Sunday, December 20, 2009
Unresolvable New Years Resolutions
So here's the deal with kindness and me.
I don't enter into any exchange of a conditional nature with another from my species without asking what that person wants in return for whatever effort they're making. Sometimes this is a big deal. Most often it's just pocket change variety in the bartering of our daily giving and getting. But I do know that the sustenance of living is made out of something more porous and extended than self-preservation or a dollar earned for a day's labor. It's the energized form of gratitude that reigns whenever I've given something of myself to the betterment and acknowledgment of others. Is the life-giving held within the act or the recognition of it? And if the deal on kindness can't go through without some reciprocal outcome is it really kindness? Could it be a capital need to earn brownie points or accrue membership privileges for cashing in personal IOUs, political capital, or kindness quotas? Some production voucher or credit due reserve? Hey, I gave blood today!
Pure kindness always seemed like a more sincere, less cumbersome, and ultimately more life affirming way to go. It meant not keeping score even though you're in the right game playing for the better team (and for all the right reasons). Not expecting the quid pro quo to kick in is a liberation from the reflexive backscratching that poisons the sincerity of mutual admirations. Random is the roadmap for acts of true kindness. Pay it forward and you'll never look back.
The problem with altruism is that few of us are self-energizing enough to offer open-ended olive branches. When our efforts are spurned or stepped on or taken for granted with the slightest nod to our nobler spirits our quest for kindness can sour pretty quickly. I believe that this conflict was captured exquisitely by Adam Phillips, the author of On Kindness in my favorite 45 minutes of 2009 when he was the guest on the NPR call-in show On-Point. Phillips crashes through the familiar better-to-give-than-receive routine as if we can even agree on originators and receivers, let alone where the generosities lie. The unadorned question he asks is simple and instructive: "if it feels so great to express ourselves through kindness why don't we do it more often?"
On the one hand we all marvel at the beneficent grace and rapture of opening our hearts. On the other hand we're never as kind as we could be and others ... well they certainly clam up before releasing to us the kindness we deserve or imagine others can stroke against our expectant, raw, and receedingly thin skins.
Part of this tension is an inability to acknowledge the cost of kindness or the price of competition. Do we gain directly at the expense of others? If so do we lose some of our humility in the process of objectifying the evil or inferiority of those we intend to defeat, rectify, or ignore? Are all these options even on the table? Is cruelty the counter to kindness or is it neglect?
There are three main forms of creature discomforts that concern me about our species and I'm not sure what questions they raise or hopes they question but I'll give it a try:
1) Incapacity to praise -- I was in California before Thanksgiving and hooked up with an old college friend who gave me a good-natured grilling about the unrelenting encouragement I provided this historian/astrologer/writer/cum scientist of learning about his songs. That approval crashed his boundaries not only around defining his own artfulness but took root in a high-concept uneven-sounding band engineered by my friend's tentative grip on choreographing the movements of planets. The only chart we ever landed on was the composite chart he configured with his own raw inspirations. Was I too quick to praise? Was my appreciation undeveloped? Certainly my intent was for the talent I witnessed to develop as far as the spirit wills it. But years later no second guesses amount to a single moment of torment. Letting praise fester is no healthier than the unburied hatchets that eat us away.
I wondered about the collateral impact of praise, as heartfelt and deserving as it was. Was a wildfire ego trip the raging outcome of a single match stick? I've always been baffled by the scarcity of praise in the world. Positive feedback is no stranger to popular rhetoric. But putting one's finger on the distinguishing features of what makes for praiseworthy strokes is typically in short supply and never goes out of style no matter how un-chic paying a proper compliment can be. The criticism that underpins the achievement of my friend's songs is that they need to be recorded -- not for his sake or mine but posterity -- an objective that becomes less abstract the longer his tunes age.
Prognosis: Regardless of whether our band reunionizes over this man's awesome talents I will continue to praise my peers, students, and inspired works without reservation. I will specify the unique blending of skills, talents, and experience they have created and try to go them one better about where this could lead into new models and collaborations. And I will not bale if I give voice to a ship that takes on more water than passengers.
2) Inability to touch -- I didn't attend mass very often this year. In fact unless I'm with my exemplary Christian son I don't really think about it. About a month ago he was in town for a rare visit and we went to the local Catholic church. The mass was largely unremarkable except for one thing. The sign of peace handshake was cut loose to contain H1N1. All the runny noses, scratchy throats and handi-wipes could not turn the clock back on the welcoming of a stranger's outstretched hand. I'm not saying this as a gregarious flesh-pressing reveler or that one religious tradition is any more guarded than another. My own temperament is reserved, self-contained. But I know the consoling and restorative nature of touch is not present in words, logic, or any brain-heart connection I can access no matter how much I stretch my limbs or torture my own logic.
Prognosis: What would happen if the golden rule applied to handshakes, hugs, caresses, and even inadvertent brushes with the shopper pushing the next shopping cart? If we wished to be touched the way we hold ourselves many of us would never know the comfort of feeling, needing the someone close to us that puts things right. I don't know the answer. I only know that I need to reach out more than I do and that the quandary of intimacy or isolation is a false choice and a self-imposed one.
3) Unwillingness to give in -- I've been told by more than one close friend that I'm a poor negotiator. It's not from an insatiable want of material gains. I can walk away from bounties and winnings and discounts and coveted, shiny prizes. But I can't let go of the nagging feeling that I've negotiated away any mutual benefit an agreement could broker. Part of understanding the difference between what's negotiable and what's a deal-breaker is an appreciation not only of what we need from the other party but what we hold in scarce supply and how much that's appreciated on the other side. Conversely the most stoic of poker faces needs an accurate assessment of a fallback position which includes a supply line to the talents and assets we're incapable of providing to ourselves.
Prognosis: I believe the vogue political term for talking to our enemies is engagement. Well the same holds for the disagreements held between friends. The language of winners and losers is the currency used when pushed. Is that brinkmanship or is that simply the need of knowing where we stand. For most, it seems, uncertainty is a crueler fate than loss.
Listening to the grievances and demands when the negotiation tables are turned is a source of strength. Even if the other party's sole aspiration is to play the victim card there is a larger stage worth playing to. In the case of Iran that means showing their bad faith posturing to chip away at China and Russia's disengagement. Look at the softening of a U.S. hardline? Obama's overtures to Iran accentuate the political divide between all its internal factions. On a personal level what's the lesson? It's that the open hand absorbs the blows of the closed fist. Only then can any mutually beneficial bargaining begin.
- Marc Solomon
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