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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In Honor of Kindness: Primum non Nocere
Primum non Nocere – first, do no harm – is one of the fundamental precepts of Buddhism. (Ahimsa, FYI.) It’s also the underpinning of medical ethics, handed down from the Ancient Greeks (Hippocrates, anyone?) in slightly different words. Oh, and it's also basic to the Judeo-Christian religions, among others.

When I was a young mother, one of my uncles told me the most important thing to do as a parent was to be kind. I was (am) the sort of person who looks to others for advice. Growing up without a mother, I looked for mothers everywhere. Books have often been pretty good substitutes, and I can recommend a few essential ones on parenting. My uncle’s advice, however, has always stayed with me because it was surprising. Not that my uncle is unkind. Far from it. But something about kindness as a principle struck me as foreign. It was certainly different from much of the advice I’d read in my book-mothers. Not that they advocated unkindness - not at all - but their focus was on handling specific problems or certain phases of childhood, on theories of discipline, or on modes of communicating. “Be kind” was something else, an underlying principle, a rudder to steer by, if you will. A secret to parenting success.

Anyway, the point is that after all that theory, “be kind” struck home. It spoke to my role as the attitude shaper for my offspring, to my role as Person Responsible for How She Acts and reacts in any situation. This agglomeration of actions and reactions being, well, life.

“Be kind” also, now that I think about it more, gives a nod to the little tykes’ individuality, to their little autonomous selves, and gives me space to recognize that whatever it is they might be doing, they are doing it to create their own individual selves, and those selves must not be crushed. So, be kind. And recognize how hard that is. Developing the self, that is, and being kind. They are both hard.

Be kind functions as a mindfulness tool. If I can take a tiny step away from the emotion of the moment and see my child as a separate critter, then I have a chance of acting in her best interest, not just reacting.
I was reminded of my uncle’s advice a few weeks ago, while reading the New York Times Magazine’s Dec. 30, 2012 issue, “The Lives They Lived.” Basically it’s a giant obituary section. Nothing wrong with obituaries. As my friend Reyna points out in her blog post, they can be instructive. In it was a tribute to David Rakoff, a writer and contributor to “This American Life” and a general wit. The tribute was this lovely letter to David Rakoff written by one of his friends, and my point, because I know I have one, Readers, my point is that this letter mentions that he once wrote an essay in which he said that “as fun and Margo Channing as it might seem to be drunk and witty and cutting, it’s probably better in the long run to be kind.”

To be kind. To forgo the thrill of the harsh joke and the ensuing laugh in favor of kindness. Well, Readers, this struck me, in light of my previous blog post about my friend Let’s Call Him Mark. Because I agree with Rakoff. And my uncle. And the Dalai Lama. Let’s not forget him. Overall, I do, although occasionally, what I hope a 19th Century British novelist would have described as my “charming high-spiritedness,” overcomes my better judgment, and I give in to the urge to be, uh, mean. I’m in good company, after all. Doesn’t Emma Woodhouse do just that? And of course she is terribly wrong to make her joke at Miss Bates’ expense, as Knightly so rightly points out. (Internal rhyme unintentional, yet pleasing nonetheless.)

Readers, I have perseverated on this blog post for weeks. I have umpteen drafts of it. I can’t figure out why it’s been so hard to write. It’s really a simple post: I value kindness. Brené Brown talks about the importance of vulnerability. She talks about how we are afraid to be vulnerable, but that from vulnerability comes true experience. By allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, which she considers an act of bravery, we allow ourselves to fully be in the world with what matters most to us. From that place of essential meaning flow goals, acts, and endeavors that impact the world. Maybe stating something essential in which I believe relates to her message about the challenge of being vulnerable.

Or maybe it’s because any of you who follow my blog or know me in real life, know how far short of kindness I repeatedly fall. Kindness is subtle, so easily underrated. And I lack subtlety. After I read that appreciation of David Rakoff, I felt kind of intimidated, or inferior – unevolved – by comparison. I checked out three collections of essays by Rakoff from the library and began reading them, looking for the source of that quotation.

I could not find it. I did, however, come across an essay he wrote about Fashion Week in Paris. Apparently Karl Lagerfeld made a rather unkind comment to him about how on earth he’d find anything to say about fashion week that hadn’t already been said. Rakoff, despite his credo, responded in print describing Lagerfeld thus: “with his large doughy rump dominating the miniature piece of furniture like a loose, flabby, ass-flavored muffin overrisen from its pan, he resembles a Daumier caricature of some corpulent, inhumane oligarch drawn sitting on a commode, stuffing his greedy throat with the corpses of dead children, while from his other end he shits out huge, malodorous piles of tainted money. How’s that for new and groundbreaking, Mr. L?” 

Frankly, his outburst was a relief. And, while much lengthier and more literary than anything I may have said recently - or ever - was also much meaner. So there’s the aspiration and there’s the reality.  Be kind.

However, I still wanted to find the essay in which David Rakoff wrote that sentence about kindness, so I emailed Ariel Kaminer at The New York Times, who wrote the piece. She soon responded, sending me the link, which was very kind of her, along with the comment that she’d simply googled the sentence in question and found it easily - which, perhaps, was not.

But at least her tone was ambiguous. And she did send me the essay. Rakoff wrote it in 2010. His florid and biting description of Karl Lagerfeld was part of a collection of essays published in 2005. So, he mellowed over time. According to the Dalai Lama, that’s a gesture in the right direction. As he said the other day on Facebook, “If you can, help and serve others, but if you can’t at least don’t harm them; then in the end you will feel no regret.”


  1. I LOVE your uncle's comment! What a gentler world it would be if every parent received this thought. I see so much harshness in parenting and cringe at the memory of some of my own exhausted harsh moments. Kindness and a profound respect for children as individuals was a foundation of the Montessori education my children received and I'm grateful for that!

    1. I have so many harsh moments to cringe at. Kindness is a goal not always met. What little I know about Montessori education is very inspiring.

  2. Hope, I loved this line of yours "“Be kind” also, now that I think about it more, gives a nod to the little tykes’ individuality, to their little autonomous selves, and gives me space to recognize that whatever it is they might be doing, they are doing it to create their own individual selves, and those selves must not be crushed." And, I loved the Rakoff description of Mr. L -- cracked me up. Falling short of kindness is not so bad when it's foremost on your mind -- that is, to reach for kindness -- b/c you are at least striving for it. We all can do better but do it without crushing our own selves in the process.

    1. Thanks for the compliment.
      And, yes, I think we are doomed to fail to be kind many times, but if the overall intention is kindness, then we are tending in the right direction.