“Conquer the angry one by not getting angry; conquer the wicked by goodness; conquer the stingy by generosity, and the liar by speaking the truth.” (Gautama Buddha)
It’s summer. I should be thinking about when blueberries will be ready for picking, peach ice cream, or the perfect beach read. Instead, I’m pondering the difference between malice and evil, and what tips the scales from being unkind or unpleasant to being cruel, immoral, or criminal. Does someone who does rotten things have a line they will not cross? At what point do they say, “This far and no further”? And where does hate fit into all of this? Clearly, this is not a week for sunny, summer chirpiness.
Sometimes, I find myself wondering if I am impossibly deluded to believe in the power of kindness. In my heart, I know I am not, but sometimes, you gotta wonder…
Proust said “Unkind people imagine themselves to be inflicting pain on someone equally unkind.” The more I think about that quote, the more profound it seems.
I am often mystified to read or hear about deliberate and premeditated unkindness. What motivates people to act that way, and what do they tell themselves to justify their behavior?
I know that people can often act unkindly out of reflex—a response to embarrassment, or a fear of rejection. And sometimes it’s because they are oblivious to the situation or the other person’s feelings, or perhaps their action is governed by a sense of entitlement (I deserve this and you’d better not get in my way!).
But it doesn’t seem that those conditions fully explain calculated and intentional unkindness. I want to believe that kindness is stronger that unkindness, and that kindness will (eventually) counter meanness or cruelty. But then I answer the phone and again I wonder…
Not What Alexander Graham Bell Intended…
Over the past few weeks, I’ve received several telephone calls claiming to be from Microsoft’s Windows Service Center, saying that my computer has been hacked and they just need to ask me some questions and then they can help me fix the problem. I know these calls are scams; they want to get personal information and direct me to some site that will plant a virus on my computer. Bill says just to hang up. But a couple of times, I tried to engage the caller.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Ma’am, I’m calling to help you fix your computer problem.”
“You and I both know that’s not true. Why do you do this? Is this really who you want to be?” I try to ask kindly.
At this point, they hang up on me. I wish they wouldn’t. I really would like to know. Maybe it’s the only job they could get and they are desperate for money. Maybe they really don’t understand the harm they are trying to inflict. Presumably, they just don’t care.
That brings me back to Proust. Perhaps if one assumes that all people are cruel or dishonest, they can justify their own cruelty or dishonesty.
I think most of us are the opposite. We assume people are pretty much like we are—eager to help, honest, trusting, and generally kind. And we’re always surprised to encounter people who are not. Short of stuffing the phone down the garbage disposal (oh, so tempting!), it appears such surprises will persist.
In addition to the fake Microsoft calls, last week I had a robo-call telling me my Banner Bank credit card had been frozen for possible fraudulent activity and to “press one” to talk to a service representative who would take the information needed to “unfreeze” my card. That was another easy one: I don’t have a credit card through Banner Bank, but if I did, I hope I would have been smart enough to ignore the call.
I also had a call from a company claiming that it had been three years since they last serviced our furnace, thus it was overdue for servicing and they’d like to schedule an appointment. I happened to know the name of the company that services our furnace and this wasn’t it. I asked the caller why he was telling me we’d done business with his company when we hadn’t. Why not just tell me they do great work at reasonable prices and see if we need their services? He hung up on me. I really am curious. I imagine he gets paid—or bonused—on the basis of how many service appointments he can schedule, so he thought trickery might be more profitable than the truth. Perhaps his boss told him that people would fall for the lie. Perhaps they do.
Most troubling of all, I read this week about the growing prevalence of what is called the “Hello, Grandma” scam. This involves calling elderly people and claiming to be a grandchild in trouble and needing money to get home or get out of jail. The worried elder wires money to the scammer. The story I read described an 83-year-old woman in Colorado who was bilked of $23,000 in such a scheme, and a 93-year-old woman who lost $69,000 trying to help a fictitious grandchild.
Estimates are that elderly American’s are robbed of nearly $3 billion a year through scams such as these. They are trusting, they may be confused, they fear for the safety of a family member—they make an easy target. But, who does this sort of thing and how can they look at themselves in the mirror each day? Where do they draw the line on their bad behavior? Do they really believe, as Proust postulates, that these trusting seniors are as unkind and dishonest as themselves?
If so, answering their unkindness with equal unkindness just reinforces their belief and justifies their unscrupulous actions. Responding with kindness may have no immediate effect, but perhaps like a stone being polished by the river, eventually it will make a difference. Or maybe I’m just a schmuck to think so.
Perhaps it is naïve to think that dishonest or unkind people can change. I hold no illusions that kindness will transform the psychopath or sociopath. But I am enough of an optimist that I hold out hope for the fearful and angry people who simply haven’t yet learned the power of kindness.
“If a person seems wicked, do not cast him away. Awaken him with your words, elevate him with your deeds, repay his injury with your kindness. Do not cast him away; cast away his wickedness.” (Lao Tzu)