Kindness isn’t just a philosophy. It’s a way of life.
We have a use of the word kind which means ‘of the same nature or substance as’. So when you are kind, you are in some sense showing that you are in sympathy with another thing or person, that you can relate to it, that you have an understanding.
We have another use of the word kind which means giving, generous, welcoming, accommodating. This type of kindness is perhaps best understood in contrast to its opposite, which is to be miserly, to show enmity, to reject.
OUR IMMUNE SYSTEMS
If you think about it, your body works on a principle of wise kindness. If you were not of the same substance as the world, you could not exist in it; you would explode! You do, however, have a part of you that rejects other things, keeps them out of your way. You have white blood cells, whose job it is to seek and destroy infections, invaders. You have a number of other parts of your body which act as barriers, boundaries, making sure that your structural integrity is protected.
But, on the other hand, much of your body is participiating in the world. The purpose of your ‘unkind’ immune system is to make sufficient rejections for you to be able to function kindly.
OUR POLITICAL SYSTEMS
In the same way, many of our political systems work on the basis of wise kindness. They try to engage people with each other. But, as with the immune system, they have to have sufficient prohibitions and exclusions to keep enemies to the system out of the way. Where those limits are varies, but most sociopolitical systems involve rejection of certain people or behaviours; preservation of certain boundaries and fences, maintenance of some sort of structural integrity, whether it be rituals, buildings, calendars, or some other more permanent feature.
However, the aim of these ‘unkind’ rules, permanent fixtures, and regulations, is to preserve sufficient structure for people to engage with each other kindly. There is enormous variation in how those systems work and what they look like; but they all have in common an intention to make society comprehensible: to offer a degree of operational certainty. The rest is kindness.
So we have systems, bodily and societal, in which, ironically, rejection of differences is inbuilt, in order to preserve the normal functioning of engagement and kindness. Internally, we kill germs in order to survive, and that survival enables us to be healthy and welcoming in our function. Socially, we reject some nonconformity in order to provide clarity and continuity, and that cohesion enables us to engage with some understanding and certainty.
If we were perfectly powerful, and perfectly understanding, we would not need to reject anything; the battle would be won. But, in reality, each of us participates in a world in which constant cross-infection and cross-contamination mean that nothing is pure, and everything is mixed. The world is, literally, a mess waiting to sort itself out.
OUR MENTAL HEALTH
Coming back to kindness, that behaviour which demonstrates that everyone is of the same nature, and shows acceptance and generosity.
Much unkindness is borne of lack of health and ignorance. If we have an inability to stay stable in ourselves, just like a body or society, we will become full of rejection. We will reject other people, we will reject the outside world, and we will sometimes reject ourselves. We will become like an immune system that is out of balance. We will start to indiscriminately reject random people and events, and we will even be confused by our own rejection of everything.
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PHYSICAL AND MENTAL IMMUNITY
I believe that we will discover many cross-overs between our physical and mental immune systems. After all, they are in the same body!
You may already have noticed that when you are upset, you often get an upset stomach, or a headache, or symptoms very similar to an allergic reaction – perhaps a rash or other dysfunction. Because we do not understand very much in detail, we have in the past sometimes used ‘psychosomatic’ to describe some of these crossover responses.
As an example, I have noticed that antihistamines are increasingly a very active ingredient in many sleep aids, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety aids. I believe it is no coincidence that antihistamines calm our immune system response. I believe that many of our mental disturbances are more similar to physical disturbances than we recognise. Antihystamines, in part, are helping our body’s natural immune response – to stress and attack – to have a rest, to stop being hyperactive, if you like.
Another way of putting it is that, if the world is not experienced as kind, then our internal health systems go into a rejection mode hyperactively. We become so keen to expel the enemy that we become hyper-alert, hyper-rejecting, hyper-self-rejecting, even, in extreme circumstances.
AN IMPLICATION FOR COUNSELLING
In my counselling training, I noticed how similar many clients’ responses were to a pronounced immune response. How much overlap there was. And how little attention this seemed to receive, partly because the training of counsellors was so divorced from the sciences that explore this.
I often, nowadays, find myself helping clients to perceive ‘kindnesses’ in their outlook, to assimilate things. In this, my experience in poetry is an asset. It is a similar activity – finding reasons to see the world and us as the same; a philosophy which promotes an essential sameness in all the difference, an essential acceptance in a world of rejection.
Think today about your body, and how well it maintains itself by rejecting what is alien to it. This enables you to function as an organism without too much interference.
Then think about the clever ways in which you and your body, once healthy, can learn to accept what is alien, to find commonality in all things. Engage with the world with the assumption that we are all one. This is not some abstract, flowery consideration – it is a fundamental way of thinking.
Wisdom allows us to discriminate. But compassion and kindness allow us to welcome.
Be grateful for how your body and your society preserve their integrity.
But consider how, once this is done, you can promote engagement, togetherness, and commonality. How can we see things from each others’ point of view? How can we share our experiences, find a common way of relating that goes beyond petty rejections, and allows us to become more than little rejecting animals. How can we embrace a wider truth?
Kindness is how we welcome the world. It is true that a wise system has processes of rejection, in order to maintain stability. But, once that stability is maintained, we have, perhaps, a job to do, a more expansive job, if we want it.
Just as our bodies have a rejecting immune system, but then function outwards to accept and do good; so our minds, once they are stable, can minimise the need to reject, and function outwards to accept others, to be generous, and to do good.
Perhaps counselling and writing can be seen in this light. The aim is to promote understanding and kindness. Through these means, clients and readers can see how much commonality there is in the world, and learn to accept everything there is, with an ability to embrace uncertainty without crumbling.
As I say, kindness isn’t just a philosophy. It’s a way of life.