Sunday, July 17, 2016

Christian Book Review with Reservations: The Hidden Power of Kindness

Title: The Hidden Power of Kindness

Author: Lawrence G. Lovasik

Date: 1962

Publisher: Sophia

Publisher’s web site:

ISBN: 1-928832-00-8

Length: 247 pages

Quote: “You’re almost certainly not as kind as you ought to be.”

With this book, at least, the part you won’t love is right out on the cover. While it’s probably true that nobody is always as kind as an ideal person would be, it’s also undeniably true that (1) many people’s difficulties come from misguided efforts to practice an idealistic, yet unenlightened, version of “kindness” (usually because they’ve absorbed the kind of generalizations about “kindness” in which this book abounds) and (2) Lovasik didn’t know whether you, the reader, were one of them. He doesn’t give very helpful guidelines for determining when “kindness,” in the ordinary sense, actually serves the Highest Good of nobody, either.

Apart from that, this is a nice, Catholic-approved, long essay in praise of kindness. Practicing kindness, or just thinking about kindness, has been shown to have a mild beneficial effect on the human immune system. Therefore, this book may do you some actual physical good—if it doesn’t do you harm.

Catholic teachings have often been denounced as promoting unhealthy masochism by idealizing altruism, so this book needs some debunking. “The only return you should try to get out of someone is the feeling that you have done a favor for him without his being able to do anything whatever in return for you.”

That kind of thinking has done a lot of harm. On the surface it seems nice, even pathologically altruistic. In reality—think about it! How radically selfish a piece of one-upsmanship that little feeling is! “I have done a favor for you without your being able to do anything whatever in return for me. I am so much better, nicer, more generous than you are. I am on a higher plane of existence than you. I am God. You are a worm.”

What does that leave the other person thinking or feeling? There are two possibilities. (The popular psychology of my youth postulated a third possibility; I’m not sure to what extent it was ever really observed.)

(1) “Someone has done a favor for me without my being able to do anything whatever in return for him, her, or them. Good for me! I don’t need to bother about doing any favors for anyone else. I can just lie back and take, take, take. I don’t have to grow up. I can be a ‘playboy,’ a ‘lounge lizard,’ a ‘Peter Pan,’ or a ‘welfare queen,’ or a ‘professional student’ who lives off the favors of other people. It’s so much fun to be me that I’d hate to spoil it by trying to imagine what it’s like to be anyone else.”

(2) “Someone has done a favor for me without my being able to do anything whatever in return for him, her, or them. People imagine that I have nothing to give them. They despise me. Having a normal self-serving instinct, I don’t despise myself. I despise them. In fact, I hate them. Whatever natural talents I have to offer the world, and whatever kind impulses I feel, should not be wasted on these stupid fools who think they’re so superior to me.”

Let me try to say this as charitably as possible. The second of these possibilities is the stereotypical attitude certain ethnic minority groups in these United States have toward Anglo-Americans. That’s why there’s so much smoldering hate in certain communities, always waiting to burst out in the faces of the “allies” who sincerely want to build a world without race hate. However, these are feelings Anglo-Americans can and do share. They are involved in a large share of the backstabbing that goes on among co-workers, the “cattiness” among young women, and the surliness of corporate employees who have not been trained to express gratitude toward their employers’ customers.

Just a few of the relationships among human beings really are inherently asymmetrical, like the parent/child relationship. Parents are, of course, serving their own Highest Good when they care for their children, but any reciprocity that may ever be observed lies a long way ahead of the young parent changing the baby’s diapers today. The immediate reward of being a parent is probably closer to “I have done a favor for you without your being able to do anything whatever in return for me” than  anything else in normal, healthy human behavior is. Even then, do parents really sit around gloating over their immediate physical superiority to their helpless infants, or do they look for, and encourage, the infants’ first feeble efforts to reward the parents by “smiling” and babbling in ways that an eager parent can hear as “Mama” and “Papa”? Most parents consciously seek out emotional rewards, even though the emotional rewards are out of proportion to the physical efforts the parents invest in getting those emotional rewards.

The more consciously we try to love others as ourselves (which is Christian charity, as distinct from loving others more than ourselves, which would be pathological altruism if it were genuine), the more we become aware that the Highest Good for us is not, in fact, opposed to the Highest Good for them.

According to legend the original “Santa Claus,” St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, wanted to do a favor for a parishioner, or parishioners, who wouldn't be able to do anything in return for Bishop Nicholas. Unfortunately it is only a legend, and it exists in several forms—some ridiculous—but, according to the legend, someone donated three big, heavy balls of gold to the bishop, or perhaps the old bishop hoarded up the gold all by himself over his many years of faithful work. Some say the gold was offered to decorate the cross in front of the church; some say the balls of gold were already stuck on to the cross. The parishioner(s), being very poor, had contracted to sell his, her, or their three children. Some say the children were to be sold as slaves, some say prostitutes, and according to the wildest story the children had been sold to cannibals and packed in a tub of brine for shipping. In the version that comes closest to the American Santa Claus myth, upon seeing the slave dealer (or whatever) entering the home of the three children, the old bishop ran back to the church, grabbed the balls of gold (some say the balls were so heavy that he had to make three separate trips), and threw them down the chimney—or into an open window—of the house. The parents reclaimed their children and even the slave dealer was converted upon the spot. Some say that Bishop Nicholas left this sad world the next day, or a few days later, from overexertion and/or overexposure and/or overexcitement. Is this not, Lovasik might have said, a story of altruism?

Not if you’ve ever tried anything like it. If you have, if you have ever succeeded in rescuing children from whatever form of misery awaited those children, or in saving someone’s life, or in fighting a fire, or even in a long hard campaign to accomplish something worthwhile at your job, you know that carrying those balls of gold through the street was a “high” for Nicholas (or whoever actually did it). If he did die as a result of doing it, he died happy. The delight of the children and the conversion of the slave dealer were the consummation of his life. Perhaps he never received any money in return for what he did, but it is possible—according to some versions of the story it’s probable—that he literally died of joy. Nobody hearing this story has ever pitied Bishop Nicholas.

The pleasure of “being the giver” can be so intense, in fact, that some people would actually miss the human suffering they try to alleviate, if it were permanently eliminated.

Of course, as long as diseases and natural disasters exist, as Jesus said, “the poor will be always among you.” However, in a healthy community it is also true, as Moses foretold, that “there shall be no poor among you”—no separate class of poor people. In the United States our general prosperity, and a healthy, sophisticated sense of self-interest, has brought us very close to realizing both of these predictions. There are, and will always be, people in a temporary condition of having less; apart from the victims of diseases and natural disasters, there will always be younger people setting up homes of their own with less than older people have accumulated. There is no permanent “lower class” of people who are doomed always to have less. Even when, as occasionally happens, someone’s income is low enough to suggest anything like poverty as the non-democratic countries know poverty—and mine is, at the time of writing—the poverty is temporary. There are Americans who sneer at Americans who have less than they have—but most other Americans recognize that the ones doing the sneering are the ones who are stupid and inferior; if they had any sense they would know that those who have less may be only one sale or one inheritance away from having more.  

And there are those who would actually like to change these wholly desirable conditions of life in the United States. People who have never lived in a democratic society bitterly resent the fact that a penniless widow in the United States can enjoy more personal freedom, and a higher social status, than a successful storekeeper in a country where storekeepers belong to a permanent lower class. More than that, though…the sort of people who become social workers become so addicted to “being the giver” that, usually without having given the matter much conscious thought of course, they would actually prefer that more children be hungry than that all the children be well fed.

What they have sometimes succeeded in training children to say is that third possible response to the “me God, you worm” approach to generosity, which I’m not convinced is ever quite sincere:

(3) “Someone has done a favor for me without my being able to do anything whatever in return for him, her, or them. People think I have nothing to give anyone, and they are right. I am a useless, worthless worm. The best thing for me to do would be to commit suicide at once.”

There may be people whose behavior shows that they honestly, wholeheartedly do think that way—but there aren't many. The behavior of most depressed people shows that their thinking is really much closer to either the first or the second possibility discussed above. Usually it’s the first, and this is why it’s so hard to feel charitable toward depressive people.

How do we avoid the cruelty of inflicting any of these three undesirable reactions on other people? Genuine kindness never tries to put self “one up” on the other person. It is more like, “I have something to give to others, the work I enjoy doing, a thing I would prefer not to have to keep in my own house any longer, or whatever it may be. I would like to give it to someone who would enjoy receiving it, independently of what, if anything, that person offers in return, either directly back to me or by way of passing the good feeling along. I am not overly concerned about what the other person offers because I, having enjoyed the pleasure of using the luxury item once or twice, or cultivated my talent, or cultivated my garden or whatever else, am now seeking the pleasure of giving.”

Genuine kindness does not seek to hoard the pleasure of giving all for self, nor does it despise what others have to offer. The Highest Good is not about “self versus other.” It is not versus. Lovasik commends Mother Mary’s trip, during pregnancy, “to serve her cousin Elizabeth” as an example of self-sacrifice. The Protestant reader smiles, having naturally imagined this trip being undertaken to reduce unfavorable publicity about the timing of Jesus’ birth. Obviously, when we think about it, it was both. The best ideas are good for self and others. Personally, when I find myself wanting something that directly conflicts with what others honestly want for themselves (as distinct from ego clashes), I reconsider why and whether I wanted that thing. Perhaps I really want something that works for those others, as well as for me, and is therefore even better than my first thought seemed to be. I really want neither to trample on others’ rights, nor to let them trample on mine.

Once we have learned (or re-learned) to think intelligently about this distinction between charity and altruism, we see that even some of the received wisdom Lovasik offers about merely social or emotional kindness is misguided. “Don’t ask yourself whether the person involved…should take the first step” toward reconciliation, Lovasik urges, but “forgive him at once.” This is good advice for those who realize, after thinking it through, that what really bothers them about the other person is not a sin of which he needs to repent and be forgiven. Forgiveness, in the sense the Bible writers used (and I use) the word, is a process that begins when someone repents of something s/he has done, changes her/his ways, and seeks to make amends. Until repentance happens, the person offended can and should release the emotional feelings that would otherwise keep him or her insanely entrapped in the mood of outrage s/he felt when the offense occurred—but claiming to have “forgiven” the unrepented sin is like claiming that the road is not under water when it is.

“Never…open the door to anger,” Lovasik advises. To anyone who has spent time among Christians, any mention of anger recalls the vast amount of denial and hypocrisy to which false teaching about anger has led the whole Church Militant. I think we can cut out much of the hypocrisy here if we read everything Lovasik has to say as being addressed to those who become physically addicted to the sensation of feeling angry. All confirmed “rageaholics” so far have been male; their “anger addiction” is part of male-pattern cardiovascular disease. (Multiple myeloma, which is what killed my husband, also produces sudden drastic changes in blood pressure and can mimic “anger addiction.” If any women seem to have “anger addiction,” they should check for cancer.) If these individuals want to live and work as long as possible, they may be well advised to focus on the emotional feelings of “anger” (or “righteous indignation”) before they have addressed the facts of the situation about which they feel angry.

For women, I can say firsthand, the best way to spare ourselves the unpleasant feeling of anger is to focus on the facts. “Fix Facts First: Feelings Follow” has become my mantra and I recommend it to all other women, and to men who are not “rageaholics.” Most people who yell, swear, throw objects, etc., have formed these habits because they learned early in life that acting angry would motivate “kind” adults to try to solve their problems. They will find it more empowering to move directly toward solving their own problems. Of course, this will require the other people who live and work with them to be willing to solve the problems, rather than dumping their own repressed anger on the nearest child, subordinate, junior employee, etc., and then blaming that person for “being so angry” with the ongoing manifestations of the one problem that this person is being emotionally abused. Women, especially, need to stop carrying the can of anger for everyone around them. If “She Had a Bad Day” because one or more other people said something to her that they would object to her saying to them, then “She” may want to try a different response that breaks the pattern of their verbal abuse, but “She” must never for a minute forget that their verbal abuse, not her anger, is the problem. It is not actually kind to allow others to be bullies; even if a woman feels too busy or too tired to address a verbal abuse problem, even if a woman enjoys feeling martyred, she really ought to consider that the Highest Good for her verbal abusers is to be taught to respect her, and women generally.

And on and on it goes. The Healing Power of Kindness continually alternates between bits of real inspiration to practice kindness—including more attention to respecting people’s privacy than more recent pop counsellors have given—and bits of misleading, potentially toxic advice to practice sick altruism. It is a well written, thorough essay, but it needs to be read with discernment. It is recommended to people who have been practicing Christianity in a serious, radical way for a long time. 

Although Lovasik no longer needs a dollar, this web site still has to charge $5 per book + $5 per package if you order it here (from either address at the very bottom of the screen). Meh. The best part of the deal here is that you can add this book to a package containing one or more Fair Trade Books, encourage a living writer, and save money on the shipping charge, so that our price may be competitive with the price of the seller who uploaded that pretty picture to Amazon, after all. But you can also click on the picture and buy it from that seller; in theory I get a small commission on that too.