Thursday, March 12, 2009

On Kindness in a Society of Snarks

Am I a good person? If we are living conscious lives, we ask ourselves this question now and again. I do. I'm not religious and I don't have faith there is a 'God' or any existence after death - I can hope, but that is entirely different- but I do have a moral and ethical code, deeply internalized. Basic tenets of my ethical code are immediately recognizable- they are not only expressed in the Ten Commandments, but also part of functioning civilized society's around the world, or at least the hope of those societies. I went through a brief serious extenstential crisis at 22, which I later realized was more of a nervous breakdown ! but still forced me to evaluate the guideposts of my life: why did I care...about anything? And what did I want to DO about caring, caring about this planet and it's inhabitants.

I set about answering three questions for myself: What does it mean to be a good person? Am I a good person? And what kind of person do I expect myself to act as day to day, week to week?

There is a book out that explores these questions: Peter Singer's new book about world poverty, “The Life You Can Save,” which in the New York Times is described as " is here to tell us that we aren’t, most of us, the people we think we are. On a planet full of so much obvious and widespread suffering, he writes, “there is something deeply askew with our widely accepted views about what it is to live a good life.” Mr. Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and perhaps America’s most famous specialist in applied ethics, has made a career out of making people feel uncomfortable."
The idea that we can suppose ourselves as good people without deeply or even consciously asking ourselves if we are, in action and actuality, good people, is fascinating to me. I have thought about this my whole life, probably sprung from my painful childhood that involved my father; he was a man who many viewed as a fantastic, definitely 'good' person. He was bright, smiling, charming ( often mistaken for any other quality than what it is ) tender in discussions about people's lives, ready to call a friend and talk for hours if they needed. My father saved a woman on the side of the road from being carjacked by breaking a man's arm on the halfway rolled up window. He gave to charity when we had no home and not enough food. ( one of a few things he passed on to me that I keep ) and, he was not a good person. You see? He abused his family. He offered friendly affection when it was something he wanted to do, something that made him feel good about himself. If these things don't make us good, what does?

The Life You Can Save explores the idea that humanity is grossly failing itself and that we as individuals are often kidding ourselves believing we are good people, not looking at the reality of our daily lives and actions. I have passionately felt this way since childhood. I have tried and often succeeded to act in this manner, to help when it has been inconvenient for me ( when my friend and her five children under ten yrs. old moved in with Mr. Curry and I ) or felt impossible ( when we have ten dollars left for the week and I give five to an immigrant worker ) or too painful ( when I pulled an abused teen from her home and 'kidnapped' her to the local abuse shelter, then closely following her life and supporting her financially and emotionally to this day, where she is now a happily married college student ) or just pointless ( offering help to my son's drugged out friend who called me a bitch ). I believe passionately that WORDS without ACTIONS are pointless. ' Faith without works is dead- ' yes, yes. My father taught me that. He was a master of words, a brilliant man who had an IQ to large for the tests and a genius with poems and novels, a philosophy major. A philosophy major who abused his daughters while glowingly describing how much he loved humankind.

So Singer's book discusses what is morally or ethically obliged of a person to BE a good person. I really adore this book because this is one of the major themes of my novel Agitate My Heart ( more than half way through, i think i can i think i can )-- the characters live in San Diego and like myself, are exposed to the severe poverty of the Mexican illegal immigrants and workers. The contrast of our lives next to theirs, in the same little towns and cities, is deeply upsetting. I once fed two men who had not eaten in TWO DAYS. They were standing outside the grocery store looking drawn, haggard, exhausted: starving. They were asking for work for money. I had no money so I took them home and fed them, then called a local church and placed them with the church. I asked myself about this for a few years: What am I obligated to do, living next to these people (sometimes children) who have no home and not enough to eat? Am I putting my children in harms way? Is fear a reasonable excuse for inaction? At what point do my wants or desires become less important than a person eating a meal that day?

What has fascinated me over the years is the absolute discomfort and awkwardness I have often been greeted with when helping or volunteering or reaching out in kindness. To me, kindness is empathy transcribed into action. I understand suffering. I understand hopelessness. I believe I have a spiritual obligation to reach out whenever possible and help whoever or whatever is in front of me. However, in reality when I do this.... For example. When I was trying to help my friend Lacey ( she won't mind her name, she's very vocal and has written about her experience in foster care, another post...) I called many organizations looking for the right one who could help her get out of her abusive home. Each organization that answered seemed nonplussed, detached, and totally confused as to why I was calling. You're not her MOTHER? No, her mother is the one ABUSING HER. You're not her relative at all? Why are you doing this? I spent a good five minutes trying to get across why a stranger would want to help an abused child. Every time. It made me cry. I felt like the world had degenerated to a point where no one could understand why a person wouldn't help a child if they DIDNT HAVE TO.

I just listed some 'good' things that I did. Now do you think I'm full of shit? An egomaniac? Blowing my horn under the pretense of discussing ethics? This is a huge problem in modern society: the IRONIC DISMISSAL. Our bullshit meters are so overwrought they don't recognize authenticity if it bites them in the ass. This is a reason I LOVE and ADORE Dave Eggers: his novels, his Valencia writing workshops for youth, his movements in the world. Although McSweeneys is his brain child and the epitemy of a smart-ass, his novels ache with sincere empathy, concern for human beings, longing for connection: in short, what I recognize as Life. We are so afraid to Care. We really are. What if we look like a dumbass? What if we get laughed at? What if no one believes us? What is our resources are small and we give them away and there are none left for us? ( what if I share my Barbie with Julie and I never get another Barbie again? )

We are a Society of Snarks, like some Dr. Suess book. You know what? I'd rather lean toward a cliche than make up a new slam. I'd rather fumble around helping than not help and gripe about the punkasses who should help themselves ( Did you Know that during the Depression those who were out of work were called hobos and bums and scum and considered at fault for their poverty ? ) or dissect a person's actual RIGHT for my help to the point where you'd have to be the Dali Lama to pass the entrance exam.

Over the summer Lola and I made chocolate chip cookies and carefully placed four in a bag, tying it with a beautiful ribbon. We went house to house 'selling' the cookies for a little 9 year old girl named Taylor who was diagnosed with a terrible cancer and needed very expensive treatments that her family could not afford. Lola wanted to help. She was very upset for Taylor. So this is what we did. And I was ashamed of my neighbors. Not because they didn't give, they did. But the way they did it. It was so sad. Lola was met with these comments

' why are you doing this if you don't even know her '
' my husband had cancer. i already have my own set of illness around here. '
' so you don't even know this girl ? what will she do with this money? '

She didn't seem to notice, she was happy to collect the money for Taylor.

I want to be a 'good' person. I want to look at what that means. I want to talk to you about it.

love, maggie may
*photo rebelblueangel on flickr
Maggie May said...

i'm sorry there were three comments left here that i accidentally deleted :( i'm so sorry!

Vic said...

I think I wrestle with these questions on some level every day of my life.
A beautiful, thought-provoking post, and one I will return to.

Badass Geek said...

You bring up some very valid points here, and you've given me some things to think about today.

Lola said...

I don't know, Maggie. I'm a big old softie (but don't tell anyone. I wouldn't want that to get around), and I often get involved in causes to help people/animals I've never met.

The reactions I've gotten from people in my life have caused me to not even tell them anymore. The "Why would you do that" or "Are you crazy" questions blow me away.

When I do the secret Santa thing and "adopt" a family, even my husband says, "Yeah, they probably live in a mansion and will be picking up your gifts in their Lexus." Possible, I suppose, but I don't think that way.

We're a very suspicious society, and I think there's that element of feeling like we're our own charity cases and if we reach out to help others with our time or our money that there will be nothing left for us. **Sigh**

Delphine said...

Oh Maggie, your post makes me weep, for you and your continual hurt- for the world full of ignorent people, who can only look inwards, and for me because I would so like to make a difference and never do!

Jeanne Estridge said...

I spend a lot of time thinking about this, too. I do believe in God, mostly because I can't face life without that belief. I attend a church that believes in "servant evangelism" -- showing God's love in practical ways: free gift-wrapping at Christmas, giving away bottles of cold water to people at hot summer events, cleaning toilets in bars, free oil changes for single moms, etc. -- and never asking for anything in return.

I struggle with all the questions you've posed (which my conservative friends dismiss as "liberal guilt"), but also with other aspects, like when does "helping" become "enabling?" Because I've learned the hard way that your help/pity can damage people to the point that it destroys them.

I'll be back this weekend to see the comments on this post.

Ms. Moon said...

I have to think about this one.

Vashti said...

I love this post. Thankyou for putting this into words. People are the same the world over! As white people living in an African country, helping African people, we have alot of people questioning why we are doing what we are doing! I just tell them that I was born to love others! Some people are born to be doctors, some to be teachers, some to be leaders, some to be parents and so on.....I was born to love and to put that love into action.
I do believe in God and I am a Christian with a very real faith and let me tell you my beautiful would make a GREAT Christian!!!!! Better than most Christians I know!!!!!

Keep loving others and your life will continue to make sense, ignore those who question, they question because they lack purpose, vision and direction for their lives.

Teresa @ good-grace said...

This is so beautifully said. Heartwrenching because it is so true. I'm make a special note to myself to come back to this post every so often - it's certainly worthy of being read, again and again.

I'm looking forward to your book. (yes you can, yes you can!!)

And thank you for introducing this author. I will have to seek out his book.

Court said...

This was so well written and very inspiring. It's it comforting to know that people like you really do exist.

Laura Doyle said...

You brought up a number of "uncomfortable" points. I applaud you for it! : )

What resonated most with me is some people's inability to understand sincere kindness without ulterior motives. I've run into many good people who would give the shirts off their backs...and then also many apathetic people who are tragically disconnected. It's the way it is these days but it will end. The tides will turn, the seasons will change, cultural memes will shift, and hardships will catalyze the human evolution of connection. There really isn't any other way...anything in nature can only survive so long in a state of unnatural independence. Balance is always restored eventually. I help by endeavoring to be balanced myself.

Kurt said...

We ARE a society of snarks. Snark is a great way to deflect our attentions from thinking about issues that are painful or embarrassing.

I don't know the solution, because a lot of people either don't care about being good people or think that they already are because they go to church like they are supposed to.

rachael chatoor said...

ooops, maybe they will come back, sorry I missed them.

What a post, so much to consider.

I think life is a complex journey. For me, I try my hardest to just be nice, and reflect good light.

It feels uncomfortable to be any other way.

In my lifetime though, I have been mean, I have been thoughtless, I have been selfish. It bothers me, but I have learned from that, I found the pain of hurting someone else, brings no rewards whatsoever.

I have also been selfless, and deeply caring, and given to others without thoughts of ever getting back. But even those moments are less than extraordinary, they are human. Its not hard to help someone, sometimes you do it, because it's just right, and you can imagine doing nothing less.

Elizabeth said...

wrestling with these issues is, I believe, part of the human condition (although I do hate that term). it's good to be reminded of them -- i'm always struck by perspective and relativism, battling both. i try to have compassion for opposing viewpoints, believing that there is nothing "good" about good without the opposite "bad."

Jams said...

I've asked myself these questions my whole life. I place my head on my pillow at night with the knowledge that most people are not as fortunate, not as healthy, don't have enough food. We've become desensitized. I wrote a post a few weeks ago about the wealth divide and how the concentration of wealth has shifted. I really didn't go into the consequences as deeply as I wanted to. It focused on the economy.

This was another great post, Maggie May.

erin@designcrisis said...

It's so easy to forget the suffering of people around us when we're so numbed by the charms of consumption. Nevertheless, I frequently see people do kind and wonderful things while asking very little in return. And then I frequently see the same people behaving in shallow or superficial ways. Maybe that's because human life is complex and stifling; if we wore our heats on our sleeves all the time, we would probably break them.

Bee said...

Maggie - I'd like to read that book. I wish that I could properly express just how thought-provoking this post has been for me. What a good set of questions to ask.

Here are a few that come to me: Do you have to give until it hurts to be a good person? Is there a sliding scale of goodness? Is it possible to give, but still protect ourselves from suffering over every person in need?

Barrie said...

Very good post. What I'd also like to figure out is how to get my kids to think along these lines.

Steph(anie) said...

I have this friend who loves to debate BIG ISSUES. One day we were discussing the fact that I am not religious. I’m agnostic at best. Where did my morality come from then, he asked. I told him the best way I could explain my morality was something along the lines of The Golden Rule. You know, do unto others as you would have done unto you.

He tried to tell me that wasn’t any kind of “real” moral code, but it’s the best I’ve been able to come up with so far.

jules said...

I think that Dr. Suess did a pretty good job of portraying society.

ashley said...

this post was amazing...thought provoking and am going to ponder some of this...
i like that your blog makes me do just that,
have a nice week-end.
x ashley

Kate Moore said...

I am a Girl Guide leader, right? One of the reasons I am still a Girl Guide leader and continue to be a member of the movement is because it's hands on with the people who will go forth and be "good people". I teach - through a program of adventure and challenge and service and leadership - young women to look outside of themselves. I tell people it's the best way I have of saving the world. It shits me to tears a lot of the time, kids and their parents can be frustrating. A lack of support can be frustrating and I AM taking a break from it this year and lessening my own load over the coming four years. But this year I have been a Girl Guide for 25 years and damn it, will be 'til the day I die, no doubt. Part of the Girl Guide Promise calls for members to do their best. I tell the Guides that's what I am looking for from them - their best. They'll know when they haven't done it, and so will I, and we'll deal with it then. But I want them to be not just good - it's too high an expectation all the time - but to do their best.

Tena Russ said...

Hi Maggie May,

Thanks so much for visiting my blog and I apologize for the delayed note. "Life's what happens while you're making other plans."

I love your thought-provoking blog and will return soon and often.

PS I was originally a California girl born in LA but I've been in the Chicago area for many years. Still miss all that sunshine and avocados... :-)


Beth said...

A “good deed” or even one’s sense of being a “good person” often defies definition. I’ve learned to go by my own inner moral compass – it tends to steer me on the right path – regardless of what others say or do.
(This is not to say I consider myself a consistently good person – failures abound. It’s the always trying that’s important.)

CSD Faux Finishing said...

First of all the second, and I mean the second your book is published I want to hear about it because I will be buying a copy immediately!! I love your writing, it is like you jumped into my head and scribbled down so much of what goes through it on a daily basis. Egomaniac? Not a chance. I think it is awful that we should do so many kind things for one another and not talk about it. If we don't spread the word that nice/good/true/positive is a virtue then how will anyone else believe it enough to follow suit?

Marinka said...

This is a really interesting post--I will be thinking about it.

Andrea Eames said...

This was a fantastic post, Maggie, thank you.

Anonymous said...

I happened across your site via a friend, what a wonderful blog! May I stick around?

Cheers, Deb

Maggie May said...

Hi Debb! nice to 'meet' you:)))

Anonymous said...

I keep coming back to this, because it has so much depth and truth. I want more people to be like you, to be more compassionate and to stop looking at society as a massive group but to begin looking at each person eye to eye trying to find the humanity in each person that we encounter, maybe then we'll begin to begin to function better as a group. Small kindnesses extended all add up.

michellewoo said...

I would like some of you to rub off on me because I think about myself a whole lot. Too much! Really admire your kind, genuine, passionate heart.

Bonbon Oiseau said...

excellent post maggie--i just ordered the book after seeing peter singer on the colbert report (i know i know--it's where i learn @ who's who...!). I think there are two americas made up of very nuanced sorts on each side struggling with human nature...those who care about their neighbors and those who only care about their own. some don't struggle so much, some do...but since this country's inception, we were founded on an "every man for himself", and "each must pull himself up by the bootstraps" philosophy. i think you should keep on teaching lola these things--and ideally we can hope that she will teach these things to her children as well...maybe the goodness will keep spreading. And in the meantime, you can find a way to answer those snarky questions in a way that teaches the snarks that it's ok to help someone you've never met. you know? usually a smile and the truth about why you want to help. fight the power baby.
I'm going to read the book and then write back to you!

Magpie said...

It's a constant - how to be a good person, without pissing too many people off. Why is it that goodness often entails that irritation of others? Guilt at the other end?

Deedledeedee said...

Maggie, your posts brings up so many essential questions about how we choose to live our lives. I am struck by how through such sadness your soul has decided to shine and bring beauty.

It is interesting that we have a culture of religion were people learn and talk the talk but so few are willing to walk it. A path of compassion is so hard for so many of us.

J said...

So now, do you consider yourself to be a good person? And what criteria does the author give for being a good person? Is kindness of heart and deed enough? How much sacrifice is enough? How much is too much, when it becomes a way of showing off, if only to ones self?

Interesting subject, interesting concepts.

The degree of cynicism you and your commenters have met is horrific. I am happy to report than when we reach out to help, when we have food drives in our condo complex for the food bank, we meet people who are grateful and thankful that someone is trying to do something to help. I have never once had someone question my motives or tell me it was pointless. I'm thankful for that.

By the way, I also have a strong moral compass, and for me also, it has nothing to do with a belief in a higher power. Just a belief in doing the right thing.

Maggie Madison said...

maggie, please keep doing what you are doing. you make a difference each and every time and even if only one person is slightly changed, they may change one person and so on.

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