BY: T. Franklin Murphy | February 2015
We wrongly assess mean actions to soothe our sensitive ego. We must challenge these assessments, examine individual acts, and embrace more kindness.
Heinrich Himmler, pathological and diabolical, considered himself compassionate, conveniently separating his significant participation in the imprisonment and murder of millions. Our subjective judgments of self often miss blatant flaws and sins while extolling competences that may not exist. Our views are distorted when masked by the yearnings of the ego. We gaze into distorted mirrors that reflect preconceived conceptions rather than realities. If a mass murder can overlook the dead bodies filling the mass graves, whose sad stories fill the ugly pages of history, what chances does a solitary person have to recognize their own slight blunders, giving knowledge to become a kinder and more gentle person Most people claim to be kind; but few acknowledge personal acts of meanness, justifying damaging aggression as warranted. How do normal people quickly turn on neighbors and fellow countrymen without seeing the flawed character behind the hate? We view malicious acts of others as evil; but when we evaluate personal uncaring behavior, we see a kind soul acting with excusable reactions. “I’m not mean;” we tell ourselves, “they needed correcting.”
Labeling the entirety of a character as kind or mean impedes progress, missing the complexity from which we all act. Everyone possesses streaks of kindness and meanness, with repeated expressions of both. Instead of an ignorant judgment of overall character, relieving the mind of more demanding assessments, we should focus on individual acts for kindness—or meanness. This practice can eliminate some of the conceptual blindness. If we increase kindness—even slightly—while simultaneously reducing callousness, the world begins to change. A single unkind act doesn’t define our character, but the act can be scrutinized, leading a gentle transformation.
"Instead of an ignorant judgment of overall character, relieving the mind of more demanding assessments, we should focus on individual acts for kindness—or meanness."
Self-interest motivates behavior. Living beings are driven to survive, and this requires attention to needs of the self—eating, shelter, relationships, and futures. Self-interest is natural. Complex associations, drawn from experience or proxy, create an algorithm of sorts, to evaluate the world. New interactions jump from the external to the internal, being mashed together with concepts and predictions, and eventually spitting out pleasurable or disagreeable feelings, pushing the person towards opportunity and away from danger.
Mixed in with the obvious survival needs are also subtle drives for security, social acceptance, and meaning. These wants also spur feelings of pleasure or discomfort. In the work to secure personal pleasure by satisfying integrated wants and needs, we often neglect or harm others, excluding them from the complex determination of how to act. To be kinder, a mindful examination is required. Casually glancing at the distorted mirror doesn’t help, provoking justifications and distorted conclusions. We must look deeper with a skeptical eye on individual acts, considering the impact of our actions on others. This sensitivity that includes others is not always natural and must be developed. Attentive watching develops compassion.
Discovering personal acts of selfishness clashes with our protected beliefs of kindness. While conflicting concepts (beliefs and evidence) depletes energy, our development demands this honesty. We must budget energy to grow; and this includes challenging errant concepts of self. Many choose to protect the ego (unconsciously) instead of challenging faulty concepts. They justify the selfishness to sooth the ego, rather than addressing a harmful behavior.
Kindness, when developed, expands, contributing to the evolution of the world. The world doesn’t need fearful walls of separation. The constant flinging of sticks and stones because of differences doesn’t resolve our fears but exasperates them. We may blindly justify these damaging behaviors; but meanness, justified or not, are hurtful to the individual and to the world. By evaluating acts, rather than the person doing the acting, we can constructively improve. We’re not mean or kind, we’re human; and can improve. Until we detect the baseness of our ruthless acts, we can’t change. We need gentle transformations, embracing compassion, seeing a world of competing ideas, and accepting the diverseness and beauty. We can lift our gaze, see more than before, adding depth to our person, and being a little kinder.