Kindness Is Subversive

Lately I’ve been getting very into kindness. I used to think kindness was something that you deployed on occasion, like an umbrella. Then I thought kindness was something you used like a weapon, a cudgel with which you could smite your enemies, leaving them bloodied with your superiority.

In the past year my thoughts on kindness have changed. I think kindness can be constant and invisible, like radiation coming from a pellet of plutonium (maybe I can come up with a more positive version of that simile at some point). Kindness is something you not only project but that you also apply to yourself. And kindness, I believe, is the most radical and subversive thing in the world today.

It doesn’t take a disgraced former film critic with a crowd-funded blog to tell you that our society is as ugly, mean and cruel as it has ever been. Even the people fighting for equality and acceptance are kind of mean and cruel in their methods (the popular social media term ‘drag him’ evokes really awful, uncomfortable imagery of horrific hate crimes), and our default response to anything is snark and cynicism. If we are ever open and vulnerable we are so in really touchy ways that lead to outbreaks of outrage, as microaggressions become maxicontroversies. This is not to say that these people are wrong, just simply to say that even our ‘social justice warriors’ are aggressive and angry. The use of rhetorical and emotional violence is at an all-time high in the national discourse.

In a world where even the good guys are raging angrily (the less said about the bad guys the better), kindness becomes an act of rebellion. It becomes a full-throated refutation of a culture of toxic anger, and it becomes a revolutionary stance dedicated to building something new, not just tearing down the old. By approaching all situations and people with an open, vulnerable heart, by looking for the similarities between ourselves and even the worst people (and I don’t mean the ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ similarities of our interior darkness, but rather finding the humanity in even the worst people and focusing on THAT), we can turn away from negativity and hatred and turn towards healing and peace.

I’m sure Ed from Shaun of the Dead would have a word for this, but old Ed was suffering from a bad case of toxic masculinity even before he suffered a zed bite. But the fact that the idea of kindness can seem ‘gay’ or ‘weak’ or whatever feminized or homophobic pejorative you want to throw at it is exactly what makes it so absolutely subversive in a world that does not respect those qualities.

On a really juvenile level kindness is punk rock because it runs counter to the mainstream’s thinking, and it challenges the status quo not only of law & order conservatives but also the ‘cancel them’ culture of liberals. By being kind you’re standing in opposition to everybody these days, which really rules. This is how it felt buying heavy metal records in the 80s at the height of the PMRC – you were pissing off the Satan-fearing conservatives AND offending the pearl-clutching Tipper Gore liberals. It’s a lot of fun.

But juvenile rebellion doesn’t really get us far. It’s a nice way in, but kindness as subversion would just be passive-aggressiveness if we stayed at the juvenile level. The reality is that kindness is subversive not only because it runs counter to all prevailing cultural winds, but also because it works, flying in the face of mainstream reasoning that finds all problems can be solved via violence, whether capitalist (boycotts), state-sponsored (the prison system), physical (you guys may have heard we have a lot of shootings in this country), social (“drag him!”) or emotional (toxic shame, both internalized and weaponized). Kindness denies all of this violence and says that we can solve our problems with a little bit of patience, caring and maybe even listening.

Yeah yeah, this sounds like horseshit. Tell me how you’re going to use kindness when a guy is waving a gun in your face, big fella. Well, Mister Straw Man Critic, I am so glad you asked, because I want to do just that.

A couple of weeks ago my local Trader Joe’s made national headlines when an armed man took hostages there on a busy Saturday afternoon. At first people thought it was one of those very modern ‘active shooter’ situations, but it turned out to be a very old-fashioned police chase ending in a hostage situation scenario. It’s a classic – a guy who has committed a terrible crime gets cornered by the cops and uses civilians as shields. Desperate and frightened, the guy could erupt into violence at a moment’s notice – he already has committed terrible violence – and the police array themselves against him in a massive show of force that includes dozens of officers, armored trucks and snipers.

That’s what happened at Trader Joe’s on Hyperion in bucolic Silver Lake. The gunman had shot his girlfriend and mother (after a dispute about the TV!) and then driven across LA before crashing into a light post outside this grocery store and running inside. He shot at the cops, they shot at him. He was wounded, and the police killed an innocent bystander (honestly, what are the arguments for using violence to solve these problems again?).

Holing up inside the store, bleeding and convinced he would be killed, the gunman was terrified and thus absolutely dangerous. But within the store he met MaryLinda Moss, a local artist who threw away all the modern scripts of heroism and action. Moss talked to the gunman.

About halfway through the three-hour siege at Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake, the wounded gunman, Gene Atkins, looked at one of his hostages, MaryLinda Moss, and told her it was all over for him. “I just shot at a cop,” he said.

Moss, a 55-year-old artist who exudes calm, feared a suicidal gunman could spark a bloodbath. Through a series of disastrous decisions by Atkins, dozens of strangers had ended up at the grocery store on a hot Saturday afternoon, drenched in fear and surrounded by SWAT teams, helicopters, squad cars and ambulances.

She put her hand on his heart.

“I told him: ‘There’s always hope. I know you have a good heart, and I know you don’t want to hurt anybody.’”

“When you put your hand on somebody’s heart,” Moss told me 10 days later, sitting on the stoop of her home in Mount Washington, “it grounds them. I was trying to ground him, and manipulate him, yes, in the best way.”

That’s from a remarkable LA Times article that tells the story of how Moss dealt with this man, a man who was moments away from at best shooting himself in the head and, at worst, shooting people in the store out of desperation. I urge you to read the whole thing – it left me in tears.

In our society the script in this situation calls for some kind of violence. The most obvious is physical violence – this is where the ‘good guy with a gun’ myth comes into play. It’s also where many of us would jump to vivid fantasies of jumping the gunman, rushing him, putting together a hostage uprising, setting up Home Alone traps, any one of a hundred movie-inspired tableaux featuring physical violence and ending with us triumphant and ascendant, alphas standing over the body of this beta gunman.

The less obvious violence would be emotional – cruel manipulation, lies, misdirections. The ending of Dog Day Afternoon comes to mind here, with the police conning Sonny and Sal, and putting a bullet in poor, dim Sal’s barely working brain. That ends in physical violence, but even before that there’s an emotional manipulative violence that leaves a bad taste in our mouths as audience members who have come to identify with these idiots making a terrible mistake.

Moss didn’t go either of those routes. She acknowledges that she manipulated the gunman, but in a positive way. She didn’t lie to him, she didn’t pretend to be his helper, she didn’t pretend to care about him. She DID care about him. She cared about everybody in that situation, and that included him. She worked to keep him from making mistakes that would have gotten him shot and killed.

Moss made a human connection with this guy. It doesn’t mean she fell under his sway – this isn’t Stockholm Syndrome in action (““If it would save all of us to kill him at that moment, then that was a fine thing to happen, perhaps. But I felt like this was the safest thing to do,” she told the paper) – but it does mean that she dealt with him like a person. Not like a criminal, not like a monster, not like an other, but like a person. That’s kindness. It’s as simple as that, just treating someone else like a person.

One thing I’ve learned in Buddhism that helps me deal with others, and to treat them with kindness as human beings, is to understand that everybody is suffering and trying to be happier. Everybody. With the exception of a handful of people who are broken from birth (and they are suffering in their own way), no one who hurts you wants to hurt you, they just think that they’re alleviating their own hurt in some way, or getting closer to their own happiness. They’re delusional and confused and often quite scared; they don’t always have guns on them, but the principals are the same. This gunman didn’t want to hurt anyone in that store, but he was willing to if it would make him feel more secure, or would help him get away alive.

So it is with the difficult people in our lives. They’re definitely holding us hostage at times, but we have to understand that they’re people making mistakes, not mistakes in the form of people. When we can really understand that we can approach them with an open heart, and we will learn – as MaryLinda Moss proved – that doing this can melt away aggression and anger and hate. It doesn’t have the satisfying swiftness of shooting someone or lacerating them with words, but those are temporary solutions to larger problems. I’ve gotten to the age where I see that all the people I have been mean to – with good reason, in many cases – did not improve in any way as a result of my meanness. Rather, they internalized the meanness and probably treated someone else shittier as a result. And that person treated someone else shittier and so on and so forth.

That violence has never worked for me. It worked in moments, knocking away specific obstacles, but I’m old enough to have a longer view, and I see that I didn’t reduce the amount of emotional violence in the world, I added to it. Moving forward the goal for me is to actively reduce it, to try and interact with people in ways that will deescalate situations and reducing simmering resentments (while also allowing myself space to fail. Kindness happens within, as well as without). Every bad interaction I have is another opportunity to reduce the amount of emotional violence in the world.

MaryLinda Moss reduced not only the emotional violence in the world but also the physical violence. She saved not only the hostages but also the gunman. That’s valuable too, and operating in radical kindness allows us to see that ALL lives deserve to be saved when possible. To say that one life is disposable because of actions that person committed is to reduce the humanity of others, which leads us back to unkindness.

What I love about the MaryLinda Moss story is that it shows us exactly how to operate in our lives. Because it’s such a heightened situation it allows us to see quite clearly the things we have to do to maintain kindness and to use kindness to help and heal.

We have to be present. MaryLinda Moss doesn’t mention meditation or mindfulness, but she’s a middle-aged artist living in LA so I’m assuming she’s got that going on (it does mention trauma therapy and ‘healing’). But her general calmness and ability to connect with the gunman are the hallmarks of mindfulness – being aware of what is happening in the present moment without the filter of your fears, biases, desires or aversions. Moss wasn’t weaving fantasies about how to escape or overpower the gunman, she was dealing with the situation as it was as it happened.

We have to listen. Here’s the best part of the article:

He told her he’d wished he’d met her sooner. “I just needed someone to talk to,” he told her.

I mean, yes, bleeding heart bullshit alert… but it’s also true. This guy had a life of trauma and delusion in a society that doesn’t give him a lot of avenues to express himself and his emotions. I’ve been diving deeply into what toxic masculinity is, and I really think that men lacking emotional outlets might be the single greatest problem in our modern society, a problem that is the festering root of so many others.

When things go bad we get reactive. This is when we make really bad mistakes. The goal of mindfulness and meditation is to give us space so that we can respond, not react. By listening to the gunman Moss gave him the space to go from reactive to responsive, and he could begin making better decisions. That’s absolute kindness – giving another person the safe space to get through that turmoil so they can get to a place where they can be wiser and less dangerous. This is something we can do with people all day long by simply not sparring back at someone who verbally attacks us, or not saying things we know will provoke people who are agitated.

Imagine if the gunman had grown up in a world where more people behaved that way. Perhaps he never would have been a ‘gunman.’

We have to be wise about ourselves. Moss wasn’t in that store to be a martyr. She wasn’t going to lay down her life. She was open to the possibility of physical violence being a solution at some point (and she acknowledges that if the gunman had not been wounded he might not have been in a position to calm down. Dualistic thinking is simplistic thinking – even as we strive for non-violence in all things we have to acknowledge violence as a fact of life and nature). But I think nothing sums up her wisdom about her own needs and safety more than this:

She told him she would find him in prison to talk. He gave her his name and birth date.

“I do mean it,” she told me. “That doesn’t mean that he’s my ‘project’ or he’s my friend, but I was willing to be present with him that day and I would do that again.”

I love this. This is kindness in action. She recognizes that her life is, in some way, entwined with his, and she will be present with him again – but that doesn’t mean she has to put herself second or traumatize herself or redefine herself to do so.

Kindness is often defined as weak, but this is strength to me. She has the strength to define her own boundaries while still being open-hearted to this man. That’s power. It isn’t power to bash his head in, it’s power to stand your ground for yourself while also being open to another person. That takes strength and courage. It is very, very hard.

What the MaryLinda Moss situation proves is that you can be kind in the most dangerous scenarios. More than that, it proves that kindness is effective. It proves that kindness is strong. It proves that when we live our values we make the world a little bit better – not only for the people in that store who were saved, or who were spared witnessing more horrific bloodshed, but for all the rest of us, who can see peace be putting into action, and who can be inspired by and learn from it.

And most of all we get to see that the quiet subversion of kindness – of listening, of caring, of open-hearted strength – can accomplish what no SWAT team could.