If I had to choose a phrase for a tattoo covering both of my forearms the winner would be “Kindness Rulez”. A close runner-up would be “Keep It Real”, but the former has at least two advantages: (1) It consists of exactly two words, which perfectly matches my number of forearms; (2) if I were ever forced to assume a defensive position in a fistfight, my tattoo would probably discourage my opponent from punching too hard, or maybe even scare him or her off entirely. Note: Kindness does not only rule, it also has subversive potential.
What prompted me to think about kindness was a short autobiographical text by George Saunders (who also made an appearance in an earlier post, and whose stories frequently radiate kindness). In it, he reflects on his education — both writerly and moral, I’d say. This is what Saunders writes about one of his teachers at Syracuse, Tobias Wolff:
Toby is a powerful man: in his physicality, in his experiences, in his charisma. But all that power has culminated in gentleness. It is as if that is the point of power: to allow one to access the higher registers of gentleness.
Kindness, or gentleness, to me, signifies strength, not weakness. Genuinely kind people seem to be those who have figured the important things out, those whose life seems to rest on the firm footing of certain unwavering and worthy ideals. Kindness is an attitude we take towards people, of course, but also towards non-human animals, nature, and inanimate objects. Kindness towards people is not the same as mere friendliness or joviality, but rather a genuine will to see the good in others, to conceive of them as worthy of consideration and respect, regardless of their accomplishments. I also think that it goes hand in hand with a willingness to change one’s perspective.
When I was a first-year student, I took a course that was designed to help us develop some basic scientfic skills such as conducting a literature search, writing a term paper and citing correctly, or giving a short talk. From this course, I grasped a somewhat perverted notion of constructive criticism: Whenever you have to criticize a shitty talk or paper, start by saying something nice first; just find something nice to say, whatever it is, for f***s sake! I’m not sure who is to blame for my early misconception of what constructive criticism consists in — but I myself was probably no less culpable than the course’s instructor. From Saunders’ text I grasp a different, more apt (partial) characterization of constructive criticism: Find something good and mean it. This determination to find something good and mean it — in a text, in a talk, in a person — is one aspect of being a kind person, I guess.
What I also grasp from Saunders’ text is a certain idea(l) of teaching that I would subscribe to. According to this idea(l), the goal of teaching is not, or not primarily, knowledge transfer, or the imparting of certain intellectual skills. Rather, teaching is conceived of as an effort to help others develop a well-rounded personality. The acquisition of intellectual skills is, of course, a part of that, but it’s a part only. To a certain extent, and for better or worse, teachers are role models. Here is some anecdotal evidence: During my many years in school I have acquired various skills and accumulated some pieces of knowledge (I still remember some facts about acetabularia mediterranea). But what really stuck with me about our teachers was not the amount of knowledge they were able to impart, or the number or level of skills I owe to them, but their personality and the way they treated us students.
Digression: Re-reading Saunders’ reflections I was also struck by the following lines, which touch upon what I wrote about getting lost in literature:
The story is not some ossified, cerebral thing: it is entertainment, active entertainment, of the highest variety. All of those things I’ve been learning about in class, those bone-chilling abstractions theme, plot, and symbol are de-abstracted by hearing Toby read Chekhov aloud: they are simply tools with which to make your audience feel more deeply—methods of creating higher-order meaning. The stories and Toby’s reading of them convey a notion new to me, or one which, in the somber cathedral of academia, I’d forgotten: literature is a form of fondness-for-life. It is love for life taking verbal form.
Back to kindness: Now, to make this blogpost even more confusing, I feel compelled to include a further video. It’s a talk by David Foster Wallace. In essence, its message is: “Being an adult is hard. It is hard for others, too. Get out of your own head. Be kind to others. Don’t be a jerk. Or, at least, try not to be.” But Wallace, like Saunders, has a way with words — and that’s why one should listen to the talk in full and not rely on my very brief summary of its essential points.
Related bookmarks (to be deleted after publication of this post):