BY: T. Franklin Murphy | July 2016
We need connections; but the world doesn't need vaguely hidden intentions. We need soul felt kindness.
As fellow travelers, crossing arid and beautiful landscapes, we should be kind to one another. This is a firmly held personal belief—no authoritative edict. But many criminal and selfish acts underly much of the sorrows of this earth. We need more kindness—in day to day interactions, business and politics. Cooperation serves survival goals, kindness stems from instincts of cooperation, willingness to sacrifice personal benefit for the greater good. Scientists attribute the large prefrontal cortex, perhaps, even the evolution of consciousness, to the complex demands of human interactions.
We assess facial expressions, words and actions, with great precision, and respond, attempting to maximize personal benefit without alienation from the group. Reading feedback from others allows one to know when personal ambitions are appreciated or alienating. Our skills of interaction can assist in predicting whether a person is a friend or enemy—vulnerably approaching an enemy, without caution, could prove deadly. A keen sense of differentiating between and enemy and a friend assists in identifying dangers but remaining alert to opportunities.
We must calculate vast amounts of data to navigate the maze of connections to flourish. Improperly reading I’m-not-interested signals at the bar may lead to an embarrassing rejection, but errant assessing of a deranged and ruthless criminal may be fatal. Social skills are essential for procuring assistance. Healthy interactions develop trust, loyalty, and prove our presence is an asset to others. We survive as a group. We are all connected; like it or not.
Over the last several millennia, humans have remained relatively stable biologically. But our existence has vastly changed. Culture, knowledge, and skills have accumulated, being passed down from generation to generation. The knowledge gathered over centuries can be discovered within a few semesters of college.
The complexities of our society work because of cooperation. As long as the majority contributes, the group maintains strength, but if they become divided, they weaken and fall. Greed for power and money play a significant role. As a person or group gather power, they often misuse their resources for personal, rather than universal gain. Instead of blessing the group, they seek to maintain their advantage, expecting privileges and extolling punishment. History provides repeated grotesque examples of this inhumanity. Groups contend with oppressors from above while fighting temptations to project their frustrations on those beneath.
Strong societies need balance with majority nether stingily hoarding resources; or parasitic draining of resources from beneath. Strength comes from unilateral contributing to the whole, whether a nation or a marriage. (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Evolving Self). The society strains to maintain balance. If too many pursue selfish aims (from the top or bottom), society collapses and people revolt. The current rift between political powers is frightening. The growing divide, and accumulating hatred muster power and crumble the strength of historic balancing institutions. The ethical drive for betterment of society is replaced with selfish aims of power, seeking powerful and rich allegiances. Donated funds have replaced public approval. Politicians secure funds first than massage their message to fool the masses. Save the rich billions while succoring the poor with a small morsel of meat for their porridge.
"The society strains to maintain balance. If too many pursue selfish aims (from the top or bottom), society collapses and people revolt."
Exploiting for Personal Gain
Cooperation, however, can fail societies when groups resources are exploited. The Stanley Milgram studies during the 1960’s illuminated the persuasive power of authority. Volunteers willingly administer painful shocks to undercover experiment confederates with only slight prodding from a white-coat lab scientist. We must be cognitively aware of impulses to give allegiance, skeptically examining the effects and making an individual decision. Sometimes, we must oppose the status quo, refusing to cooperate with movements that violate our ethical standards.
Cooperation can have destructive consequences (Rwanda, the Third Reich, Khmer Rouge). On smaller and more personal scales, cooperation impacts daily interactions. The social media boom has changed how whole generations interact, providing immediate feedback of acceptance—or rejection. Sadly, social media has been implicated as a driving force in many suicides, mean teenagers (and sometimes their unscrupulous parents) join to bully others, not in an educated debate of ideals, but in group savagery over a weaker adversary. Cooperation—joining forces to conquer foes--often exhibits destructive hatred. Look around, watch the news, see these dark forces gathering.
In many groups, individuality is blatantly discouraged. Expression of individuality weakens the strength of the group: together we stand; divided we fall. As if, we all must agree. “If you are right, I must be wrong.” Groups have always pressured, even brow beat, followers to submit individuality to the overall betterment. Blind following, labeling free thinkers as radicals, has become the norm. If you are Republican: this is what you think… If you are Democrat: this is what you think. How we can we take a whole nation of people and stuff them into two strict chambers of ideas? Technology exposes this group mentality, suppressing individual expression—and rejection. A tweet can quickly leave a person ostracized, a quick wave of sarcastic and blatant meanness powerfully correct perceived wrongness and novelty of thought.
Blind cooperation, giving to others, for benefits of united strength isn’t kindness but driven by the need for acceptance. Our gifts, appearing as kindness, corrupts the pureness of an act because of a selfish expectation of a reward (acceptance). Actions only reveal the underlying character when viewed in the context of the motivation. Courteous behavior may be motivated by fear or respect. Kind behavior may express independence or dependence. The context of the behavior reveals the character behind the action.
Tricksters in Office
Politics is ripe with examples. A politician may court groups with promises of gifts, offering gestures of appreciation; but once the votes are tallied policies and personal histories reveal disdain for some of the groups courted. Once we vote for a candidate, we often self-protect, bolstering our choice at the poll, my ignoring contradictory evidence. Voters should critically examine character before hanging hopes on the empty words of power hungry politician. And then hold the public officer to his or her word while they are in office. We may be fooled but better to acknowledge the charade and call attention where attention is due. When our votes or support is needed, many people present themselves as kind and cooperating; but time reveals their allegiance falls somewhere else.
Life complexity demands careful investigation. Underlying motivations often are obscured; we fumble to even unveil our own motivations—let alone a stranger’s. The internal push to action isn’t conscious. Most behaviors are the expression of complex mixtures of reasons—the biological drive to cooperate just being one of them.
When examining the self, we often attribute positive character traits behind our actions; but when examining a foe, we are suspicious assigning evil to their action. I cut someone off on the freeway because I’m late; this maniac cut me off because he is an ass. We label a foe’s helpful acts as sinister with darker hidden purposes. During self-reflection, we must scrutinize personal behaviors for the hidden nasties that are behind the seemingly kind action. Does our expression of kindness serve a selfish purpose? Do we give in a passive attempt to manipulate? We must examine our selves a little closer.
The desire to be appreciated is natural, not selfish. Appreciation signals acceptance to the soul, bolstering security—together we stand. But when we focus only on appreciation, our kindness loses potency. The selfishness behind the behavior is eventually exposed. Paradoxically, we must diminish the drive for appreciation in order to secure the appreciation we crave. Narrowed vision evaluating individual acts for rewards fail. We need to expand our perspective. We become kind, possessing genuine concern for others (compassion), and in return we will be appreciated—generally.
A staple of healthy living is kindness—the deeper kindness of character—not a shallow expression. We are kind because we love others and we love life.
Characteristics, such as kindness must be developed. They’re not a possession, but a dynamic quality that expands and shrinks. Be patient, examine behaviors with openness. Reflect on your discoveries, curiously digging for hidden motivations. We must mindfully see others with deeper explorations, asking: “What is she feeling right now?” By purposely directing attention to others, we build new habits of mind, reaching beyond the stingy borders of self; we invite greater empathy by thinking with greater empathy. This empathy then that opens to compassion, and compassion acts with kindness—real kindness, the kindness born in the heart and that lives in the soul.