The Cost of Kindness

“If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a middle-aged conservative, you have no head.”

This quote is sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill. I don’t know if he said it, but the origins of the quote can actually be traced to France in the 1800s; the true provenance of it is unknown. Regardless of who said it, it’s a quote I’ve thought about a lot.

When I was in my 20s I was very politically radical, at least in my head. I was working in a mail room and we were all little radical subversives; one guy stole credit cards that came in the mail and used them to order pieces of motorcycle that he slowly built in the back storage area over months and years. I still have a silk tie that I stole from the mail, and I joined Columbia House more times at that mailroom than you can possibly imagine.

While I was there I also created a radical leftist zine, complete with instructions on how to make a good napalm molotov cocktail at home (frozen OJ was a vital ingredient) and I used the office Xerox to make hundreds of copies and leave them around the Village.

But as I got older I got less radical, if no less leftist (although many leftists would laugh at that). I never really got conservative, though. I did get GRUMPY a lot in the past decade, as I lost a lot of schoolyard language I had used (I think 40 Year Old Virgin now contains what would be considered hate speech, for instance) and as it became uncool to make fun of furries and people who identified as dragonkin and stuff like that. I searched Twitter for the dopiest tweets using “ableism” I could find, and I rolled my eyes at much of the fringier elements of identity politics.

Then I found ‘religion.’ More realistically, I found spirituality. And I began thinking about the way I viewed these people, the way my reaction to people talking about microaggressions was “Put on your big boy pants, the world is hard.” Was that kind?

I came to understand a few things. One is that I was right. More people should put on their big boy pants because the world IS hard (see the First Noble Truth, “There is suffering.”). But I also understood that I was wrong. The correct response wasn’t “Put on your big boy pants, the world is hard.” The correct response was “The world is hard, how can I help make it less so for you?”

What’s more, I came to understand that I didn’t have to understand everything. I didn’t have to fully understand the way someone else identifies, and that it simply doesn’t matter. What matters is that I understand that they DO identify that way, and I just have to respect it. What does it cost me to respect the way you identify and treat you the way you want to be treated? In all probability, it costs me nothing at all.

For instance: as a writer it feels wrong that individual people want to be referred to by the pronoun “they.” I spent YEARS beating “they” out of my writing. But when it comes to an individual and how they want to be discussed, what does it cost me? A millisecond of internal knee-jerk grammarian fastidiousness? That’s a small price to pay to treat another person with the minimal amount of respect they are requesting. It costs essentially nothing.

It gains me everything. I get the opportunity to be decent to another human being. I get the opportunity to bring a small amount of harmony to an interpersonal interaction. I get to bring a small amount of goodness to the world. The tiniest amount, but even the microscopic amounts matter. If I misgendered/mispronouned that person I might have set their day off on a tangent that would lead to additional suffering for them and others. I didn’t do that.

As I get older and as I see how little it costs me to be kind, the kinder I get. And the kinder I get (it’s a work in progress, by the way. The status bar is in the early stages of filling) the more liberal I get. The more I see that my role in the world is to lessen suffering so I see that as the role of my fellow humans and my government. The more I support policies that are more and more liberal.

This doesn’t mean I can’t disagree with people on policy even as I respect their identity and respect them. This doesn’t mean I’m back to molotov cocktail recipes. It means that I am back to a place where my politics are based in love and respect, not anger and resentment.

Finally, people SHOULD put on their big boy pants (I know someone will cringe at this gendered metaphor. Work in progress, like I said. Also, we need to create more genderless metaphors for things like this) and SHOULD acknowledge life is hard and the world isn’t fair. But instead of having that attitude in a negative way the attitude should be had in a positive and loving way. It should express itself not in terms
of “There’s no crying in baseball!” but in terms of awakening. I should be helping people to see the ways that meditation and other dharma practices will help them deal with the difficulties of the world. Rather than roll my eyes at people who place themselves in victim roles I should figure out the most skillful ways to help them leave those roles behind and find happiness.

Anyway, that quote up top: it really doesn’t apply to me. There was a moment where I thought it did, and some days I worry it will (there’s a lot of performative wokeness in the world that is intended not to help others but to aggrandize the woke person, and those people raise a certain unskillful feeling in me), but I’m generally confidant that the more I walk down a spiritual path the more and more liberal I will become. Because the more and more I will love people, and the more and more I will want to help them escape suffering.