Cultivating niceness
July 4, 2015 9:51 PM   Subscribe

Would love suggested reading on the subject of compassion or the oneness of humankind or... anything that comes to mind when you read on. Please inspire me!

My "career" (ie current job) centers around improving the experience of life for some of society's most vulnerable people. I work hard and carefully. I'm often in the company of very caring people. Through my work, I've developed patience and greater insight to our common human struggles. Additionally, I can't get through an episode of Chopped on Food Network without tearing up. For many people and animals, for art and music, my heart constantly breaks: for our triumphs and our losses, for our frailties and insecurities. I feel so much love and tenderness---AND YET. The degree to which I don't give a shit, sometimes, is a bit shameful and appalling to me. I'm OK living with duality, and I'm not aiming to be the perfect, most wonderful caring human, but I really would appreciate an enlightened perspective to bring me out of the cold shadows a bit.

Common advice here on the green might speak to establishing and enforcing one's boundaries, cutting toxic people from one's life, and recognizing other people's responses as their trip, their problem, not mine. I've benefited from this type of advice, and then maybe I've taken it a bit far? Or, despite the fact that I'm the common denominator in my life, maybe I'm surrounded by assholes??--I wouldn't like to think so.

I walk around with a dopey grin because (A) life is beautiful, (B) I'd rather radiate happiness than chronic resting bitchface, (C) who cares if people think I'm an idiot for my dopey grin? But good lord I have a dark sense of humor, can be really flip and insensitive, and can have such frigid indifference to people I find annoying.

Things that have helped me tone down some undesirable characteristics: (1) Not overthinking them all the time. (2) Experiencing nature, eg a morning walk through the woods. (3) Thich Nhat Hanh's writings, and some others'. (4) Volunteering and the aforementioned career. (5) Psychedelics--- Years ago. We're all connected! (6) Mantras. (7) Role models. (8) Exercise and proper self-care go a long way but there are still off days.

As an introverted person, sometimes I feel like I don't even have the energy to deal with people. So, I don't smile at the cute baby, but smile at inappropriate times, or I ignore people asking questions that are meant to be answered but are actually rhetorical. Ignoring people is mean. I want to be a better, kinder person, and I think I can inch my way there.

Sorry for the length. I want to paint a picture of my situation. I'm not a sociopath, but maybe I didn't experience being loved and accepted in my formative years. Maybe I root for the underdog, having always felt like one, but also expect people to be as tough as I feel I am? I'm sure a good number of you can relate. What do you read for inspiration of the kind I seek? (Please don't say Jesus.) Thanks!
posted by little_dog_laughing to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Amazon has several used copies of John Porcellino's Map of My Heart, a collection of very poignant Buddhism-inspired mini-comics that are mostly about people being flawed or quirky or just, you know, here in the world. I think many of them are instant reminders of what you're after. I haven't read his other comics in part because these are plenty to dip into for that feeling.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:21 PM on July 4, 2015

Well, first of all, you seem to be doing pretty great already, and have figured out most of the subjects I would mention. Are you interested in going further down the Buddhist path? If so, there are lots of different meditation techniques you could explore to develop compassion and what they call "loving-kindness," especially in the Mahayana tradition. You can find them online by googling around. As far as texts, The Words of My Perfect Teacher and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying are Tibetan classics. Both include specific instructions. You'll have to look for them a little but might find the other material interesting as well.
posted by vecchio at 10:22 PM on July 4, 2015

Weirdly: Christopher Lasch, who's best known for a bunch of jeremiads about the destruction of human-level culture by the machinery of capitalism. What really stuck with me from his books—mostly the ones after Culture of Narcissism—is how important having a sense of your own limits is to relating/empathizing with other people.

Unfortunately, given your don't-say-Jesus criterion, the most compact summary of his ideas I have handy is part of a long section I quoted in a grad school paper about how Lasch, an atheist, was disappointed by Reinhold Niebuhr's mid-career shift toward "realism" and away from the tenets he describes here. (Lasch tended to lay out his own ideas most succinctly when he was writing about someone else's.)
But the heart of Christian hope lay elsewhere— neither in the earthly paradise at the end of time nor in the Christianization of society and the moral improvements it would bring. The essence of hope, for Christians, lay in the “conviction that life is a critical affair,” as Richard Niebuhr once put it, “that nothing in it is abiding, that nothing temporal is able to bear the weight of human faith,” and yet that life is good and that a conviction of its goodness forbids us “to give up any part of human life as beyond hope of redemption.” In the prophetic tradition— the moral center of Christianity, as Niebuhr argued so eloquently— the Kingdom of God was conceived neither as the end of the world nor as an “ideal for future society” but as a community of the faithful living under the judgment inherent in the evanescence of earthly affairs and more particularly in the “doom of threatened societies.”
(That's from The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Discontents, I think.) That push-pull between fatalism and hope is all over Lasch, and it's on my mind constantly. I'm not any less cold, and I don't feel much nicer, but I behave, now, and for whatever reason it comes naturally. Accepting that I am a small, screwed-up person has made it much easier for me to accept other people in their screwed-up-ness.

I could never find the handle on "oneness of humankind", as you put it—not in beauty, not in love, not in Christianity as she is spoke, not in an intellectual understanding of our rights or our sameness—so it was a strange feeling having it sneak up on me like that.
posted by Polycarp at 10:27 PM on July 4, 2015

What do you read for inspiration of the kind I seek?

I guess I don't, honestly, but if I were to turn to something that would reliably evoke it, it would probably be Hesse's Siddhartha (though, I imagine you must have read it).

(Are you maybe suffering from job-related burnout?)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:46 PM on July 4, 2015

You sound like an excellent person already - hell yeah, life is beautiful! When I think of people who were maybe a little unusual for their 'dopey grins' and overall appreciation for life - AND their ability to live that appreciation in their interactions with others - I still think of Mister Rogers ... so I'd recommend I'm Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers. Very quick, feel-good read that nonetheless stuck with me.
posted by DingoMutt at 10:55 PM on July 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have done similar work, and I found How Can I Help? to be a bit of a touchstone for sorting out the why am I here and conflicted about it sort of questions.

I could not survive without the ol' gallows humour. As far as I am concerned, that is key to keeping on in the helping and activist fields, so I would give yourself a pass on that one.

I also like reading autobiographies of great activists, especially those that delve into the personal side. They often reveal some imperfections, or the fun, or the every day humanness. It's not all heroism and singing kumbaya. The most memorable moments (maybe this is just me!) from these books are often the moments where the author reveals they were an insensitive goof. I am thinking of Emma Goldman: Living my life; Howard Zinn: You can't stand still on a moving train; I loved Ida B Wells' autobiography. Still on my reading list, but this might also fit the bill -- Something Fierce.

Finally, have you thought of taking a bit of a holiday? Just doing some non-helping non-activist stuff? That can bring the kindness back. In my experience, being sick of helping makes me feel less like helping. But it does return. You could just be experience a lack of balance and it comes out as these feelings first, and maybe you just need to listen? Not sure if this is the case, but that is something I do experience, just a sense of not caring as much, or resenting people, when I haven't realized how much I need a break.
posted by chapps at 10:59 PM on July 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

It sounds like what you're after is cultivating kinder feelings towards people who aren't immediately sympathetic to you (annoying/not tough enough/tendency to ask stupid questions). I put it in the language of feelings because you seem mostly to treat people with basic kindness and courtesy, regardless of whether you have warm feelings towards them; the concern is that, even though you treat everyone with care, you aren't a permanent well of affection towards everyone at all times.

This seems like a pretty good problem to have, but also a hard one in that I think it's basically saints in most religious traditions who achieve this kind of universal embrace of humanity as a whole and in the particulars of each person they encounter. Books that remind me of this attitude, without infringing on your no-Jesus rule, include Middlemarch and the novels of Marilynne Robinson. I also wonder if you would find Martha Nussbaum's collection of essays, Love's Knowledge, appealing; she's one of the few moral philosophers I've read whose work feels urgent and intuitively applicable to life and she does some work in that collection on the role of emotion in moral reasoning, which is relevant to your concern about having the right emotions towards everyone.
posted by Aravis76 at 11:22 PM on July 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

My mom gave me Miss Manner's Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior when I was in high school, and Miss Manner's advice has served me well these many years.

Miss Manners gives people advice about how to be polite to people they don't want to be polite to, and I think that is a skill that could serve you well. Because compassion is sort of an inward trait, and politeness is something exterior that everyone else can see. What I mean is, if you get into the habit of being polite to people (as long as your safety isn't at stake, of course), then that smoothes a lot of social interactions, both large and small, and the act of being polite means that your internal monologue doesn't matter very much.

Or, put another way: I think it's hard to cultivate compassion for every single person you meet. It's a lot easier to change your behavior and be polite to most of them. And I find that being polite often brings out the good side of people, so it increases the number of nice encounters you have in a day and decreases the number of unpleasant ones.
posted by colfax at 2:27 AM on July 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

Choosing Civility by P M Forni is worth checking out.
posted by betsybetsy at 4:31 AM on July 5, 2015

Anything by Pema Chodron.
posted by hz37 at 8:53 AM on July 5, 2015

I can relate. Two things that have helped me are focusing on kindness and absurdity in my life.

For kindness toward others, I'd highly recommend David Foster Wallace's commencement speech, This is Water.

For absurdity, read some of Louis CK thoughts on life and parenting and watch his show Louie. It's dark, funny and jarring at times, but his show captures the good and bad throughout life.
posted by the biscuit man at 8:53 AM on July 5, 2015

What do you read for inspiration of the kind I seek? (Please don't say Jesus.)

My suggestion is close to Jesus, but hear me out: the first thing that came to mind was Thomas Merton, author of Seeds of Contemplation and The Seven-Storey Mountain, among others. He was the son of an artist whose ambition was to become a poet and novelist, ended up becoming a Trappist monk. A thoughtful soul, and generally well-liked among religious and irreligious alike.
posted by whiterteeth at 12:04 PM on July 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

From a spirituality angle, I recommend Harold Kushner and also the book G-d is a Verb. Along the same lines, for kindness, I find the following proverb helpful: "If you believe that everyone you encounter may be the Messiah, you will come to watch your words and weigh your deeds and whether or not he (or she) comes in our time will not matter." I know that's a bit more religious than you were going for but for "Messiah" substitute "person who cures cancer" or whatever amazing thing you'd be looking for and use that instead.

I also recommend T.H. White's The Once and Future King, if you're open to fiction suggestions. In teaching Arthur about the world, he says a lot of things that I think make it easier to see the best in others and therefore improve thoughts towards them.

You may already have done this, but I have found that reading more about the people I work with, particularly those whose backgrounds I find hard to relate to, is also helpful in cultivating that mindset. To that end, I found Hand to Mouth really useful. The more that I read about people who aren't like me, the more that I have found it easier to attribute positive, non-malicious motives to behavior or problem-solve in different ways or just think warm thoughts to people who I find difficult because of my own issues. Hope that helps.
posted by eleanna at 12:52 PM on July 5, 2015

I am empathetic with what you are trying to do. I'm an activist myself who finds it very easy to cultivate compassion in those environments, but I have some severely edgy humor which helps me stay abreft of the atrocities that can happen in the world. Whenever I find myself short on those aspects, I make sure to do a self-check in first. I also then remind myself of how lucky I am, my privileges, and how I continue to work towards my health and well-being, in order to continue the work I need to do.

Gloria Anzaldua, a queer Chicana feminist, wrote extensively about spiritual activism and being connected in her own work. "Now Let Us Shift" was lifechanging for me. Ana Louise Keating is a scholar, with an amazing syllabi that shares a lot of readings.

Compassion Fatigue, from 'Positive Activism' Blog
Life Long Activist by Hillary Rettig
posted by yueliang at 12:53 PM on July 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I read history and biographies and anything that helps me better understand how so many shitty things go on in the world without any need for malice to be behind most of it.

I also have a serious medical condition and other burdens that prevented me from having the kind of monied, brag-worthy career I thought was my due. It makes me slow to judge other people. I am quick to chalk things up to misunderstanding or maybe they are having a bad day. In some cases, even if their assholery is a long standing issue, I am aware they are suffering I'm some way and it is not something that will be fixed any time soon. In such cases, I try to limit how much crap I take off of them but I cannot bring myself to be too bitchy in response. Sometimes, life is just shitty and people are just suffering and even if you have money and the best solutions possible , it still will involve a lot of suffering. Sometimes, even if you have a fuckimg magic wand and angel on your shoulder, it will still be hard. And when that's the case, people will be "thoughtless" and sound gruff without meaning to. And in reality that is true every day for a great many people you will run into and they don't owe you their story -- it is probably a private matter -- and even if they were inclined to share, there is often not enough time to get into it.
posted by Michele in California at 2:27 PM on July 5, 2015

I can't remember exactly where it starts, but I think this might be something that could be of interest to you. It's Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk. The first part is an intro to meditation (which you already do, but I found it instructive anyway) and the second part I found to be a great guided meditation. Hugely helpful. Maybe you will too.

oart 1
part 2
posted by bizwool at 3:44 PM on July 5, 2015

Colfax is correct: Miss Manners is totally the boss!

But, I came to recommend H. H. The Dalai Lama's book The Essence of the Heart Sutra. It places this foundational sutra into context explaining first why it has been so revered for so darn long by so many generations of people. Secondly it demonstrates the value of the text by unwrapping it's layers clearly, patiently, and illuminatingly (is that really a word?).
posted by cleroy at 4:13 PM on July 5, 2015

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