“There are two ways of exerting one’s strength; one is pushing down, the other is pulling up.” (Booker T. Washington)
A friend asked me to comment on how to apply kindness in the wake of the New Zealand shooting. Unspoken in her question may have been the implication that kindness seems awfully puny in the face of pure and undiluted evil.
Sometimes it feels that way.
When something horrific like this happens, we feel shock, sorrow, and anger. We feel bewilderment and a helplessness bordering on hopelessness. And, for many of us, the “Groundhog Day” repetition of mass shootings sickens beyond words. What possible good is kindness when hate is so heavily-armed?
Kindness, too, recurs in response to events like this. In New Zealand, we immediately saw an outpouring of it. In addition to sadness and outrage, we saw boundless compassion. We saw it on a local level in Christchurch, and also in such actions as interfaith vigils all over the world, and specific actions such as Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue—itself the target of a mass shooting only months ago—raising money to support New Zealand’s grieving Muslim community. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a lot in the face of such evil, but it’s an expression of our best selves.
Kindness can and should be a preventative, too. Just like a vaccine, kindness—applied early and consistently—may prevent the spread of the contagions of hate and prejudice that spur someone to pick up an assault rifle and commence a killing spree.
Children aren’t born hating others. They aren’t born seeing the differences among us. There’s no such thing as an inborn prejudice against people with different skin color or different religious beliefs. Children learn these from their parents, or from other adults, teachers, peers, politicians, the media—from people who themselves learned it from someone else who was weak, frightened, and mistaken. Such hate can be the result of centuries of inherited prejudice, or it can be a first-generation reaction to fear and ignorance. It’s time we start seeing the teaching of hate for what it is: child abuse.
Kindness requires a strength and courage some people haven’t yet learned, and perhaps they may never learn it. It’s not just the strength to respond with support and compassion when tragedy strikes, but also the courage to resist and work toward disempowering hate.
Kindness means having the courage to stand up to people who post racist messages and hate memes, and to politicians who downplay the tragedy and deny their own culpability in spreading hate. And kindness means standing up for sensible gun laws and for regulation of social media sites that promote hate—even knowing you will be attacked by people who profit from guns and are fueled by hate. And it means talking to our children about the sickness and intolerance that leads to violence. It means modeling kindness and compassion when all you really want to do is scream and roll into a quivering, fetal ball.
And it means knowing what not to say. I’ve been enormously impressed by the response of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern—who has modeled compassion, resolve, strength and courage. Her commitment to never saying the shooter’s name and keeping it out of the newspapers—thus denying him the visibility and infamy he sought—is admirable. She said: “Speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety but we, in New Zealand, will give him nothing–not even his name.”
We saw the same resolve from the wise Parkland High School survivors, who have carefully and strategically avoided saying their shooter’s name, and have encouraged media to do the same. Thus, these perpetrators are denied the limelight they sought and left to wallow in their pathetic emptiness.
I can’t help thinking of our current American president who models none of Ardern’s qualities of compassion, strength or courage, and, like the mass shooters, seeks fame for all the wrong reasons. Instead of a desire to serve, he seeks only to see his name in bigger and gaudier letters. Perhaps it’s time for us to consider just how much visibility this attention-seeker deserves. There’s no easy answer here, as visibility reveals both truth and lies, and without a light shining on it, evil can proliferate faster than termites in a rotting woodpile.
There are far too many leaders—in America and throughout the world—who are counting on misinformation and cultivated ignorance to advance their personal gain and policies of oppression. They are threatened by the prospect of a country or a world where people are accepting and inclusive, where our differences are insignificant, overshadowed by our common desire to support and encourage one another and to steward the earth as if she were our common home.
Since so many of our leaders lack the courage to be kind, or any understanding of its power, it’s up to the rest of us to redouble our efforts and call on our own strength and courage to choose kindness even in the face of the most cataclysmic evils. In the end, kindness will win.
“You can accomplish by kindness what you cannot by force.” (Publilius Syrus)