How should we behave towards unkind people?

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It is possible to be optimistic, and consider that we are all essentially good inside.  Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

Today, I was looking through the comments section of a social media post by the Dalai Lama.

The original post was about how healthy it is to be compassionate.  It suggested that warmth creates openness, and the resulting openness reminds us how similar we all are.

This theme of us all being essentially the same is a favourite one of his.  This is partly because such essential unity, if appreciated by everyone, could help to end violence, and end loneliness.

ARE WE ALL THE SAME?

Most of the responses were uncritical, thankful and admiring.  But a few of the replies had a problem with the idea that everyone was, ultimately, the same inside.

One said: ‘I cannot agree that everyone is just the same as us inside… from first hand experience, I know no amount of kindness moves them one inch from the acts they commit.’

This raises several interesting questions.  These questions include:

  • Are we all really the same inside?
  • Are some people essentially lacking in kindness, without prospect of change?
  • If so, is our kindness wasted on such people?
THE SAME INSIDE

The kind of Buddhism represented by the Dalai Lama does indeed hold that everyone shares the same bright, uncloudy inner nature.  It is a thoroughly optimistic view about humans.

The idea is that all suffering and bad behaviour can be attributed to delusional thinking.  If we were truly in touch with our true natures, and got rid of all misunderstandings and delusions, then our essential good nature would be revealed.

From this perspective, the path of self-development is one of losing inauthenticity and wrongness, until all that is left is clear, untainted thinking.  This clear, untainted being doesn’t really have a self, as distinct from all other clear, untainted beings.  In this sense, we are all one and the same, and all differences are illusory.

ALL POTENTIALLY KIND

If this optimistic view is true, then all unkind behaviour is the result of delusion.  Even people who seem to be irredeemably cruel, are simply suffering from a misunderstanding.

This runs against certain strains of psychological thinking.  Some diagnostically-focused psychologists might have considerable trouble accepting that all humans have the ability to be perfectly kind.

It also runs against certain strains of everyday ethical thinking.  Many, many people believe that some of their fellow humans are irredeemable, simply incapable of changing.  We can hear it in phrases such as ‘that man is a monster’, and ‘lock him up and throw away the key’.

These latter views involve dividing our fellow humans into two types, those like us, and those who will never be like us.  The Dalai Lama’s view is a direct challenge to this, and invites us, instead, to believe that everyone is essentially good, but just suffering from delusional thinking.

THE WISDOM OF KIND ACTION

What about the final question – whether our kindness is wasted on people who seem to be stuck in a cycle of unkind behaviour?

Several Buddhist philosophers have an interesting approach to this.  Although they believe that we should always exercise self-care, they also propose that we should use unkind behaviour as endurance training.  So, if someone seems to be behaving in an irredeemably unkind manner, we would continue to behave kindly towards them, on the basis that it improves us.  A bit like an athlete doing resistance training.

If we continue to act kindly, even towards those who are unkind to us, then we are turning a minus into a plus, because the experience teaches us how to keep a good heart in the face of harsh treatment.

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SUMMARY

So, are we all the same inside, and should we treat all people as equally worthy of our kindness?

One suggested answer is: yes, we are.  The more we lose our delusions, the more we become a very simple, kind self.

Furthermore, if we can stay kind in the face of unkind behaviour by others, then it can act as good training for us.

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