Going Beyond America's Kindness Cues Can Make Us Better
"Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see." - Mark Twain
We all know that, sometimes, bad things happen to good people. The reason why this is so has flummoxed religious leaders and philosophers for generations.
As the son of Holocaust survivors who were hidden by five righteous Gentile families in the heart of Warsaw, Poland, I have asked the "why" question many times. Each time, I conclude that although I don't know why, bad things often bring out the best of humanity, foiling -- even when juxtaposed with -- the worst of humanity. During the Holocaust, although my family's benefactors risked their lives, most others stood by. Some people seized the opportunity to turn in Jews or seize their property. I'm inspired by those who risked their lives to save others, and I want to be more like them.
We saw similar acts of heroism during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, one devastating Houston and the other walloping Florida and the Caribbean. Ordinary people mobilized their personal boats to help those who were stranded. Others risked their lives -- and many risked their comforts -- to wade through water to check on their neighbors. Thousands mobilized volunteer relief efforts. Hundreds of thousands donated money and supplies. Millions said prayers across regions and religions. But, we also saw the looting of stores in victimized areas -- desperate people taking advantage of tragic circumstances.
Anyone who participated in humanitarian efforts or watched these righteous acts on TV or the web had to believe anew in the goodness of humanity and the compassion of Americans. We have come to doubt our collective goodness amidst the blur of Charlottesville and political divisions. However, the crises of Charlottesville, Harvey and Irma have spurred on responses more consistent with America and its shared values.
The outcry against Charlottesville was immediate. Both Republican and Democratic leaders decried the violence, the chants of "Blood and Soil" and rants against Jews and African Americans. Cabinet and military leaders risked their jobs by issuing statements that implicitly went against President Trump's statements of moral equivalency. The effort to "take back our country" for White America, nullifying the values of respect, equality and freedom, brought ordinary people and leaders off the sidelines to state clearly that what was demonstrated by white supremacists was not our America!
But why does it take a crisis or a calamity to call out the best in us, bringing our values to the surface? Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist and NPR radio host Michael McIntyre recently addressed this question:
"... take away the hurricane, or the earthquake, the fire, the plane crash or the terror attack. Are we our best selves then? What is the antidote to the depravity of white supremacists rallying hate? Or political bickering that makes your head hurt? Even of that guy who just cut you off in traffic"?
I contemplated this same question ten years ago when, after getting out of my car in a parking lot on the way to the drugstore on an icy winter day, I hit a patch of black ice, catapulting me up into the the air and slamming me down on my back onto the pavement. I lay in that parking lot, clad in my khaki raincoat and winter hat, for a full ten minutes with nobody coming to my aid. There I was, publicly alone in my anguish and pain, nobody caring. After the pain subsided, I pulled myself up, limped to the store, purchased my item and went on my way.
I contrasted this incident with one that had occurred several years earlier when I tore my calf muscle and had to be on crutches for two weeks. People galore helped me -- on the street, in the grocery store, going to my car and getting to my seat in a movie theater. Why? What made people stand by in indifference one time and have empathy and offer help in another? I concluded that the difference is in our "kindness cues."
Unfortunately, in society today, although our values are there, most of us wait for permission to put our values-in-action. We each wait for certain cues that offer that authority, lest we appear (to our friends and, sometimes, to ourselves) to be soft or foolish. A visible crisis or circumstance telegraphs those cues and calls up our values.
We see the human tragedies of hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes, and we feel compelled to help. We hear about the child who needs a bone marrow transplant and we want to give blood to be tested as a potential match. We hear the story of the passerby at a New York subway who throws himself onto a passenger who fell onto the tracks, and we admire his courage.
At a more common level, we see the elderly lady crossing the street while holding groceries, and we want to lend a hand.
In my own case, as I was laying on the ground writhing in pain, people probably thought I was drunk. Their "cue" was to distance themselves rather than to be kind. But, in my other situation, the crutches cued them in that I was a victim needing help, and this message beckoned their better selves.
I asked Dina Dwyer-Owens, a leading, culture-building CEO and author of "Values, Inc." what, in her opinion, prevents Americans from putting their values-in-action, especially in doing acts of kindness. She believes that the "busy-ness" of America -- the fast-paced daily clutter of our lives -- is what holds us back. I have observed that in small-town America, where "fast" is considerably slowed down, daily acts of kindness are actually abundant.
The challenge we have in these times of perceived cultural divisions, actual nastiness in media and politics, and increasing silos in daily life is to find our common ground through acts of kindness. Practice makes perfect. To do so will require setting aside "busy-ness" to help our fellow human being more consistently than only waiting for our "kindness cues" to give us the occasional nod.
Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation. Purple America is Values-in-Action's national initiative to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. www.PurpleAmerica.us; www.viafdn.org
Suggested hashtags: #HurricaneIrma, #HurricaneHarvey, #Charlottesville, #RacialHatred, #Anti-semitism, #WhiteSupremacy, #DonaldTrump, #PoliticalDivisions, #AmericanValues, #Kindness