Everyone says our generation is self-obsessed. Well, I don’t care. Maybe that sounds like a fitting response but it’s one backed by a worthy historical precedent. Once upon a time… there was a young Olympian, he was a self-obsessed young man, known for his cocky form of rhyming self-expression, and this young egotist, who later renamed himself, Muhammad Ali, “shook up the world.” People who know themselves (perhaps to the point of self-obsession) often do great things. Now, I wasn’t there, but from what I’ve seen of old footage Muhammad Ali acted with remarkable kindness toward all the children that mobbed him wherever he went in public. He was a world champion of beating up very large men, yet, paradoxically, he exuded genuine charisma and a child-approved sense of kindness outside the ring. He’s one of my role models for kindness. Tough, cocky and generously loving.
Guided by the spirit of Muhammad Ali, let’s grab hold of our culture and ride that fine line where kindness meets self-obsession. Perhaps we might expand our notions of self-obsession and reframe it as a positive thing. Obviously, there are limits. But can someone be self-obsessed in a healthy way?
Recently, I wrote an essay: Don’t Be Nice! In very plain terms, I’ll reiterate, I feel “niceness” is bullshit. I think “being nice” is a lie. Niceness isn’t even skin deep, just scratch a nice person and watch them cuss you out. Nice is always the first thing to go. That’s why I believe, very strongly, in kindness.
In order not to waste your time with muddy waters, let’s define our terms. Kindness and niceness are easily mistaken for one another, but there is a huge difference between them. It’s as wide as the divide between great sex and masturbation.
If you stop to think about it, you already know “niceness” is a socially motivated behavior. Niceness is corralled by the boundaries of social mores and etiquette. It knows right where “the line is.” And niceness ensures you don’t cross it. You act nicely to please others, to appease others, and the great benefit to you is others accept you and/or like you. You win favor with them, in the hopes you’ll get whatever it is you want.
Kindness is not a popularity contest. It’s entirely personally motivated. You’re kind to someone because it feels like the right thing to do. When it’s within your power to aid, comfort or protect someone, you do it without a great deal of thought or calculation. You’re kind because you want to be. And as a benefit, you get that good-good feeling of being proud of yourself. Maybe proud is the wrong word. It’s more like you feel good because you’re listening to the little voice inside you, or perhaps, you prefer to imagine an angel on your shoulder. Que sera sera.
The angel on my shoulder is a social anarchist. He’s not the bomb-throwing kind of anarchist. He’s the sort of rebel who advocates inappropriate laughter and daydreaming wonder, and most importantly, he’s a provocateur armed with kindness. He preached secular sermons of loving everyone and everything from a pulpit built from books of poetry. And he made meals out of silly dangerously exaggerated stories, heaped with doses of sarcasm and irreverence, and sweetened them with ridiculous jokes in a way any child could gobble them up and digest his weird brand of kindness.
Shel Silverstein was a lyrical genius. Which is why he left such a memorable imprint on my young mind. He’s like George Carlin for kids. Mostly, I loved Shel Silverstein because he seemed like a real and caring person. And he was cool. I mean, come on, he was the one who wrote “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash. He was this funny, bald-headed hippie-looking guy. Yet, he clearly lived somewhere out there in the real world.
His books of poetry, Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light In The Attic, didn’t seem like lip service or a cute way to get paid. This kind of stuff matters to a kid. You remember how adults thought they could trick you with fake emotion and bullshit advice they didn’t use in their own lives. Kids are busy figuring out the way the world works, so that means they’re paying way more attention to everything than adults generally are. Which also means, kids are way harder to trick than adults. Shel Silverstein understood this. He was genuine, he respected kids as little human beings, and as a kid you knew you could trust him.
Shel Silverstein was a champion of kindness as a virtue of any self-determined person. He never suggested you blanket yourself with “niceness” in the hopes you’ll be liked, or worse yet, so you might “go along just to get along” with the flow of others. He loved nonsense, but he advocated none of that sort of social nonsense. He flew his freak flag high and urged kids to be defiantly themselves. Motivated by their sense of self. He wanted you to be selfish and kind. To embrace that particular paradox of life.
His classic poem, The Giving Tree, may be the greatest single example of how a lifetime is given shape by acts of kindness that a child ever encounters. It’s almost like a biblical parable of kindness. Some kids cry the first time they hear it. They intuitively “get” the story. And why? Because it’s such a beautiful tale of loving consideration of someone else. As a child you ponder rather deep questions as you hear the story. And the answers you find help you learn how and why self-sacrifice can be so generous. A child works it out in their little head why the tree kept giving the boy, and then the man, more and more parts of her self until there was (spoiler alert) nothing left of the tree but the stump for the old man to sit upon. The poem shows, quite simply, how one acts with kindness. You choose it based on love. You do it because you want to and it means something to you.
Here’s a video of a young woman reading The Giving Tree as a bedtime story for you (she’s in bed but it’s not sexy, it’s just kinda intimate, unless you like whispering and then it might really be your thing).
Yep, Shel Silverstein is a soul-tickling genius. Phrased by him, kindness is simple and powerful all at the same time. He makes it all about love.
Some social scientists like to argue there are only two emotions: love and fear. Okay. Let’s go with that. Let’s boil all the emotions down to one side of the fence or the other.
Anger = Fear Forgiveness = Love Jealousy = Fear Joy = Love
You get the idea. It’s possible to reduce the world to such an uninspiring binary. (Social scientists like to make messy things like emotions into neat little packages, it’s cute) And in such a world: Niceness = Fear and Kindness = Love. Why? Because when you’re nice it’s based on an agenda. And whenever you have an agenda you have goals and things you want and desire. Whenever you have desires, you fear not getting them. Niceness is a coping mechanism for your fear, masquerading as a pleasing appearance, it’s always done in the hopes you’ll win favor… and get what you want.
Kindness has a much shorter path. You want to do something because it feels right. So you do it. And then you feel good. Here’s where the paradox kicks in that makes kindness such a perfect partner for self-obsession, when you help someone else you also help yourself. Let’s not bullshit here… Kindness is selfishly motivated. Don’t get upset. It’s true but it’s outside anyone’s control. As a thinking/feeling creature you’re hardwired to be selfish, as in concerned with the wellbeing of yourself. It kinda motivates everything you do.
For instance, pain and pleasure are both motivated by selfish impulse. You do things because they feel good (pleasure), or you stop doing something because it hurts (pain). Don’t get hung up on labels. We’re not talking about some Ayn Rand “fuck everyone else” sort of selfishness. Everyone is equally selfish. DNA is a selfish engine, it wants to replicate itself. It’s based on the belief more of itself would be good for the world. So, if it’s in your very DNA and your pain/pleasure response, the trick is figuring out how to make selfishness work for you and others. And we’re back to kindness.
You may not believe self-obsession could support kindness but it can, just the same way health food trends eventually filter down to your local supermarket. If it works people adopt it. It’s undeniable that you both feel good after you’re kind to someone. That’s how to win at selfishness. Stoke yourself by being kind to someone else. If it doesn’t come naturally to you to be kind, then do it because you’ll feel better.
To better explain why kindness is so very necessary in our modern moment in time, and equally so important for each person’s joy ride through life, let’s turn it over to a guy who’s nickname is “the most important living writer,” the unmistakable, George Saunders. He recently gave a speech to the 2013 graduating class of Syracuse University and he, very memorably, had this to say about kindness:
So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.
Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.
If you have a moment, here’s the whole speech. It’s worth reading in its entirety.
For most of your life, niceness has been held up as a virtue. Con men, saleswomen and other criminals always use niceness to convince people to like and trust them. Niceness can easily be faked. Just think of how it’s often expressed in feigned laughter. You see it in socially advantageous smiles and winks. And they’re just tiny lies.
Now, kindness can’t be faked. It’s something you do, it’s rooted in sustained actions. One listens with kindness. One helps out others, motivated by kindness despite the disruption it might cause to your life. One forgives transgressions, ignores sleights, transcends personal aggression, and does all these things in favor of choosing kindness. Niceness is fleeting, it’s like puffs of smoke. Acts of kindness are like clouds that sustain life and change the world. Be self-obsessed by being kind to yourself and others. Yes, it’s a paradox, but then again, all the best things are.