, violence, and blatant stupidity on a daily basis. We are absolutely inundated with it. We are plagued by a complete lack of emotional responsibility, and actual restraint is in short supply. When I titled the piece, "Why Be Kind?" I was not being coy. I am actually curious to know why anyone bothers.
We seem to be happy only when we can say, do, and think whatever we want—which is actually a sort of emotional hedonism, isn't it?
The only antidote to this is kindness, both to one's self and to those around us. To be kind means restraining ourselves from indulging in or acting out certain thoughts, feelings, and emotions. But it is not enough to exhibit self-control; we must go further and cultivate what Buddhists call the "Great Compassion"—an actual feeling of respect for all beings—before we leave this planet. It cannot be something we just talk about; it must be something we can actually share with another being. It cannot be conceptual, it must be active. We must be kind in every way possible to one another—even going so far as to be careful not to disturb another being's peace of mind. Ideally, that is the degree of consideration that all of the wisdom teachers from all of the religions of the world intend us to have for one another.
This is what Christ meant by "turning the other cheek,” and doing unto others as you would have them do to you. The Koran, too, stresses that peace can be found not in precise observance of the rituals, but in acts of compassion and kindness. It says in one passage that the litmus test for true belief and genuine worship is that action must lead to compassionate living: (Al Quran 2:178).
What all of these spiritual practices have in common is simple. Unfortunately, all one need do is consider the sheer amount of suffering in the world to see how far off the mark we all are, both globally and personally. It is as if we do not understand the simplest of things—the value of kindness.
Can you imagine, even for an instant, a world in which we thought more carefully about how we treated one another, a world in which more attention was paid to being kind and less to the differences between us?
I'm sorry to say that after twenty-five years of earnest inquiry into the "Great Matter of Life and Death," I have not learned much. What I have realized is that most of the teachings and philosophies of the great religions of the world function theoretically and fail spectacularly in practical application. They fail because they rely on antiquated verbiage whose literal interpretations have little in common with our current times, and therefore ought to be ignored. Only after one considers kindness—deeply—can a person say that he or she understands the challenges of human life.
Only after admitting our own perpetual cruelty to one another can we say we actually understand each other's struggles with any degree of clarity.
Friends, I do not claim to have any profound understanding of life, or even be close to one. I do try to "walk my talk," and I will most assuredly continue to make many errors. My only respite is that I will continue to fail, and in this failing—in this doing—I find a sort of bravery. I’ve come to realize that all I really own is my dignity as a human being, and all I can really do is attempt to be just a little bit better today, to care a bit more, and to treat others with the kindness. We all need this, now more than ever.