The recent trouble in the United States when people stormed the Capitol building in Washington DC, shone a light on how much anger, division and conflict exist in a country that prides itself on the values of unity and freedom.
Watching the incredible scenes unfold on Jan 6, 2021, I thought back to when I was younger and how intense my beliefs were about how society should be. Of course, anyone who disagreed with my views was wrong and unable to understand reality.
I would debate with anyone who’d listen, and that zeal even spilled over into conversations with Buddhist monks, one of whom asked me a simple yet cutting question, “What if you’re wrong?”
Forgetting myself, I quickly responded, “What if I’m wrong? Why wouldn’t you want society to be this way? If it were, fewer people would be suffering – what’s wrong with that?”
With a polite smile, the monk replied, “And how much do you think your anger and fixed views will help to build a society based on kindness and compassion? Do you hold space for those who disagree with what you believe?”
Most times, I’m too naïve to understand the point of wiser minds, but this message was clear enough. On the one hand, I waxed lyrical about the importance of kindness and compassion; on the other, I dismissed people with the “wrong views” as idiots who didn’t know any better.
The actual reality is that back then I was someone who stuck as rigidly to my views as those people who stormed the Capitol. Misguided or not, they genuinely believe in their cause and likely can’t understand why anyone would believe anything outside their views.
The monk I spoke to issued a challenge: However difficult it might be, see if you can understand where others are coming from. We needn’t accept their views, but it’s helpful to understand where people are coming from.
To show kindness to others with whom you disagree is difficult. It’s still a challenge for me, and I’ve heard several people suggest that to be kind “to those who don’t deserve it” is a sign of weakness – why should we be compassionate towards those who are difficult?
Certainly, we shouldn’t allow people to walk over us. There’s a difference between being kind and being a pushover. Kindness is to show understanding and compassion toward others while respecting our own boundaries. And contrary to what some might believe, kindness doesn’t come at the expense of our own interests; kindness toward others comes with more benefits than costs.
Scientific studies into kindness shows that being kind releases feel-good hormones such as oxytocin, which aids in lowering blood pressure and improving our overall heart-health. Kindness also has a domino effect: Being kind to others encourages them to pay it forward, or at least become less hostile if they’re angry or aggressive.
One major study at Harvard in 2010 surveyed people from 136 countries and found that people who were altruistic (concerned for the well-being of others) were the happiest overall.
People who give back to society through volunteering tend to enjoy a longer lifespan, even when considering other factors such as physical health, lifestyle habits, and marital status.
They also tend to feel more energetic and experience a greater sense of pleasure, meaning and purpose in life. This could be, in part, due to kindness helping to reduce levels of anxiety, stress, depression and blood pressure.
To be kind takes practice, especially since our minds are naturally geared towards being defensive and on alert. Our modern proclivity toward status, competing, comparing and judging stem from the evolutionary purpose of keeping us safe and surviving. But humans could only arrive to where we are today by cooperating and working with each other. The success of our progress has made it easy to forget that we rely on each other to enjoy the achievements we enjoy. Even the smallest interaction with someone can make or break our day.
To remind ourselves that people lash out in uncivilised ways due to their suffering is difficult to keep in mind. When we see rioters, we judge them as idiotic, confused and dangerous. And while they should receive appropriate consequences for their behaviour, it’s a sobering thought to realise that any of us could have been in their shoes if it weren’t for the fortune and blessings we’ve received.
When it comes to being kinder, the bottom line for me is that it helps free ourselves from the tensions that often so needlessly add fuel to the fire. We all know that strong opinions and feelings can seem pleasant and justified in the moment. But in the long run, we feel the suffering that comes with the intensity of feeling that our perspective is always right, while judging and comparing others in a less favourable light.
As the saying goes, feeling angry and frustrated toward others is like holding on to a hot piece of coal with the thought of throwing it at someone: in the end, we’re the ones who get burned.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.
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