Friday, March 04, 2011

Less Than Kind

Caution: The following is yet another of the apparently endless ramblings that clatter around in my head. It likely has no relevance or entertainment value to anyone not living between my ears. Read on at your peril. Perhaps you are masochistic. Or you may be a fan of watching the suffering of others, a kind of “schadenfreudinista”. Who am I to judge? If you are sane, you will go on about your day and ignore the following entirely.

I was discussing cabbages and kings, the meaning of life and other things with a friend. I mentioned that I sometimes over commit the level of support I can provide to others, or rush in to “solve” others problems before they ask for help. When this occurs I can exhaust myself and end up resenting the person whom I am trying to “help” or “save”. He suggested that I write about the issue. He knows me well. Long ago I learned that writing out my thoughts often helps clarify my thinking. Even when no clarity arises, I derive comfort from the simple pleasure of seeing my thoughts materialize before me. Something about the appearance of letters on the page feels magical, as if the white emptiness creates the letters on its own...talking to me in a voice that is at once familiar and alien.

So, why do I carry the desire to be “nice” or “kind” to extremes? What do I get from it? Tough questions. It is easy to come up with facile replies like, “You do it because it makes you feel important”; “By 'helping' others you are able to ignore your own issues”; or “By 'helping' others you fill an emptiness in your life, fighting off the fear of being unloved and alone.” Perhaps all of these are true to some extent. Perhaps they are completely true. Maybe there is nothing more. I suppose, I can accept that these answers paint an accurate picture of my character, even though the the image is fairly depressing.

However, as is always the case with my magnificent magnifying mind, I must ask if there is more. All of my typical answers to my problem are linked to moral views that arise from years of fundamentalist programming. They start with the assumption that I am born in “original” sin, that I am flawed, broken, and in need of divine intervention to improve my character (if not my chances of living in eternal bliss after I die). Are there reasons for my behavior that are not rooted in a “grandiose” sense of self? I think there may very well be.

I do feel good about myself when I feel I am helping others. There is fairly sound neurological evidence for why this may be so. The mirror neurons in my brain respond to the reactions of those around me. They are what allow me to feel the pain and pleasure of others, the empathy for their point of view. Thus, if I act in a manner that creates happiness in those around me, I am more likely to feel happy myself. This view of things is less judgmental and I believe more accurate than a fundamentalist view of life. Certainly, it has more evidence to support it than the idea that my acts of kindness are derived from supernatural orgins.

I think the issue may be that like any other neurological process, the pathways that drive me to be “kind” can become overloaded. There are times when they go into overdrive. Perhaps my mirror neurons become “addicted” to the endorphins generated by seeing others become happy as a result of my efforts. Maybe this in turn drives me to try and be evermore “kind”, eventually bringing me to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. I have not yet run across the research that would allow me to verify this hypothesis. But, it offers an intriguing alternative to supernatural answers. It is a point of view that is far more helpful to me. A path that allows me to deal with my “issue” without judging myself or others as being evil or hateful. I may be confused at times, but I no longer accept the proposition that I am evil or flawed. Often I do not see things clearly. I have even felt hatred toward others and acted to harm them in many ways, and, I have received hatred and harm from others. The choice is whether I see hatred and kindness as purely metaphysical, religious or philosophical issues or whether I see them as also having a very strong physiological and neurological component. But I digress.

Regardless of the cause, the fact remains that I sometimes find myself in situations where I have multiple people expecting, (or at least I feel they are expecting), more “kindness” from me than I am capable of delivering. What to do?

First and foremost for me is to avoid judging or condemning the other person or myself. It is far better for me to recognize that a large part of the experience is perfectly natural, unpleasant perhaps, but just a natural consequence human evolution. Some people's mirror neurons likely function better than other people's, just as some people's synapses fire more quickly than the rest of the population. Perhaps my mirror neurons are more suited to long distance running with emotional issues than they are to sprinting past them, or hurdling over them. Who can say? The point is that I am not at “fault” or “sinning”. I sometimes am ill equipped to handle the level or type of “kindness” stress in which I find myself. If there is fault on my part it is for over estimating my capacity for kindness in a given situation. I am no more evil than a marathoner who runs one league too far.

Second I must be wary of situations and people that invite me to promise or try to provide more “kindness” than I can provide. This is particularly difficult for me. My long history of trying to be like “Jesus” or some other imagined level of perfectly kind being was come by honestly. Yet it can be deadly. Often I see people or situations that look risky to me and think, “that may be more than I can handle”, yet I charge ahead anyway. The pathway for reason is overridden by the programming of perfection I received early in life. I see the risk, I acknowledge that it likely will not turn out well, yet I am driven to accept the “challenge” because I want to be “more like Jesus” or I believe it is my “duty” to sacrifice myself for the good of another. Whenever I stop short, pull back, or run away from such situations I generally feel guilty, like I have failed. I have to continually inventory the facts of the situation with a trusted friend. Sometimes with several.

Third I must accept the truth of the phrase “to thine own self be true”. Sometimes when I inventory a situation with my friends I find no relief – most if not all of them disapprove of my actions. Sometimes when I talk things over with friends I hear only that I have been a bad person, that I have been evil. This can set me off on the path of self hatred that leads nowhere and benefits no one. I must accept that no matter what I do, sometimes people will think I have not performed the way I should have. At these times I have to return to the facts. Was I trying to be kind or was I intentionally trying to hurt someone? If I was intentionally trying to hurt someone then I try to make amends. If I wasn't then I must accept that sometimes many if not most of my closest friends will think poorly of me.

Finally, I have to be careful with the idea of perfection. I have come to believe that the Platonic ideal of perfection is one of the greatest lies ever created by philosophy and religion. There is no evidence for “perfection” that I know of. Everything and everyone will seem less than “perfect” depending on the measure used and the one doing the measuring. Many people standing on a riverbank watching a man trying to save a drowning child will be forever haunted by the feeling that they are less “perfect” than the man. Many, like me, will carry the image the rest of their lives, feeling guilty whenever it comes to mind. They will be unable to see the simple fact, that the man in the river represented nothing more than the confluence of a particular set of events and decisions at a given point in time. They will not understand that many of them have done, or will do similar acts of kindness (sometimes without even being aware of them).

As near as I can tell, there is no hierarchy of kindness. All acts of kindness, no matter how “small” or “large” seem to add to the general health of myself and those around me. Often the things I see as very small have the “largest” effect, and often my greatest “sacrifices” go unnoticed (which can really piss me off). The idea of perfect kindness requires me to compare myself to a lie, the lie that somehow, someone “better” than me could be kind under all conditions with all people. I know of no evidence that such a creature or being ever has or ever will exist. All the models of perfection I am aware of have “feet of clay” somewhere along the line. Jesus got pissed at moneylenders. God got so angry at humanity that he drowned his own creation in a flood. Gandhi had a self-aggrandizing and political side according to some who were closest to him. Martin Luther King apparently had lovers. Given the failings of such august company, who am I to aspire to perfect kindness?

I can try to make changes. I will make some. But I recognize that even in addressing such a minor issue as creating pain for myself by trying to be “too kind”, I will be less than perfect. Oh well. The coffee tastes good and the sun is shining.

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