“The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear.” (Gandhi)
First, fear inhibits us from extending kindness. We fear rejection, we fear being misunderstood, or appearing clumsy, embarrassing or calling attention to ourselves. Simply put, we fear the vulnerability of not knowing how our kindness will play out. It feels safer to do nothing.
A good question to ask if we’re hesitating to extend a kindness is, “Could my kindness here make a positive difference?” Then focus your attention on doing good.
Sometimes, fear gets in the way of our receiving kindness. We may fear being perceived as weak or needy. Perhaps we want to maintain a distance between ourselves and the giver and fear strings may be attached to the proffered kindness. Maybe we fear we don’t deserve the kindness. Receiving can be just as awkward and clumsy as giving. Accepting the kindness of others with grace and appreciation is itself an act of kindness. And it should be a pretty easy one. But it takes practice. Whether you are offered a material gift, assistance, or a compliment, receive it graciously—and gratefully—and savor the kindness.
Perhaps the question to ask is, “What’s the most gracious response here?” We’re never wrong if we offer the best of who we are.
Fear is at the heart of so many unkind actions. When we feel stupid or inept, or threatened by a new and intimidating experience, we often lash out. When our security or beliefs are tested, or when circumstances challenge us to change our way of thinking, we go on the offensive. We say something rude, we belittle, we behave inconsiderately. Many of the things we fear are threats to our pride, to the image we have of ourselves as strong, smart, capable … and right. When these are threatened, we attack.
Our rudeness disguises our vulnerability, it masks our fear. But, really, if we stop to examine our thoughts, we see that our bad behavior just makes us more fearful. It makes us smaller and weaker. Responding with kindness takes strength and courage.
The question to ask here is, “What am I afraid of?” And then ask it again, and again, until you understand.
We’re seeing all the dimensions of fear in this most extraordinary year.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, fear drove a lot of people to unkind behaviors. Whether hoarding toilet paper and disinfectant, or jumping queues, or pointing fingers, it was largely a fear of the unknown. How long will there be shortages? Will there be enough for my family? How safe are we? Who is infected? How does it spread? Who and what should I believe? Fear was largely driven by the great unknowns.
There’s no question that we’ve also seen plenty of kindness over these last many months. Neighbor looking out for neighbor. Strangers sharing. Kind words when they are most needed. But fear has inhibited our kindness at times: fear of sharing because we might not have enough for ourselves, fear of reaching out and having our effort rejected, fear of not knowing what the best thing to do is, and thus, doing nothing. Fear has led to name-calling, finger-pointing, shaming, and even violence. As with so many calamities throughout history, we’ve seen the best and the worst of human behavior.
Social and Political Unrest, the Culture Wars
We see a lot of fear in the white response to Black Lives Matter. I think much of that fear is white people afraid of losing, or even admitting, the privilege we have undeservedly enjoyed for many centuries—an entitlement that some have come to believe is their birthright. It’s not.
There is certainly understandable fear in the Black community. Foremost, the fear for their safety and their family’s safety. And, after each unjustified and unjustifiable shooting or murder of a Black person, the outcry of “No more!” is quickly overshadowed by the next shooting or murder. There is hope that this moment in history might be when we finally break the endless recurrence of bigotry and violence. There is fear—I feel it—that this may be our country’s last chance to get it right.
We hear fear in conversations about immigration, too. Fear of people who look or dress differently, who may speak in languages we don’t understand, or worship in ways that are foreign to us. Such fears have sparked name-calling, marginalization, and violence. If we can put aside the fear, we may see the richness of what immigrants bring to our communities, the historical truth that our differences will give way to a shared identity … if we only let them. But these fears are being stoked by the biggest fraidy-cat of all.
Trump’s entire presidency and campaign have been based on stoking fears: caravans of migrants, Mexican rapists, urban terrorism, and suburbs under siege. Thus, it is somewhat laughable when he defends his deliberate downplaying of COVID-19 as a desire to avoid spreading panic. Spreading panic is his brand. He’s depending on fear.
An excellent article in The Atlantic, “Why Trump Supporters Can’t Admit Who He Really Is,” shows how, without fear, Trump would be seen for the weakling he is. “Fear strengthens tribalistic instincts, and tribalistic instincts amplify fear. Nothing bonds a group more tightly than a common enemy that is perceived as a mortal threat. In the presence of such an enemy, members of tribal groups look outward rather than inward, at others and never at themselves or their own kind.” This fear causes people to behave unkindly toward those outside their tribe.
The left isn’t exempt from tribalism or kindness-cancelling fear. Fear that a four-year nightmare may become eight. Fear that corruption has spread so far and so deep that it can’t be checked. Fear that even if “our side” wins, the chasm dividing us cannot be reconciled. Fear that we’re just as flawed as those we are railing against. These fears have incited angry words, insult, and even violence.
If we can remember that fear is often at the heart of the incivility around us, it may be easier to respond to someone else’s bad behavior with kindness. That doesn’t mean accepting it, or giving them a pass for rudeness, but it may de-escalate the encounter and mitigate fears. When we respond to fear with kindness, we model new possibilities.
And maybe we start to change the world.
“You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.” (Eric Hoffer)