Monday, October 25, 2010

Kindness and Cooperation: Lessons in Daily Living

We so often hear that "boys will be boys", particularly if the phrase is being offered as an excuse for episodes of bad behavior. Girls can also be mean. And so can parents be mean, as well as people of an adult age who do not have children. How much mean-spiritedness are we modeling for our children and youth? If we see our child behave badly, do we step in and say something, or hang back, because it is too much trouble?

We hear so much in the news about bullying, and there have lately been many tragic consequences. We wonder at the decline in civilized behavior, and we comment on how "those other people" should behave (whomever "they" are).

But, here is a news flash, people: we are all "them".

Kindness is a blessing, but generally not a natural gift to most people, although I have met some people who are, I think, naturally kind in every encounter. Meeting the embodiment of kindness and generosity is edifying and humbling for me.  Hopefully this is true for everyone, but perhaps not; many merely take someone else's kindness for granted. Some people meet kindness and generosity believing that is a form of weakness, and feel free (or obliged) to take advantage; little do they realize that they are the losers in such an exchange.

In a world of kindness, there is no pecking order, no top-down authority; all are equal and respected in the eyes of the observer. A world of kindness requires a specific type of engagement with the world: mutual attentiveness between any two people. Martin Buber characterized this beautifully in his book I and Thou:
The primary word I-Thou can be spoken only with the whole being. Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, not can it ever take place without me. I become through my relation to the Thou; and as I become the I, I say Thou. All real living is meeting.
What he means, of course, is that real living requires that two or more engage in an activity; it takes two to tango. If one can acknowledge another, meeting that person as an equal and actively engaging in relationship, even if that relationship is only a simple transaction at the grocery store, or cars merging on the freeway, or a game at the park, that meeting is where life happens. Transcendence occurs in every action between individuals who engage to solve a problem.

In the same vein, Aldous Huxley says of love:
There isn't any formula or method. You learn to love by loving - by paying attention and doing what one thereby discovers has to be done.
You could easily substitute the words "live" for "love" and "living" for "loving".

What is suggested is a type of ongoing education. Goodness and compassion may not be natural, but they can be learned and taught. Teaching goodness and compassion is every bit an attentive action as that meeting that Buber describes and that love that Huxley wrote about. And it requires more than yelling across the park "hey, quit picking on that kid!"

If we want to teach our children well, we cannot avert our eyes and mouth worn phrases like "boys will be boys"--that is inattention at its most self-contained and in complete disregard for "what needs to be done."

If we want to teach kindness, we must recognize and be humbled by our own capacity for meanness. If we can do that, the next step is to engage with our children honestly about meanness and its consequences, about the inattention that leads to disregard or objectification, and likewise about attention leading to mutual engagement and problem solving.

That mutual learning experience is where life really happens; it elevates the everyday world and lifts people up.

But life is all about choices; living life attentively, with kindness and compassion, is a choice, like any other. People are not the isolated beings they like to think they are; we cannot live for ourselves alone. We live in a world that faces destruction if we do not fit ourselves into the picture that is so much bigger than ourselves, and turn our attention to solving the problems we have created from a position of selfishness. An integral world demands mutual integrity; every day introduces the opportunity for a new lesson.

Integral life must be thought of as a continuing journey in the practice of kindness and cooperation.

May we learn from our mistakes and teach our children well.

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