Kindness to Strangers

Last year, the writer George Saunders delivered the convocation at Syracuse University where he talked about the importance of kindness. Yet he believes kindness doesn’t come naturally:

“Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: 1 – we’re central to the universe, 2 – we’re separate from the universe, and 3 – we’re permanent (we believe we won’t die). We can see these beliefs as we prioritize our own needs over the needs of others.

While pointing out that we know better than this intellectually, Saunders noted we still tend to live by these perceptions viscerally. I agree. You can watch these beliefs play out in our behavior. How we act is the “tell” that reveals our true level of understanding. Gandhi put it well:

Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.

In Saunders believes kindness is hard. As we struggle to put our spiritual beliefs into action, this becomes very clear. Kindness asks that we override the belief that we’re central, that the self is real, and that it must be protected. Getting out from under the domination of the self requires that we surrender to the good of the universe even as the universe offers no visceral evidence of good.

Most of us live in the delusion that the self is real and its interests must be paramount. This belief affects our behavior profoundly. It prevents us from taking care of each other except inasmuch as the care for another extends our own self forward – as in parenting or mentoring. We are not naturally inclined to show kindness to someone who isn’t an extension of our self.  For that kindness, we must overcome the delusion of self.

 

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