Where Should Kindness Stop?

I am blessed with some  smart students, one of whom pointed out the very paradox I’ve been struggling to pin down. If, on the one hand, kindess is “the ability to bear the vulnerabilityof others” (Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, from On Kindness, p. 8), but yet Aristotle says that there are inappropriate forms of anger (for example, anger that is not justified in terms of its origins), then at what point is kindness no longer required of me?

In other words, Aristotle is first reminding us  from the distant past that while modern day pscyho-speak says that everything we feel is valid, this is  in fact not the case. It is possible to have inappropriate feelings, or to have those feelings for too long, or to just be feeling too much, too intensely (like too much anger).

Buddha noted that misperception is often the cause of suffering. 

So, when you take all of these various perspectives into consideration, do I owe kindness to someone who misperceives me and/or my actions and exhibits inappropriate feelings (like anger toward me for ruining her relationship with her ex-husband, when they were already divorced when I met him)? Am I unkind if I cannot bear her vulnerability, because her vulnerability contributes to her misperception of me? If I were truly kind, wouldn’t I bear  her vulnerability anyway, because it is what is required of me as a human being, to protect what is most fragile? But certainly, if this thing that is broken in another person, not because of any actions I took, and that I cannot “fix,” is constantly aimed at me as a weapon, in various forms of lashing out, then I can abdicate  primordial responsibility to bear her vulnerability. Or can I?

What would Levinas say?

Also, what do we mean by “bear”? Does bearing the vulnerability of others mean witnessing? Acting? Can I defend myself, and still be kind? . . .

~Wanda (who is tired of being beat on by women whose vulnerability is lacking a sense of self)

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  1. philopsycho says:

    Didn’t Levinas think that one’s sense of self is not in the (egoistic) subjective experience, but rather in a disruptive, asymmetrical (vertical) relationship with the Other’s impoverished self? I’m trying to remember…

    I wonder if his descriptions were meant for those who are literally suffering due to violence, oppression, and real inequalities. Certainly, your “Other” in this case seems to have a shaky sense of self, but her psychic suffering seems to be of her own making. And if he does mean any encounter of any type, then to what extent are you to continue viewing the Other as “widow,” “orphan,” etc., to the point of viewing her impoverished sense of self in a way that is more like condescending pity than holding her above yourself? I really don’t know how Levinas would get around that one.

    It seems to me that he rejects any sense of authentic self that isn’t found in the Other, since ethics (for him) originates in the Other, or at least in a state of being-for-the-Other. Which is strange to me, because without consciousness there could be no awareness of how to act. Still, such an ethics not only gives my antagonist the right to not be harmed by me, it also commands me to promote her well-being. Fair ‘nuf.

    If you spread lies about me, caused rifts in my family, would I be promoting your “flourishing” (I forget whose word that was-Levinas’s?) if I acted as if nothing was wrong? Can’t one be kind while still admonishing, making the other person aware that it’s not okay to treat anyone that way? I don’t know. Some people seem to have rocks for minds, particularly those who have personality disorders involving paranoia and narcissism.

    • Wanda says:

      I really have to go with the Buddhist approach here and say that I can feel empathy for the other–this is where our being mingles and ethics begins–but still insist on holding the other accountable for acts that hurt others and often even herself, whether she realizes it or not. As for how this particular other suffers, as long as she is not attacking me, I feel a mixture of pity and repulsion at times, because sometimes I think that suffering of one’s own making is hard to pinpoint. I think there is a condition here that is not being treated; I think that there are people out there, who are high-functioning, whom we would probably say have borderline, if not full-blown, personality disorders, in which case, taking them as the starting point for my ethics is problematic. I’m not sure if this might not be condescending as well. I don’t mean it that way, but then I do want to say something like a crazy other is a whole other ballgame. . . You make so many good points and raise difficult questions here. . . Also, do I have to find myself in every Other?

      • philopsycho says:

        Barring any intellectual deficiencies, I’d say that her problems interacting with others are of her own making, even if any underlying mental disorder isn’t her fault. To that extent, I won’t cause someone harm, and I *might* offer to call the police and AAA if she breaks down on the side of the highway, but I’m not going to be the verbal punching bag if I can avoid it. That’s as far as my kindness goes to someone who won’t even treat me like a human being. At this juncture, I’d say I’m no Mother Theresa, but I know that Mother Theresa was a horrible person who caused much suffering in the name of her god (or in the name of her position within her religion’s hierarchy).
        A friend used to tell me to just pray for someone who tried to make my life miserable, that all the good things they want will come to them-but to also walk away and not reinforce bad behaviors. I’m pretty sure that the walking away part is what did the trick 😛

        • Wanda says:

          I like what you say here and would only add that even with her underlying issues, she should be held accountable for behavior that has been so off the chain and so hurtful to others for so long. I am quite sure since I wrote this post initially, that I don’t owe her any kindness but would, of course, never wish her harm of any kind. I have struggled with this, because I have never had to deal on a regular basis with someone who, on the one hand, is so irretrievably irrational, and on the other, is not held accountable by others at all. I can only assume that people instinctively go out of their way to keep her calm so she doesn’t reak havoc in their lives. Tell me more about Mother Theresa!

          • philopsycho says:

            I agree that sometimes people have had behavior reinforced, however subtly (like by ignoring it), so there’s no reason for them to stop.

            A few years ago someone made a statement about Mother Theresa being a seemingly unhappy person, very rude to others, only doing kind acts to maintain her status with God and the Church. So, I went digging, and found some surprising stories that backed up the claim. The other day I also came across an interview on tv with Mary Johnson, and ex nun. http://www.maryjohnson.co/
            One quote from the book that was mentioned in an interview with the author: “Education of non-ecclesiastical subjects were strictly forbidden as they were an evident threat to the order, at one time prompting Mother Teresa herself to admit that such was one of the reasons for so many nuns leaving the organization.” Johnson also says that MT had ” a blind” spot when it came to sexual abuse allegations of Jesuits.

            Sorry, I can’t remember how to make links in html.

            There is also http://forbesindia.com/article/on-assignment/mother-teresas-legacy-is-under-a-cloud/15932/1?id=15932&pg=1

            She has been accused by some of the volunteers at her some 450 homes for the poor (particularly in Calcutta) of being part of extensive health and human rights violations, and failure to disclose financial records or efficacy reports (read: fraud).
            –John M. Swomley’s (United Methodist minister, pacifist Christian, and nonviolent activist) “Exposing Mother Theresa” http://www.population-security.org/swom-96-09.htm

            So, I’m sure she did a lot of good. And I’m sure some non-believers who are just looking for a reason to poke at religion. But I also think that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Deliberately preventing nuns from being educated, covering up for pedophiles like priest Donald McGuire, allowing substandard medical care facilities in spite of the billions of dollars donated, working to ban reproductive rights for the poor women she was supposed to be helping, and not using her powerful position and good reputation to speak out against evils conducted by her own organization…

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