One day I’m at the mall shopping; the next day, I drive to Washington for a therapy conference to hear a Buddhist psychologist call us to kindness and to deepen our awareness. Actually, these were not such opposite experiences. I was surprised that all the people I met on my Saturday’s errands showed kindness—an “I’m sorry” if they didn’t hold a door quite long enough, a “can I help you?” to carry a cumbersome, large item. Patience, too, when I asked where I might find some particular merchandise. I felt as comforted in these everyday encounters as I did listening to Tara Brach’s lived wisdom. I do believe that we human beings do want to be caring as well as cared for. I also believe that when we meet others—even strangers—with an openness and without rancor that we may receive a mirrored—an in-kind kind of—response. No guarantees, of course, because the others that we meet have their personal histories that influence the moment.
And that fact brings me to the other side of the coin of connection—when we experience the other as not so kind. I facilitate a grief support group for survivors of accident and murder (its acronym in SAM). Recently, group members talked about on-line responses to news stories about their loved ones who were killed. A mother and father related, that after their son was struck by a motorist, they were chastised for not being “better” parents: “Why did you let your son ride his bike there?” was the retort. A widow reported that people reprimanded her husband posthumously for having been on a motorcycle. (The accident was in no way his fault.)
I also see clients who recall similar stories. One woman notes how her friend subtly blames her for being sick by lecturing her with various “you shoulds.”
So why on the one hand can we be kind to each other, yet on the other hand be so judgmental and critical? Perhaps, we blame the other to protect ourselves. We try desperately to defend against the possibility that the same tragedy can happen to us. In other words, we try to deny our own human vulnerability with the unwritten mantra being “this happened to you because you did (or did not do) such and such.”
This defensive belief plays out in the societal collective as well. Perhaps we don’t see the need for universal health care, for example, because we have ours and, if someone is uninsured or loses insurance, it must be that “they” did something wrong. We become inured rather than kind, and don’t recognize the connectedness of the common good.
For every Horatio Alger, there is a vast unseen, unacknowledged, and forgotten support system. No one is a rugged individualist without the help of many hands. Vulnerable to the human condition, we are dependent on, and connected to, each other more than we can ever know.