For the second time in less than two years, I have been on retreat in India. I am aware that taking time out like this is a privilege. Getting up in the chilly dark for 4 am meditation was, in those circumstances, easy and a joy. But the privilege that struck me most forcibly of all was spending a week with people who were, to a person, unfailingly kind.
Of course it is easy to be kind when relatively little is being asked of you and a great deal is being done for you. But this was true only for the people like me actually on retreat. Many of the people making life delightful for us were, in fact, working very hard. Their day also began with pre-dawn meditation and didn’t end until 15 or 16 hours later. Yet their kindness and good humour never wavered.
It is almost indescribably wonderful to experience such an atmosphere. But this is not the world most of us live in. And it may not be the world we know how to create
Coming home, it was impossible to avoid some degree of shock at how many ‘normal’ interactions between people are anything but kind. People hurt one another recklessly. They spit out their aggression and frustrations. They ignore the small courtesies. They fail to keep promises. They ignore what’s important to others because it isn’t important to them. And if they stop to think about this at all, I suspect that they tell themselves it doesn’t matter. Or that they don’t care. Or that the object of their unkindness somehow ‘deserves’ it.
There are a number of reasons why people behave unkindly. They may be careless and unable to perceive the effect of their behaviour on other people. They may be so self-absorbed that they can’t take anyone’s feelings seriously except their own. When things get really nasty, they may be projecting their own inner feelings of worthlessness and self-dislike onto other people, or shoring up a weak ego by making other people wrong, bad or contemptible..
Those impulses are familiar to all of us, but to go beyond them is crucial to psychological maturity. It’s also crucial to genuine feelings of happiness. We are social beings. To get along well in this world, we have no choice but to take other people’s reality seriously and to recognise and understand the power we have to hurt (and to encourage) other people. It was that level of happiness that shone through my time of retreat; and it was brilliantly contagious.
It is fascinating to consider why some people learn these lessons and others do not. Conventional intelligence is not a factor here. Some brilliant people are devoid of empathy and brutally unkind. The rule of thumb used to be that a capacity for kindness – and the empathy that drives it – is established in infancy through the quality of the parents’ interactions with their baby. Yet we all know people who were deeply loved but grew up selfish, shallow and sometimes nasty. We may also know real saints whose early years were bleak. Some fortunate individuals have high levels of emotional intelligence and what seems like a genuine talent for kindness. You can see this with children, how some are concerned and friendly without much fuss, while another child even in the same family may find thoughtfulness a constant struggle. But the story doesn’t end there.
It’s obvious we should give children their best possible chance by loving them unconditionally and teaching kindness through the way that we live. But in thinking about our own best chances for living in a kinder world, there are other factors. In the most ordinary day, there are countless turning points when you can choose to behave more kindly and thoughtfully – or not. There are moments when you can open your mouth to say something mean or close it; when you can withhold something generous or give it; when you can give way to a ‘bad mood’ or get over it; when you can destroy someone’s happiness or enhance it. Those choices will have as much influence on your life and wellbeing as your parents ever did. And they will create the kind of society we share, just as inevitably.
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