Being right and being kind
So these two monks are walking down the road, not talking, simply walking along quietly together. Eventually, they come upon a young woman standing at the edge of a stream. Seeing that she wants to cross the water, one of the monks picks her up, and carries her across. He then rejoins the other monk, as they continue on their way.
However, gradually, the other monk begins to draw away, in concern at first, and then in resentment. Finally the first monk stops, turns, and asks, “What?” The other monk replies, “You know we’ve taken vows to never touch a woman – and you not only touched her, you lifted her, and you carried her across the stream!” The first monk then says, softly, gently: “And I set her down – you, my friend, are still carrying her.”
When I was young and caught up in self-righteous fervor, I either stepped on toes or stubbed my toes. Gradually I began to learn that we are all of the same kind, struggling along in this very human condition together – and so I learned to be kind. As the second monk reminds us, an opinion about an event can grow past the event to become an attitude that distorts what we see with suspicion, and sometimes even with bitterness.
Being right is not about being self-righteous. Being right is righting yourself with your world – however awkward that may appear – and with the world that we all share. The danger of self-righteousness is megalomania: the delusion that our own opinion is paramount, and law. This belief is not sustainable on a planet whose human population is seven and a half billion, and whose sentient population is arguably infinite.
Being right and being kind are not incompatible; they belong together – but they do take a certain amount of moral coordination. It’s like rubbing your tummy while patting your head, and then patting your tummy while rubbing your head – it takes concentration, and consciousness.
Many years ago, while learning to sail, I learned that to capsize a sailboat is easier than it is to right it and climb back in. To get right in a floating world, where orientation is uncertain at best, is also hard; it takes a mix of skill and submission – acceptance, and letting go. Skill is being present with the expertise that you have brought with you, and letting go is allowing things to flow along as they will anyway, with courage and curiosity to discover what is possible – and with trust in the possibilities.
I like to think that my being right with my world will not make you wrong with yours, because we are not in competition. Each entity in the cosmos is the hub of its own universe, experiencing things from its own perspective, and organizing its own reality accordingly. We can each allow another person’s belief, and we can recognize that what they believe is – for that reason – already somehow true for them without needing our approval. We can make room for something that the world is already large enough to hold, because whatever we think of is already therefore possible.
Philo of Alexandria – a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth – is said to have said “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The saying also has been attributed to Plato, many years earlier, and more recently to Rev. John Watson, a noted Scotsman. Whoever said it, however, understood kindness – and the reason for kindness. Kindness recognizes an essential kinship, and I’ve seen this kindness throughout the valley, for each one of us is aware of the depth to which we’ve all been shaken, as the community finds its legs and its heart.
I’ll repeat what I said last month: I’ve seen people reaching out to one another, waving in greeting and stopping to talk, and to hug. I’ve seen people invited into homes for dinner, and dinners and clothes being brought to them. I’ve seen drivers patiently waiting before stretches of one-way traffic, calmly obeying the direction of road crews at their work. I’ve recognized kindness here every day, so many ways, and that’s so very right.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.