Friday, May 07, 2021
9:00 AM |
On Uncommon Kindness
I’ve been thinking more and more about kindness recently, perhaps because of the spate of community pantries mushrooming all over the country. In Dumaguete, several soon took root in the neighborhoods of Bantayan [two of them] and Piapi—at least as far as I know specifically—and I’m sure there are or have been more. This has been such an amazing phenomenon, an example of the good kind of virality, and I believed it when people started saying something like, “Kindness is revolutionary.”
Kindness is also contagious.
It certainly felt that way. The community pantry revolution was unprecedented and unplanned—and all it took was the smallest of gestures by an individual, a local furniture designer, who felt frustrated by the almost willful inaction by the government in providing for the most basic of relief to its neediest of citizens in our prolonged pandemic season. Ana Patricia Non took out a tiny bamboo cart along Maginhawa Street in Quezon City, accepted and gave out in-kind donations [usually grocery items], and unknowingly launched a revolution.
Not to say there has been no government help—the ayuda
of the rolling Bayanihan programs are there, if meager, but because it is government, the process is necessarily bureaucratic. Most certainly, when you are dying of hunger, it will almost be an impossibility to submit yourself to process, to paper works, to patience waiting in long lines.
Community pantries are
a band-aid effort—it does not change the inherent unfairness and inequality of the system—but nonetheless they are very necessary, because they are able to cut through the bullshit, and because they are answerable only to their grassroots origins, they are spared from the opportunistic shenanigans of politicians and the profit-motivated magnanimity of corporations.
Community pantries are the embodiment of kindness, something that has been magnified in the pandemic. There’s a new term for this: “caremongering,” which is solidarity and mutual help turned into concrete community action.
A friend of mine, Lea Sicat Reyes, recently recounted this story: “I brought Dad to Ace Hospital for his routine ECG test. I was worried, given his heart history and his age, to bring him to the hospital amid the pandemic, but it had to be done. As soon as we reached Ace, I asked Dad to wait in the car so I could then go to the laboratory to secure a spot in the queue. When I got to the lab, there were already around four people waiting for their turn.
“I requested the kuya
before me to save my spot when it was almost Dad’s turn so I could run back to the parking lot where Dad was waiting in the car. I explained that Dad was 78 years old and had cardiovascular co-morbidities so I wanted to avoid unnecessarily exposing him to the steady traffic of people going in and out of the hospital.
agreed, and I thanked him. I sat on one of the steel benches in the intent to wait for Dad’s turn. From a short distance, I observed the four talk to each other. The lady who was first in the line came up to me and said that they agreed that my Dad could go first.
“Of course, I initially refused the offer knowing that they had been waiting a lot longer than I did, but they insisted. I truly appreciate how four strangers extended such kindness to me and my Dad. Wherever [and whoever] they are, I pray that God will return such kindness and generosity a hundredfold.”
I remember too my boyfriend and his mother who took care of me when I had mild COVID last December—because they didn’t have to, but I was alone in my apartment and needed help in my daily straining for survival, at least during the long quarantine.
I remember going on a grocery run last June, and a tricycle driver gave me a free ride from the deserted downtown to my apartment, groceries in tow.
Non is kind to the core, I’m sure of that. But people are generally not kind, to be honest. They are however performatively kind—usually when there is an audience involved and pictorials and pubmats can be splashed on social media—but nonetheless they are often enough. I won’t begrudge it. Real and performative kindness are still aberrations to the system we all live in, which is low-key cruel and unkind. I feel that way all the time when an email gets circulated at work, asking for abono
for someone who’s sick or dying. Charity tugs at the heart—but I’m also thinking, “These colleagues wouldn’t have to submit themselves to begging in the first place if they were properly paid.”
I’m not sure I’m being cynical. You could call me a Hobbesian—but even Thomas Hobbes wasn’t entirely pessimistic when he famously wrote that our natural condition was “solitary, poor, [and] nasty brutish.” [Nor was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, his philosophical opposite who countered that human nature is essentially good, entirely optimistic either.]
Robin Douglass, a senior lecturer in political theory at King’s College London, once clarified: “As it happens, Hobbes didn’t really think that we’re naturally evil. His point, rather, is that we’re not hardwired to live together in large scale political societies. We’re not naturally political animals like bees or ants, who instinctively cooperate and work together for the common good. Instead, we’re naturally self-interested and look out for ourselves first and foremost. We care about our reputation, as well as our material wellbeing, and our desire for social standing drives us into conflict as much as competition over scarce resources.
“If we want to live together peacefully, Hobbes argued, we must submit ourselves to an authoritative body with the power to enforce laws and resolve conflicts. Hobbes called this the ‘sovereign’. As long as the sovereign preserves peace then we shouldn’t question or challenge its legitimacy, for that way leads back to the state of nature, the worst possible place we could find ourselves. It doesn’t matter whether we personally agree with the sovereign’s decisions. Politics is characterized by disagreement and if we think that our own political or religious convictions are more important than peaceful coexistence then those convictions are the problem, not the answer.”
Hobbes was a witness to the unbelievable horrors of a civil war, which informed his worldview, but to dismiss his ideas as “bleak” is to not see that he actually saw lasting peace as a possible achievement, but one that was rare and fragile. And one that’s subject to an authority that promises and actively works for that peace.
But wasn’t that also why in 2016, sixteen million voted overwhelmingly for a possible sovereign who promised “change is coming,” gave short deadlines to its promises [“six months,” “one year”]—but is now found unashamedly wanting?
Douglass continues: “On the Hobbesian analysis, an authoritative political state is the answer to the problem of our naturally self-interested and competitive nature. [But] Rousseau viewed things differently and instead argued that we are only self-interested and competitive now because of the way that modern societies have developed. He thought that in pre-agricultural societies—he took travellers’ reports of indigenous American peoples as his model—humans could live a peaceful and fulfilling life, bound together by communal sentiments which kept our competitive and egoistic desires in check.
“For Rousseau, everything started to go wrong once humans perfected the arts of agriculture and industry, which eventually led to unprecedented levels of private property, economic interdependence, and inequality. Inequality breeds social division.
Where societies had once been united by strong social bonds, the escalation of inequality soon turned us into ruthless competitors for status and domination. The flipside to Rousseau’s belief in natural goodness is that it is political and social institutions that make us evil, as we now are… Rousseau thought that once human nature has been corrupted the chances for redemption are vanishingly slight. In his own day, he held out little hope for the most advanced commercial states in Europe and, although he never witnessed the onset of industrial capitalism, it’s safe to say that it would have only confirmed his worst fears about inequality. The sting in the tale of Rousseau’s analysis is that, even if Hobbes was wrong about human nature, modern society is Hobbesian to the core and there’s now no turning back.”
And that’s the catch: the inherent goodness Rousseau highlighted is a kind of original state to which there really is no turning back to. We are ensnared into a system—call it late capitalism, if you want—and we are forever corrupted.
Unkindness runs in our veins [Hobbes] and in our systems [Rousseau], that to be kind truly is
But we need
Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in Essays: First Series
(1841), declared: “We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. Maugre all the selfishness that chills like east winds the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eye-beams. The heart knoweth.
“The effect of the indulgence of this human affection is a certain cordial exhilaration. In poetry and in common speech, the emotions of benevolence and complacency which are felt towards others are likened to the material effects of fire; so swift, or much more swift, more active, more cheering, are these fine inward irradiations. From the highest degree of passionate love to the lowest degree of good-will, they make the sweetness of life.”
He continues with this declaration emphasizing why kindness helps: “Our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection.”
In the past year, one thing we have seen all over the world is that kindness can prevail even in difficult times. Remember when people came together to sing on balconies in Italy? Kindness.
Remember when people willingly shared their talents online last year to stave off the deadly boredom of the lockdown? Kindness.
This kindness didn’t start with the current pandemic. You could go all Rousseau and say it was always there in people. What is true is that the pandemic, ironically, has given us a space to see kindness modeled, which has given us permission to be compassionate. To borrow an observation made by the University of Edinburgh: “What was hidden and unremarked upon is being noticed as an essential part of our existence, enabling us as a society to keep faith in the future and to believe that we can get through this.”
The psychologist Paul Gilbert once suggested that compassion can become a driver of change, and that compassionate action often involves individual acts of courage: to support people in distress, to stand up for the oppressed, or to challenge authority when the wrong course has been taken. The community pantry revolution checks all these.
Compassion can also lead to an increased sense of well-being, no matter if this altruistic behavior is expressed through volunteering, charitable donations, or acts of kindness to people we do or do not know personally. In fact, studies have shown that engaging in “prosocial behaviours” when interacting with strangers or acquaintances can lead to better overall mental health.
The Canadian psychologist Jennifer Stellar says that compassion—along with gratitude and awe—allows us to look outside our own personal needs to focus on someone or something else: “I think the idea is that the self, the ego, can be noisy—it can be negative. It can be self-deprecating, so sometimes we need a little break.” The act of helping others then can be a welcome distraction from the strains of the pandemic.
Another study showed that kindness is really beneficial to people, especially if they are struggling
. They become more motivated to address their own problems after being offered the opportunity to help others struggling with the same issue. They experience a much-needed boost in confidence.
It’s perhaps all biochemistry: all oxytocin, which acts as antidote to cortisol, the stress hormone. Oxytocin helps lower our blood pressure, and reduces inflammation and free radicals in our cardiovascular system, which causes tissue damage and ageing.
Given that, how do we exactly “do” or cultivate kindness then?
Model kindness, that’s one.
Encourage kindness, that’s another— to get involved and supporting your local communities like how Ana Patricia Non did it.
Notice kindness, that’s another— to recognize and validate when you notice people being kind and supportive.
Cut some slack is another— to understand that everyone is experiencing the effects of the pandemic differently, so we must offer support instead and be more understanding.
And finally: be kind to yourself—to cut your own self some slack. How? By not expecting perfection, and aiming just for “good enough.” This is my own hard lesson.
I only realized this a few days ago myself.
Like love, to be kind to oneself is perhaps the greatest gift of all in our prolonged pandemic season.
I wrote in my journal then: “I should be more gentle with myself. I should stop beating myself down for not ‘doing enough.’ I only just realized I’ve actually accomplished quite a lot this past week: I wrote two major essays and one art review, finished phase 1 of a project, sent out a book manuscript, proofread a short story due for publication in a major magazine, prepped a re-publication of another book in time for its 10th anniversary, and managed a very busy month for three entities in my social media management sideline. All these on top of battling crippling anxiety attacks and depression. I should be more gentle with myself, for my mental health’s sake.”
It’s difficult to do—but be kind, anyway. To others, to your self.
Art by Experience Life
Labels: coronavirus, kindness, life, mental health
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