The Renaissance of Our Hearts

E. Rowell:  I thank the author of this article for her act of kindness in sharing these thoughts with us.  It shows how one act of kindness grows into other acts with effects unknown and unknowable far beyond earlier kindnesses.

By Julie Ponesse, BROWNSTONE                                                            29 March 2024

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.

Naomi Shihab Nye

It was one of those days.

Nothing catastrophic happened but it seemed that, if a little thing could go wrong, it did. The morning that began with a symphony of micro-disasters — stepping into a deceptively deep puddle and forgetting to put grounds in the Moka pot — culminated in a comical exit from the local grocer. One too many bags in one hand and an exasperated toddler in the other, just as I was getting a grip on my chaotic entourage, one of the bags gave way to a tumble of bruised bananas, runaway limes, and an upside-down carton of half-cracked eggs. Threads unraveling, whits end, all that.

And then, a little thing happened.

A woman entering the store corralled my battered limes, looked me in the eye, smiled at my daughter, and said, “I remember those days.” It wasn’t much but, also, it was everything. It wasn’t just the help that mattered, though I surely needed it. She injected a little connection, a little humanity into my moment of chaos. In her one small act of kindness, she created space for something sacred. Like a handshake, moving aside to let someone pass, or saying “Bless you” when a stranger sneezes, these microscopic interactions are often considered meaningless and expendable. But, once they are gone, something palpable is lost.

Early on in the pandemic, I remember people trying to hold onto normal interactions despite the restrictions. They would say “Have a nice day” at a distance or smile knowing their mouths couldn’t be seen but hoping the creases around the eye would divulge their intent. But, gradually, those things started to disappear. We couldn’t see faces so why bother giving them expressions? We weren’t supposed to touch so how could we hold a door without becoming negligent?

And then common phrases like “Thank you” and “Enjoy your coffee” gradually slipped away altogether. Slowly, these niceties are being resurrected but I feel a concertedness to them. We have to think hard, to remember how to do them. Fake it until you make it, maybe. Or maybe we aren’t sure they matter, or aren’t sure how they will be received. Will our offerings be rejected? If they are, will we be able to take it? We have, in general, landed ourselves in an empathy deficit and it’s not clear what payment could put us back in the black.

As an introvert, an Enneagram 4, and a philosopher, I am not the first person to lead with gestures and physical contact. I can be a bit standoffish, preferring to observe human nature from the sidelines…or from a passably comfortable park bench. But I do notice when these things are gone. And I wonder how their absence has changed us over the last few years.

There’s no doubt that the world in which we live is a broken one. And it’s hard to be a whole person in a broken place. We’ve undergone a radical polarization, the greatest cost of which is a loss of humanity. It’s not just that we see the other as wrong or misguided, or that our disagreements are deep and entrenched, but we no longer seem to see the other as a being human like us, as deserving of kindness, or needing it.

We spent a long time during the pandemic era duking it out on factual grounds. We appealed to the facts as we saw them, and we fact-checked the facts that were thrust at us. We lived hard in the territory of facts and data, trading them freely as the currency of our strife. But we forgot that these are just symbols that represent people’s lives, not lives themselves. We thought we needed numbers and #science to save humanity but humanity, it turned out, was our obsession’s collateral damage. History has tried to teach us, through countless atrocities, an essential lesson we are reluctant to learn: that numbers are inherently dehumanizing.

It’s hard, as an analytic philosopher, to disparage data in this way. It makes me feel like a hypocrite or, maybe worse, a defector. In graduate school, I had to sit a comprehensive exam in predicate logic, requiring me to transform statements into universal and existential quantifiers meant to represent features of the world. (The statement “There is somebody who everyone likes” became ?x?yLyx, for example.) It was my stock in trade for a long time.

And, unthoughtfully, I followed the rationalist tendency to disparage David Hume’s claim that reason is, and ought to be, a slave of the passions. Leading with passion was the weakness of the naive, the immature, the uneducated. Sophisticated minds are rational minds, those that rise above our base, animalistic emotions.

Or so I was taught. And I believed it for a long time. But all our focus on facts didn’t prevent our most recent dehumanization. In fact, I think it propelled it. Reason took us to a precipice where it became impossible to see others as human like us. And reason isn’t to be forgiven for this.

Of course, it isn’t really reason’s fault. Reason is a capacity. It is in our hands, to use or abuse at will. But so, too, are empathy, listening, respecting, and connecting. The corollary of our hyperfocus on reason and data was an erosion of these capacities. We stopped thinking that small acts of kindness mattered and so we stopped bothering with them. We canceled, shamed, and shut down, and then we abandoned public interaction altogether, creating a dehumanizing double whammy. We lost what Andrew Sullivan calls the ability to regard every human being we encounter as “a soul of infinite value and dignity.”

Why Did Covid Obliterate Our Little Acts of Kindness?

Covid put us into a state of high and prolonged stress — psychologically, financially, socially. And choosing to make oneself vulnerable when already under stress is no small thing. How devastating it is to smile at someone who scowls back, to acknowledge only to be ignored, to hold a door only to have it slammed behind you. Empathy makes you human, but kindness exposes you to rejection, which might be one pain too many at a time when you are already losing so much.

One of the interesting things about kindness is that it is a bit of a Frankenstein capacity. Its two components — empathy and vulnerability — have motivational trajectories running in opposite directions. Empathy takes us out into the world, scanning it for others who are in pain. It requires us to imagine what it’s like to be someone else and then care enough to alleviate that pain (because we wouldn’t want it to be ours). Vulnerability, on the other hand, focuses on the risks our empathy exposes us to, and it holds us back. Whether or not we act with kindness depends on whether our desire to go out into the world, or recoil from it, wins out.

Kindness forces us to confront our vulnerability, to expose our wounds in a salty world. It needs us to bear the vulnerability of others and come to terms with our own vulnerability, dependence and imperfection. We like to think we are invincible, wholly self-sufficient, and immune. Acknowledging our need for kindness means we recognize that we might, at any point, be broken.

The practical upshot is that, when we encounter another person, we are likely to make any number of what Henry James Garrett calls “empathy-limiting mistakes” (such as the mistake of allowing privilege to obscure social cruelties from which we are immune). But the empathy-limiting mistake we are making now is wholesale; it’s the mistake of believing that kindness doesn’t matter at all.

I don’t think we’ll ever fully know how the prolonged obscuring of our faces with masks transformed our social psychology, and molded our brains’ capacity for kindness. Still influential, Edward Tronick’s 1978 “face-to-face experiment” examined the role of reciprocal face-to-face interactions in early childhood development. He found that, when faced with an expressionless mother, an infant “makes repeated attempts to get the interaction into its usual reciprocal pattern.

When these attempts fail, the infant withdraws [and] orients his face and body away from his mother with a withdrawn, hopeless facial expression.” How many of us, over the last four years, made repeated attempts to get another person into her “usual reciprocal pattern” only to be rejected and then turn away with a withdrawn and hopeless expression?

Faces are our primary source of information about other people. We rely on expressions to decode a person’s level of openness or antagonism, whether they are curious or ready to shut us down and walk away. Masking created a global shift in terms of the facial information available for decoding not just what another is thinking but who they, and we, are.

Reading the expressions of another gives us information not just about the other but about ourselves. As Michael Kowalik has argued, we can rationally identify with something only if we perceive ourselves to be reasonably like it. We recognise our humanity, in other words, as the humanity of others. When masking made it harder to feel like a self, it made it harder to be a self. And, if we don’t see ourselves as a person who can change, and be changed by, the world around us, it isn’t surprising that we would eventually feel a disconnect from the things we do.

Do Small Acts of Kindness Really Matter?

It is commonplace in the moral philosophy space to talk about the importance of kindness as if it’s a first principle of human action, an a priori truth, an ethical ‘no-brainer.’ “Be kinder” we tell our ethics classes, our friends, our children. We put “Be kind” on dorm posters, buttons, and bumper stickers. But do we really know what kindness is or what it does for us? I fear we have gotten to the point where we think that the only reason for interacting with someone is to set them straight, to correct their misguided or dangerous ways, or we engage to find the like-minded for some dopamine-pumping confirmation bias. But there are reasons to hold onto kindness, ranging from the simple to the more meaningful.

For one thing, kindness delivers quite a neurological punch. Individual acts of kindness release oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins, and create new neural connections, and therefore greater plasticity of the brain, making kindness not only feel good but more likely. People who are regularly kind have on average 23% less cortisol and a lower risk of heart disease. And fMRI scans show that even just imagining being kind activates the soothing part of the emotional regulation system of the brain.

Interestingly, oxytocin is also known to mediate in-group and out-group feelings; the more of it you have, the less likely you are to form cliques, and cancel and disconnect from others. In general, when we forgo little acts of kindness we miss opportunities to change our brain chemistry in ways that not only make us happier, but make us more likely to be kind to each other.

But little acts of kindness do more than improve our brain chemistry. When we hold a door for someone, we do it not because we believe the other is incapable, though sometimes that is the case, but because we wish to say “You matter.” “Bless you” isn’t a religious benediction; it’s a holdover from the Bubonic plague, when we literally meant “I hope you don’t die” (at a time when you easily might have).

These seemingly insignificant matters of etiquette tap into our shared history and humanity, evolved over years and sometimes millennia to reflect how we matter to each other. They represent the ties we’ve woven between ourselves, the ties that make us not just people but people. They are the ties that help us to listen, to pay attention to another’s story, to help and to forgive, and to sit with someone in their pain knowing it can’t be fixed.

It’s true, your kindness can make you a sacrifice on the altar of someone’s ego, collateral damage in a hurried world. You can never guarantee that your act of kindness will be returned and even the smallest acts of kindness take effort. They can feel draining. Why bother when there is so much division and hatred anyway? Why bother when we have been taught that the other is dangerous? How many “Sanitize your hands” messages do you need to see before you start to feel, and maybe even crave, a kind of cognitive sanitizing after human contact? We are suffering from compassion fatigue and there is nothing surprising in this.

But, as much as we are taught that happiness is about self-sufficiency (which it is, largely), we are also social creatures that need to be seen by others. We need to feel their softness towards us, we need to see that they believe that we matter, we need to know that crossing their path impacted them, that we were here, that we made a difference.

There has been much talk of Stoicism in recent years and the insight it offers to assuage some of the chaos of modern life. Contrary to its colloquial meaning, the Stoics don’t recommend being cold and unfeeling. On the contrary, their maxim to live in harmony with nature extends beyond just tidying up after playing outside; it also means living harmoniously with other people. As Marcus Aurelius states, “Just as with the limbs of the body in individual organisms, rational beings likewise in their separate bodies are constituted to work together in concert.”

Living in harmony isn’t some abstract concept to do with being “nice” or “getting along.” It is a matter of building our interconnectedness. It means seeing the humanity in others and offering bits of ourselves. It means making what entrepreneur James Rhee calls “non-revenue generating investments in people.”

What’s my point? Little acts of kindness mean more than we thought and losing them means more than we might have realized. It also means we are in desperate need of a kindness renaissance.

Even though the details of our lives might seem to be mundane, the little acts of kindness we inject into them are anything but. What we do when we choose these acts is show that the details of our lives matter. And when we treat the details as though they matter, we make them sacred.

One way we shield ourselves from the burdens of modern life is to induce in ourselves a kind of myopia, or nearsightedness. Cognitive science tells us that our brains actually invest a great deal of resources in learning to unsee and tune out irrelevant stimuli. And learning to see, especially when we have taught ourselves not to, isn’t as easy as we might think. In her 1984 novel, The Lover, Marguerite Duras wrote that “The art of seeing has to be learned” and “When you look closely at anything familiar, it transmogrifies into something unfamiliar.”

Seeing takes work. It takes figuring and sorting and maybe even being willing to question what you believe about what you thought you had sorted out. But this is important work because seeing is an essential moral capacity. The Latin word respectus that we translate as “respect” means “regard, a looking at.” We respect someone first and foremost simply by looking at them. The infinitive respicere has the added element “to have regard for, or consider.” Once we see someone, we can then move on to consider what we are seeing in them. And this is how we build our humanity. When we make a gesture of respect, like a wave, a sidestep, or a door-hold, it is a way of considering the other, and what could be more human than that?

What leads us to stigmatize, categorize, and profile people is that we think we can, for the sake of simplicity and efficiency, make the assumption that they are relevantly like people we already know. But, to be able to do this, we can’t look too deeply for, if we do, we risk the familiar becoming the unfamiliar, and that means work for us. Paying attention to individual differences is a handicap in a world already asking far too much.

But, to truly solve our empathy deficit, we need to relearn how to see. And to do this, we need to open ourselves up to each other’s pain, to swerve into, and not out of, the path of their daily movements, to notice what it might be more convenient to ignore. This is how we build our capacity for empathy towards others.

It turns out, little acts of kindness are not so little at all. Like the periods between sentences and the space between words, they help us to relate to each other and they bind us together. When we engage with each other in the little moments, we prime ourselves to understand and empathize when the stakes are higher.

It is probably not a coincidence that “kindness” and “kin” have the same etymological root. Kindness creates kinship. It has the ability to turn strangers into friends and strengthen the bonds with the friends we already have. Even the smallest acts of kindness are not frivolous at all; they honor and create our shared humanity.

It’s easy to think that only the big things matter. But the little things become the big things. They are the big things. As author Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

March 30, 2024 | 1 Comment »

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