A Lesson in Kindness

Those of you who follow the work of Jonathan Haidt are doubtless familiar with his research into the origins of morality and what he calls the five moral foundations. According to Haidt's research, these five dimensions break down along ideological lines. Both the political left and political right share a sensitivity towards such notions as fairness and caring for others. Of creating just conditions for people and avoiding doing harm.

The right, according to moral foundations theory, views the world in terms of three other fundamental axes: deference to authority, loyalty, and sanctity.

It should be noted that, to some extent, all people share a sensitivity that spans all five dimensions to some degree, but the latter three are far more pronounced in people on the right. Even among those moral dimensions where there is overlap, however, they are interpreted in different ways.

For instance, fairness on the left appears to be about equality of outcome, whereas fairness on the right seems to be about proportionality and equality of opportunity. Caring on the left seems to be about giving people things and taking care of them in the short-term, whereas caring on the right seems to be about instilling principles and responsibilities in them that will allow them to care for themselves in the long-run.

Again, these are merely trends, and there is nuance in all things, but it's an interesting spread none-the-less for it highlights an important difference that is fundamental to understanding the current cultural divide.

The two sides, by and large, are speaking two different languages, and focusing on two different sets of criteria for determining what makes a good outcome. Each side tends to know implicitly what it means with regards to itself, but has difficulty in understanding the position of the other, sometimes to the point of even viewing them as hostile, stupid, or evil. There is a profound disconnect and a need for someone to come along and offer a translation and mediation between both sides. Someone who can relate to each faction not just at a conceptual level, but a visceral, emotional level as well.

Some examples might help ground this for you.

Many years ago, I considered myself to be on the left. You could argue I was even on the far left, being a self-described socialist, and even briefly a Maoist. Even as late as the Occupy Movement, I can recall going down to the World Trade Center to where people protested outside the Brown Brothers Harriman building - an evil elitist corporation that I'd known was associated with Nazis and the military-industrial complex and other things that made them easy to hate. I remember feeling a sense of solidarity for the people protesting there. I remembered watching Michael Moore's films on healthcare and guns and thinking he made powerful arguments. I had, after all, been inducted into politics by watching Jon Stewart and other left-wing comedians from George Carlin to Carlos Mencia.

What they said made me feel good inside. It made sense and it was easy to agree with them.

Back then, I thought it kind and caring to take from those who had more than enough. More than they could possibly use. People whom I thought only had stuff because they'd acquired it through illicit or unfair means. That I wasn't violating their property rights in using the State to redistribute wealth, I was simply enacting justice and helping those in need. Those who couldn't stand up for themselves because they lacked power to fight against the all-pervasive forces of systemic oppression.

Back then, I never really questioned this belief or what effects it might have. It just felt like the right thing to do. How could it not? What could possibly be the alternative?

Ultimately, however, such belief was short-sighted and lacking in imagination. It was the naive worldview of a child who thought it cruel for parents to deny them endless free candy. Who thought it was torture to be made to eat their vegetables, to go to bed on time, to clean up their room and put their toys away when they were done, or to take one's bitter medicine. A mindset that wanted instant gratification but hadn't yet learned the value of delayed gratification or the idea that it was better to teach people how to fish than to keep them dependent on handouts - and which hadn't even yet considered that the fish that are given are done so voluntarily and have to be caught by the hard work of someone else.

It's not like Christ who can just multiply them endlessly from nothing, though admittedly my spiritual beliefs of unity and abundance made it hard at the time to accept the idea that resources could be finite within a given space and time when the universe as a whole itself was infinite.

Suffice to say, in the years to follow, I grew up and grew up quickly.

I had come to learn through first-hand experience the harsh truth that life is inherently suffering. That this is the default state of being and we all live in a dog-eat-dog world governed by the rules of will to power. I went from having everything handed to me on a silver platter to having to work for a living and to fight for mere scraps. From living comfortably as an armchair intellectual to having to struggle each and everyday just to survive. From being comfortably upper middle class to being two steps from homelessness and starvation while also taking care of someone else. Having no car, no license, an impossible amount of debt heaped upon my shoulders, no real marketable skills, no ambition or discipline or gratitude or even humility.

Fortunately, two virtues I did have were patience and attentiveness.

Surprisingly, perhaps counterintuitively, my new life and my worldview of will to power didn't make me jaded. If anything, just the opposite. I went from being a nihilist to having meaning and purpose to my life in the form of someone to take care of. I found an appreciation for property rights since now I had something to protect that was mine, which I'd earned through the sweat of my own brow. At the very time I was at my poorest, in most need of government hand-outs, I found the integrity to reject them and became a conservative libertarian.

In between work, I listened to podcasts on economics, philosophy, and politics, learning what I could - an hour here, an hour there, while my coworkers listened to music or played phone games.

Several hundred hours of that makes a huge difference.

Power, I used to think, was a dirty word, inexorably tied to corruption - and since money was simply a form of power, that was dirty too. However, I soon learned that power was fundamental to being - all being - and that it was neither good nor bad, but dependent on how you used it. The sun is raw power and all life depends on it, but the sun is not immoral. Even if it burps and cooks us all, that isn't really anyone's fault. Nature just does what it does.

Life is cruel. Inherently so. If you don't understand that, it probably means you were sheltered as I once was. I'm not afraid to admit it, though if you'd asked me back then, I probably would have denied it as I'm sure many of you are right now. I know, it's not a fun thing to hear. It doesn't make you feel good, but I was thrust into that life by forces beyond my control; whereas maybe you, in reading this, have a chance to reflect upon it and consider it more thoughtfully in the comfort of an easy chair and meet that assumption about yourself head-on, voluntarily.

You probably won't, though, because you're comfortable where you are and don't really have much incentive to change. If that's the case, at least consider what I'm saying and recognize I was once where you are, if not worse, and that what I'm saying isn't to be mean, but comes from a place of tough love.

That delayed gratification and teaching you to fish I spoke of earlier.

You'll thank me for it later, I'm sure.

Some of you reading this probably don't have kids, but you can at least understand conceptually the idea that it's harmful to just let kids do whatever they want all the time. That letting them stay up late eating endless cake and ice cream will not just make them profoundly sick, it'll probably kill them; and if there's one thing I know leftists hate, it's seeing dead children. You understand at a metaphorical level that things like eating your vegetables and taking your medicine might not be pleasant or fun. That, to the child, they don't make for an emotionally-positive experience. They don't fill them with good feelings. They don't seem like caring or compassion. It doesn't seem fair to ask them to do things they don't wanna do.

You understand that, cuz you're an adult. At least I hope you are.

Not all is as it seems at a surface level. Part of being an adult is having a projected sense of time. Of thinking about things more abstractly and weighing short-term costs versus long-term benefits measured out over repeated trial and error to arrive at a consistent set of principles.

So too is it in politics.

It might feel good to give a poor person money - especially if it's someone else's money and it doesn't cost you anything personally. But is that necessarily the best thing, for them and for you?

Often, I frequent New York City and just walk around taking in the sights. One thing you'll see a lot of there are homeless people and beggars, especially if you walk around long enough. It used to be the case that, whenever one would come up to me, asking for money, I'd just give them a dollar, no questions asked. Then, inevitably, another would come, then another, and another. It felt good to give, but it didn't take long before that good feeling went away, as I quickly ran out of dollars. Even if I wanted to help - and I desperately did - I simply couldn't. So the next person that came up to me and asked, it no longer felt good. It felt really, really shitty to tell them, "Sorry, I can't help you."

Then again, and again, and again.

It didn't take long for me to learn the lesson that resources are finite and there's only so much to go around. That as much as I might want to, I can't help everyone.

Even before that, I'd learned another lesson back when I was still a socialist. I used to live in Savannah, Georgia, and there were homeless people there too. There were also muggers and murderers who'd come out at night. People were killed close to where I lived. Still, I was a good person and wanted to help others since that made me feel good. It was in my nature to be helpful.

One of my friends at the time had warned me of the risk of people who'd lie for money. That they might ask for this or that but then go and spend it on drugs. Obviously, I didn't want my charity going towards that, since it would only enable their decline. They said they wanted food or transport and were willing to take advantage of my kindness.

So this same friend suggested that, if I wanted to do something nice for people, instead of just giving them money, I buy them the thing they were asking for. If they were legit, they'd have no problem accepting my counteroffer; whereas if they refused, it meant they were probably bullshitting, or just simply crazy.

Thus, I started applying that new rule.

While in Savannah, I was out with some friends when a panhandler came up to us saying he had lost his job and wanted a dollar so he could get something to eat. We were going out for pizza and I invited him along, offering to buy him a slice. He came with us and we chatted for a while. The man used to work in some sort of construction job but was old and couldn't do that type of work anymore. My friends and I listened to his story and offered up suggestions of what he might do, such as driving or being a supervisor and leverage his experience to manage and instruct younger healthier workers.

Ultimately, I don't know what happened to the guy, if he ever found work; but I do know he was so grateful to us, not just for the food but for actually giving a damn about him as a human being and making an effort to help him. To genuinely help him, not just pandering or throwing money at the problem, which would have been easy.

To this day, I don't consider that experience a waste, because I got something out of it and I maintained my integrity in using my own money to do it, poor as I was at the time. I didn't send him to the welfare office or try to co-opt the gun of the State to extort some rich asshole out of their money.

I did it myself and that human connection was probably worth more than the money.

Over the course of my life, I've encountered similar situations wherein people would ask for money and I would buy them food or a bus ticket or whatever thing they needed to actually solve their alleged problem. Some people were honest and grateful for my help. Others turned me down and I didn't feel guilty cuz I knew they were just bullshitting me. Of course, even among those who'll take the free meal, there are still grifters. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free, after all?

Nowadays, when people come up to me and ask for help, even if I have the money, I turn them down.

It isn't because I've lost my compassion. On the contrary, it's because I've gained the wisdom to realize there's an even better way of helping them than just giving them what they ask for without asking for anything in return. In fact, doing that really just coddles them and treats them like babies, since only children expect things without equal exchange.

No, ultimately, I've learned that it's better to teach a man to fish and they need to learn that life is cruel and no one's coming to save them, just as I had to learn. That no one owes you anything; but maybe you're in such dire straits that you don't even have the strength to fish. Ok, then maybe in that case, it's ok, but it has to come with conditions that you'll use that energy to improve your life and get back on your feet, otherwise it's a waste. Otherwise, you're just a grifter and a free-rider; and because resources are scarce, you're taking food from the mouth of someone else who would have committed to genuine self-improvement, and to me, that is just the height of greed and selfishness.

Greed, as I often say, is not the sole dominion of the rich. The poor can be just as greedy and twice as envious. Again, no one owes you anything because life is harsh.

And if someone does come along to help you, you need to have some fucking gratitude about it!

It isn't like we were all living in he Garden of Eden until some rich white capitalist came along. No, everyone was naked and poor and sick and dying and hungry and cold and fighting with one another for survival. Everyone since the dawn of mankind was born into a world of immense suffering.

Some people rose up from it by stealing, pillaging, and murdering; but others rose up via cooperation and delayed gratification, saving a portion of what they had to pass onto their children so they could have a better life. Even if everyone on Earth earned their money honestly, there'd still be wealth-inequality and a handful of upper elites simply by virtue of the fact that some taught their children to save and invest for the future, whereas others spend what they got hedonistically in the moment.

We all have our problems, and compassion is more of a luxury since giving you food means less for me and mind. In helping you, I'm taking a risk and trusting that you'll reciprocate; but reality and life experience teach that not everyone shares our sense of compassion or fairness. Thus, we must guard our possessions fiercely.

The haves of the world do this. That's why they're the haves and the have nots are not.

Arguably, the most compassionate thing you can do is take care of yourself first and to not allow yourself to be exploited by others, but to insist that others reciprocate at least in so far as committing to actually improving their life, not just drinking your money.

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