On Kindness

Like approximately half of the people in the United States, I woke up today bitter and disappointed that last night’s election, which I had every reason to believe was going to turn out the way I wanted it to, turned out the other way instead. I knew that approximately half of the country was going to feel exactly this way this morning, but I sincerely hoped and believed that it would be the other half.

This is, of course, a common and predictable feeling in a well-functioning democracy. We are supposed to be disappointed about half the time. We are supposed to spend a good deal of our lives being governed by those that we do not support, did not vote for, and do not approve of. For eight years, I have had a president that I deeply respect and admire. Now I don’t. I pressed hard for the other side to vow to accept the legitimacy of the election if it went the other way. It went against me, and I accept that.

I still persist in feeling that it was different this time. I am deeply concerned that the winning candidate has now normalized a kind of rhetoric that splits us apart—that pits the perceived interests of some of us against the very real interests of others. I don’t believe that everything is OK, and I am not sure it is going to be. I am frightened and sad that real people that I care very much for are going to be hurt in tangible ways over the next four years.

But I also know that there are good, decent, intelligent people who would have felt exactly the same way if the election had gone in the other direction. I can see a little bit of what my victory would have felt like to them. I can start to understand.

One thing that I am certain of is that I cannot, and will not respond to the new political reality by increasing the divisions that produced it—by insisting that there is a huge and unbridgeable gap between an imaginary “us” and an equally imaginary “them.”  I refuse to allow this election to make me a person who thinks like that. I refuse, in other words, to be unkind.

I have been thinking a lot about kindness today. We tend to use it as a synonym for “niceness,” but that’s not really what it means. To be “kind” means to perceive other people as belonging to the same category as oneself. To acknowledge that we are all of a kind. The same kind of people. To refuse to buy into any theory that says otherwise. The word “kind” is related to the word “kin.” To treat someone kindly means to treat them like kin. Kindness is not something that we choose whether or not to do; it is something that we choose whether or not to acknowledge: that we are essentially the same sorts of beings and that our lives have something to do with each other’s.

Whichever way this election had gone would have produced a lot of unkindness—a lot of people believing that half of the country was in a different category of humanity than the other half. I have to reject that idea. I have to commit to kindness. I have to pledge to abandon the rhetoric that tears us apart. This does not require retreat or submission. It does not mean that we accept the unacceptable, or that we stop trying to create a better society through the political process. It just means that we do it without categorizing anybody else as irredeemably evil or irreducibly other. It means that we do it with kindness.

In 1939, as Europe was on the verge of another great war, W.H. Auden wrote the following words:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

In every sense that matters, this is prophecy. I want to scream. I want to despair. I want to give up. Sometimes, I want to hate. But I HAVE to be kind.

Comments

  1. Thanks, Mike. I’m with you.

  2. Really uplifting thoughts this morning, Michael. Thanks for sharing. Reminds me of the call in Isaiah 58 to be a “repairer of the breach”.

  3. this is a devastating message to read today

  4. This reminds me of Mother Gothel’s song “The Last Midnight” in “Into the Woods” where she discusses that all the other fairy tale characters are not good, or bad, just nice (and it’s meant to criticize them). There is a difference in my mind between being nice and being kind. I too hope I can make my religion, and my politics, kindness.

  5. Thanks for the very hopeful message. Tribalism (in its worst negative sense) is and has always been such a regressive blight on this world and unfortunately continues to be. I appreciate you pointing out the root meaning of kindness and that we all need to use it to repair the divide. The tone of the new president elect’s acceptance speech late last night did give me some hope that at least for the time being, he wants to work towards unity.

  6. Beautiful and perfectly captures how I feel and my hopes for how I’ll regroup in the future.

  7. “To be “kind” means to perceive other people as belonging to the same category as oneself. To acknowledge that we are all of a kind. The same kind of people. To refuse to buy into any theory that says otherwise.”

    This. This. This. And it’s both a blessing and a curse.

  8. “I knew that approximately half of the country was going to feel exactly this way this morning, but I sincerely hoped and believed that it would be the other half.”

    Michael, your imagination is somewhat limited. I voted for neither one of them (though I did vote), and I awoke in great spirits today. It’s a beautiful fall day here in Northern Virginia, and I am blessed with a wonderful wife, three exceptional children and many friends.

    Also, I am sufficiently acquainted with the history of my country to know that we have endured many trials far more challenging than the prospect of a Trump presidency. I am optimistic that we will muddle through the next 4-8 years in reasonably good shape, and I will try to do my part as a citizen to help ensure that outcome.

    Frankly, the only thing I have found depressing today is all of this angst about the outcome of the election. But I will nevertheless follow your advice and try to be kind to those who are struggling right now, though if their despair continues for more than a few days, I may have to slap them.

  9. FarSide, there are millions of people who almost certainly will lose their health insurance, and I have little doubt that there will be at least a couple of attempts made at massive immigration sweeps much larger than any of those undertaken by ICE under the current administration. (They will be national and global PR disasters on the order of the Short Creek Raid, and will be abandoned shortly thereafter.) Vladimir Putin now has carte blanche to roll across the rest of Ukraine if he pleases, and could well feel emboldened to invade the Baltic States–three tiny countries whose populations love freedom more fiercely than you or I possibly could imagine. At least for the next four years, any serious attempt at dealing with climate change will cease. (To be sure, if anyone who voted for Trump thinks that coal mines in West Virginia and central Pennsylvania magically will reopen, providing $60k/year jobs for semi-literate high school dropouts, they will be sorely disappointed in four years’ time).

    You appear to have an empathy deficiency that makes David A. Bednar look like Pope Francis. You might want to work on that.

  10. APM, it is hard for me to empathize with potential victims of speculative doomsday scenarios. I am unable to identify them and I certainly don’t know what the future will bring—for them or me.

    I can, however, empathize with those whose taxes and health care costs have increased because of Obamacare. I can empathize with the millions of displaced and dead Syrians who foolishly relied upon Obama’s assurance that once Assad had crossed that “red line,” the United States would act. And as for the Ukraine, Obama has been nothing more than a paper tiger, readily conceding Putin’s seizure of the Crimea and providing no military assistance to the Ukrainian government, even after repeated violations by Russia of the truce agreement.

    When I was young, a man was elected president whose exploitation of women and marital infidelities rival those of Trump. He disliked African Americans and grudgingly supported civil rights legislation only because it was politically expedient. He caused the U.S. military to intervene in a civil war in Southeast Asia that eventually cost more than 50,000 American lives. His botched invasion of Cuba—fittingly known as “The Bay of Pigs”—led to the installation by Castro, with the willing support of the Soviet Union, of nuclear missiles, precipitating the gravest crisis of the last half of the 20th Century. I lived through this. I witnessed my parents’ anxiety as these events unfolded—events which prompted my father to build a bomb shelter in our basement, complete with an air filtration system.

    APM, your preoccupation with the unknown, combined with your lack of historical perspective, are couple of things you might like to work on.

  11. FarSide,

    This would be one of those times to mourn with those who mourn, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. Sympathy is kindness when empathy is out of reach.

    i very much appreciate the original post.

  12. Rachel,

    All I am suggesting is that those who are disappointed by yesterday’s results temper their grief with a modicum of perspective and proportionality. For starters, comparing our current situation to the circumstances that inspired Auden’s soulful poem is a bit of a stretch. This is not Europe in 1939.

    I believe the separation of powers and checks and balances inherent in our system still work, though not perfectly. For example, there are too many legal and economic impediments to the wholesale deportation of all illegal aliens. Heck, if there weren’t, it would have been done years ago.

    And how many times have we witnessed presidential candidates make outlandish promises or advance extreme proposals only to moderate those views once they are suddenly vested with the power to do so. Indeed, we have witnessed this in our own church: recall the sudden disappearance of Ezra T’s goofy political ideas once he became prophet.

    Listen, I don’t like Trump and I never for instant considered voting for the man. But I think it behooves us to try to understand why half of the country did. I suppose the easiest thing to do would be to simply dismiss them as a “basket of deplorables,” but that wouldn’t be too empathetic, would it? Perhaps both sides should mourn with each other and thereby search for common ground.

  13. FarSide, you’ll have to choose between slapping people and mourning with them. Having it both ways just isn’t going to work out.

  14. FarSide,

    Thank you for your reply. All this post is suggesting is to be kind. It takes effort but is not complicated. Many of us have comforted a child devastated by what is, to us, an insignificant loss. I think Christ, with His infinite perspective, might sometimes perceive our grief in a similar way. Yet He still tells us to mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.

    If you are interested in this discussion, perhaps start there.

  15. Michael, I re-read my comments and I was unable to find any instance where I used the words “silly” or “irrelevant” to describe someone’s fears. And while I freely concede that I don’t get to decide what frightens people or causes them deep concern, I believe it is a legitimate perspective to suggest that perhaps, just maybe, their fears are a wee bit exaggerated. Europe 1939? Really?

    One of the most effective ways of trying to get both sides to understand each other is to walk each of them back from the edge, to get them to see that the sky isn’t really falling, that the other guy really isn’t the personification of evil, and that we have seen situations like this before and managed to work our way through them.

    How often have we confronted what appeared to be a dire crisis only to discover, after the fact, that we had blown the problem way out of proportion? I, for one, have done it at least a hundred times, and I appreciate it when someone calls me on it.

    If I have shown disrespect for anyone’s views about the election, I apologize. That was not my intent, though I confess that part of me just wants to put all of this behind us and get on with life, which I admit is not always that easy.

  16. Far Side, I don’t have energy to muster your modicum just now. I know that I have it in me to do the necessary bridge-building with needful kindness in due time, but today is quite painful and it’s absorbing all my spare energy. Do you have it in you to give us some time to process this?

    Thank you Michael, for a productive message of optimism. It was what I needed.

  17. I just reread the poem, and it’s apropos and lovely, especially the last line.

  18. Rachel, there was more than one time during my childhood when my mother comforted me when I was devastated by something that was truly inconsequential. But while doing so, and in the midst of my crying, she would sometimes say: “You know, you’re being a boob about this.” This would momentarily make me angry but, inevitably, we would both start to laugh.

    Please try to take this in the spirit in which it is intended. I don’t mean suggest that those who are unhappy about the election are being silly. I’m only intimating that perhaps that future is not as black as it seems. And that if we look at our history and who we are as a people, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future.

  19. MDearest, your wish is my command. I will withdraw, and I apologize to one and all for the intrusion.

  20. FarSide, my wife lived through Lithuania’s war of independence from the USSR, a brief but horrifying episode that ended when George Bush the elder threatened the Soviets with immediate withdrawal of credit from all Western lenders. Her tales of starvation, of tanks and bodies in the streets, are frankly terrifying, and they’re nothing compared to what another friend of mine from Donetsk has seen. Make no mistake, Putin has invaded multiple ex-Soviet countries on the flimsy pretext of discrimination against ethnic Russians, and he’d be happy to do it again to distract the Russian masses from their dire economic situation.

  21. There’s an interesting story behind that Auden poem. He really struggled with how he felt about it. Auden was always wrestling between his desire to reject “romanticism” and his innate pull towards it. Anyway, his management of the difficulties in this poem (“September 1, 1939,” the day Germany invaded Poland) led Auden to request it never be published again. He wanted it excised from his canon of work. He later relented only after changing the last line of that stanza to “We must love one another and die.”

    The “and” vs. the “or” is interesting change. Current editions of Auden, however, all (as far as I know) print the “or” version. Both have considerable value, as I see it.

  22. Michael, you talk a good game, but meanwhile the BCC tweets in the sidebar are explaining that everybody who voted for Trump is a misogynist racist. That seems a rather unkind way to respond to what is, after all, mostly a case of Republicans voting for the Republican candidate. To be clear, I think Trump is a misogynist racist, and that there’s a frightening chance this country is heading off a tall cliff. But with only two real choices on the ballot, you can’t make voters responsible for every flaw in their candidate when they make choices based on complex and competing values. The message about kindness is decidedly mixed.

  23. I would agree with this post more, if it didn’t seem like one side was constantly willing to be kind and compromise, and one side was bound and determined to not be kind, and to never compromise.

  24. Nils, it seems odd to ascribe a tweet to Michael’s post. Why not take it up on twitter instead?

  25. B.Springer says:

    It was suggested that we should worry about those who might lose insurance. Obamacare literally cancelled and rewrote the insurance policies of tens of millions.

    If you wanted to keep politics out of health care and insurance, it’s best not to make it a polical issue that you intentionally designed as a wedge issue against the other party.

    Those who don’t understand this have no right to complain. I guarantee you that Republicans will work more with Democrats on what replaces Obamacare than what our President did. Obama was a terrible leader.

    His signature program was a handout to big business insurance companies and consultants that was never capable of succeeding. Sorry, your unsustainable junk policies are going to have to be rewritten.

  26. N. W. Clerk says:

    Etymology != meaning.

  27. At some point, those who voted for Trump need to acknowledge just what sort of man they have put in the White House. For Mormon Republicans, they need to ask themselves, now that the GOP has become Trump’s party, if they can, in good conscience, be part of an organization that has opened the door to such a man and allowed a growing and vile fringe element to take over the party. Trump’s victory pretty much means that the Republican Party cannot go back to what it was at some undefined point in the past. Are you really going to be part of this? Many good Mormons in Germany were fully behind Adolf Hitler and refused to see the evidence of what he was. Propaganda is a very powerful force, as we have seen again in the past year and a half.

  28. Too soon, Michael. Nine days ago, Tracy talked to us about how important anger can be, how we need to accept it, acknowledge it, and discuss it. Now you’re telling me, less than 24 hours after this man has been elected, that I need to turn the other cheek, to reach out to the people who have voted to condone misogyny, to reward racism, and celebrate xenophobia. I’ll come around to kindness, sure. Maybe in a few days, maybe in a couple months, maybe not for a couple years. But for now, I get to be angry.

  29. Ugh, I think you definitely get to be angry.

  30. “Now you’re telling me, less than 24 hours after this man has been elected, that I need to turn the other cheek, to reach out to the people who have voted to condone misogyny, to reward racism, and celebrate xenophobia.”

    Ugh (and Steve), you can and should respond however you think best. I do not want to try take away anybody’s narrative, or anybody’s anger. Anger is a perfectly reasonable response to what has happened, and I do not mean to suggest otherwise. I am explaining here how I have to respond, or at least, how I am choosing to respond. If you read what I wrote, you will see that I am the only person I include in my directives about how to respond. I hope that this will helpful to some people. I know it will not be helpful to everybody,

  31. I get that too, Mike, and appreciate it. I didn’t take your post as prescriptive (any more than my own reaction is).

  32. Thanks for the reply, Michael. I did read what you wrote, and I hope it is helpful to a lot of people. I hope it will be helpful for me, too, soon. I come to BCC because so often my thoughts and feelings are echoed in the posts here, and I am able to sympathize and commiserate with others (in my head – I don’t usually comment). When I woke up Wednesday morning, full of anger and grief, and came here hoping to commiserate, I saw three posts about hope and love and kindness; three things I was not ready to feel (and I’m still not, frankly). Of course you get to respond in your way; it was just a bummer that I didn’t see people here responding like I was.

  33. Martha Kay says:

    I guess I am too old to believe that one election means the sky is falling. Four years ago the Republican party was told to change or disappear. A year ago Warren Buffett informed America that Clinton was a shoe-in. Trump came along with an entirely different change than that recommended to the Republican Party and here we sit. But our founders knew enough about góvernment to set some powerful safeguards in place to limìt excessive government. I have faith 8n thise.

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