Critical Reflection Prompt/Musing: Against Kindness and Modern Kindness due 10/21

“Self-transcendence is lived out by serving a cause or loving a person. And to the very extent to which we love other persons or serve causes other than ourselves, we actualize ourselves by way of a side-effect. We become more human and more ourselves by forgetting ourselves and giving ourselves” — Victor Frankel, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, p. 187

The authors’ thesis (you may not agree but try to see this on a societal level, not from your individual perspective) is that, many “people appear to believe that deep down they (and other people) are mad, bad, and dangerous to know. . . our motives are utterly self-seeking, and that our sympathies are forms of self-protection” (4).

The authors suggest that many of us live life in “instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others. . . but without a language in which to express this, or cultural support for it” (4). (Again, remember, at times we have to over-generalize in order to be able to examine collective states of being, and if we look at the state of our own country in the moment, there may be some evidence that supports these claims.)

One of the reasons that the authors suggest for our ambivalence about our instinct for kindness has to do seeing vulnerability as a weakness:

“Bearing other people’s vulnerability — which means sharing in it imaginatively and practically . . . — entails being able to bear one’s own” (11).

In a sense, what all human beings have in common is our vulnerability (an idea that Judith Butler elaborates in Precarious Life which you will read next week). Thus, kindness has an internal tension — it brings us the joys of connection with others but it also reminds us of all that we fear about our own condition. Being “undone” by others, as Judith Butler articulates in next week’s reading, is something we both long for and fear. If we do not allow ourselves this level of vulnerability to others, we miss, as Frankel articulates above, the opportunity to find meaning and self-fulfillment. Of course, we are confused by all of the societal messaging about “success,” “strength,” “independence” etc.

With the great pleasures and fulfillment of loving others and being altered/reshaped through these connections, comes the risk of deconstructing the self/ego we have struggled to build. This is what Butler means about being “undone” and also what Charles Taylor discussed in the Ethics of Authenticity. Our identities are shaped, formed, conditioned through our connections to others. We are contingent on others.

(There is also an interesting discussion about whether kindness requires selflessness).

How do you see the role of vulnerability in your service-learning experience? Think about yourself, those you work with etc. As always use the text to support your ideas and specifics from service to illustrate.

Also think about this in relation to and tie in the final chapter, “Modern Kindness” where the authors start by citing Winnicott who wrote about our moral ability to imagine the “thoughts and feelings and hopes of another person” (95). Jonathon Lehrer also described this capacity for empathy and its source in the emotions.

The argument is also very much the message that is so well captured in I Am, a documentary I strongly recommend and will give ex. credit for watching: “We depend upon others not just for our survival but for our being. The self without sympathetic attachments is either a fiction or a lunatic” (95).

The authors continue to discuss the reasons why this is such a difficult reality for us to face:

“Our resistance to kindness is resistance to encountering what kindness means in us, and what we meet in other people by being kind to them” (113).

Of course, our issues with vulnerability and dependence as discussed in the first chapter are a large part of this resistance. So keep thinking about the connections and how you see the implications in your own relation to your service experience (remember to start with yourself, not just about what you see in others). ( 2 minute video that illuminates some of the textual points)

Can we be kind? Can our mutual woundedness unite us? Can we let the germs of the world and acknowledge our shared vulnerability?