Friday, July 28, 2017

How Do We Show Kindness?

It's always good to see Charles Swindoll Twittering...he's written so many sound, solid Protestant books for so long, and I've bought several of them for personal use and as gifts. There is, nevertheless, one area where I think evangelical Christians really need to move toward new insights based on new information. And I hope the references to Protestants, Christians, and the Bible don't put non-Protestant readers off this topic; what I have to say here is for everybody.

I'm concerned about the objective fact that introverts' brains differ from extroverts' brains, such that we don't express or experience good will in the same way. People concerned about kindness, or even politeness, have been divided for years. Here's a typical inspirational thought about kindness...

...It's valid, in its way. That is: as an introvert I want to feel appreciated in the way I feel appreciated by fellow introverts, and extroverts want to feel appreciated in the way they feel appreciated by fellow extroverts--and, until we admit the differences and talk about them, nice little thoughts about kindness-in-general will continue to push people of good will further apart than nature intended us to be. Vague, one-size-fits-all thoughts about "being kind" may remind some of us what we ought to do for members of our families; they don't teach us what we ought to do if we want to practice kindness toward others who may be different from us.

Hence, after clicking on Swindoll's "Insight," I tweeted:

I want respect, not "kindness," from those who dislike and/or disagree with me.


But, but...showing kindness might encourage that "outgoing," grinny, gossipy behavior... via

(Other people get the Twitter buttons and pictures to show up on their blogs. Why then, oh why, can't I? Let me guess--Twitter's still using those nasty, discriminatory "i-frames" to generate buttons?)

Anyway...I see this happening every time people feel motivated to show kindness to people to whom they are not naturally attracted:

1. People make an effort to treat those who are naturally different from them the way they like to be treated.

2. Thereby they annoy each other more than they did when they were leaving each other alone.

3. In worst-case scenarios, e.g. Seventh-Day Adventist youth fellowship groups, "relationships" can drag on for weeks or months during which both parties act like the emotional equivalent of two swimmers each trying to drag the other to the opposite side of the pool.

For obvious reasons, introverts are more likely to be the ones who feel bullied, harassed, and persecuted during these spasms of misguided "kindness."

It goes like this: You go somewhere alone--to look for someone you've planned to meet at the event, or to check out people you might want to date, or maybe just to enjoy the place or event. Instead, however, you're cornered by people you don't want to date, or to know. You really feel the strain of "being nice" as they make conversation that either fails to include you, or is so completely uninteresting that you wish it had failed to include you, at all. You are being charitable. You are being patient. You are being tolerant. You are being generous. You are praying that these people will never see you alone in any public place, ever again, even if that means you have to transfer to a different school. And of course, before you can get away from the bores, you hear things that make it clear that they dislike you as actively as you by now dislike them--but they imagined that they were doing you a favor by ruining your evening!

As an introvert you are automatically what these people consider less lovable than their wonderful (in their minds) selves, because...

"Ewww, you're so quiet."

"Don't you have anything to say? Can't everybody just open their mouths and gabble the way we do?"

"Don't you liiiike us?"

And they are automatically what you consider less lovable than, well, anyone with whom you'd ever choose to talk for five minutes, because...

"Don't they ever stop flapping their mouths?"

"If they stopped gabbling, is it possible that they'd ever find anything worth saying?"

"Why am I listening to these bores instead of doing any of the other five thousand things I'd rather be doing right now, and where is my special award for doing this?"

As Jonah Goldberg documented several years ago, during the twentieth century North America was subjected to a miseducation campaign in which we were told that extroversion was normal or healthy and introversion was "neurotic" or a weakness. "People skills" was misinterpreted to mean "extrovert skills," rather than the genuinely useful "skill" of recognizing which type of people we're dealing with. Too often, we were taught that "people do" things extroverts do...although in fact introverts aren't really as much of a minority as some researchers have claimed. In fact, if about one person out of five inherits High Sensory Perceptivity and one out of five inherits a Long Brain Stem and one out of ten was born a Late-Talking Boy, that would mean that about half of humankind have inherited at least one of the different healthy traits that are commonly known to shape a healthy introvert personality (and there may be others). Introverts are people--and although "militant introvert" is obviously a joke, I do think we need to remind everyone of this fact.

Introverts don't automatically have a higher I.Q. score than extroverts have, because the parts of the brain that process language and mathematics develop just fine for some people with extroversion. We do, however, use more different neurons to process information in a more complex and interesting way; we see more, hear more, smell and taste and "feel" more, and think about it all in greater depth, and generally, current research seems to indicate, we just have more complete, more fully human brains than extroverts have. Also we have a natural sense of moral right and wrong, while extroverts have to rely on their feeling about what other people feel about things they might do, such that extroverts' judgment is similar to the judgment of introverts while drunk or stoned. Our talents differ one from another, but what introverts have in common are talents.

There are introverts, including Marti Olsen Laney, who've claimed to be happily married to extroverts.

I've never been altogether convinced. For me, it's possible to like extroverts--after all a lot of perfectly decent human beings have been taught that "social skills" mean acting like extroverts, ourselves, and since extroverts are pretty numb and clueless many of us can totally fake them out. (Some of us have even faked ourselves out, or let others do that to us, such that we believe that all people are pretty much interchangeable, and noticing things extroverts don't see and hear is a neurotic tic we should ignore in the hope that it will go away.) It's also possible, even easy, to like dogs, as long as I don't have to live with them or be responsible for them. But working with extroverts--let alone living with them--is like trying to work with dogs; at best you're spending more time training them to respond to very simple commands than you are actually getting the job done, and it's almost always better just to do the job without their "help."

God made dogs, and I personally miss the dogs I've known who are no more, although I'm not sure I would have noticed anything missing from a dog-free world. God presumably made extroverts (or at least allowed their brains to develop in the stunted way they apparently did), and I miss some extroverts I've known who are no more, although I suspect I'd be happier in an extrovert-free world. My healthy introvert conscience tells me to be kind to dogs and extroverts. However, kindness to them looks and sounds completely different from kindness to the people or animals who are naturally more congenial to me...and in the case of extroverts, because so many of them aren't aware that they're not the example all of humankind was meant to follow, I often wonder whether the Highest Good for them can ever allow them to be indulged in the mistake that their reactions have anything to do with the way people are.

At the very least, if people who want to be kind smile and say "hello" to people who don't want to start an actual conversation but just feel that brain-damaged need to be reassured that they are there, we should at least make it easy for them to learn that a substantial section of humankind know where we are, usually have some purpose in being there, and prefer not to be distracted from that purpose by those craving reassurance that they're there too.

If people who want to be kind try to "draw someone out, because you looked so lonely standing there all by yourself," we should at least make it easy for them to learn that that person is looking for a worthwhile conversation, in which that person would learn something new about one of his or her many interests--and those interests almost certainly do not include gossip about Chatty Cathy's other acquaintances, whom that person probably doesn't find interesting either.

If people who want to be kind indulge anyone in a predilection for "small talk," we should at least make it easy for them to learn that we are the ones performing an act of charity. I might want to know the weather forecast, the weather conditions in the place from which you're calling or e-mailing, or whether you currently have some sort of painful medical condition, but one sentence is normally all it takes to meet or exceed my interest in those topics; I'm not interested in a whole afternoon of blather about the weather and everybody's health.

Merely being introverts doesn't guarantee that people will become each other's close friends, either. Introverts are, however, at least capable of respecting the fact that we don't have to have a lot to say to each other, or become close friends, to be good neighbors...the kind who wouldn't think twice about helping each other in an emergency, but don't talk to each other in non-emergency situations.

This web site recently reviewed a book in which a teacher, obviously failing to do his job and teach math, tries to teach teenagers that when they're talking to their own chosen friends other people are "left out, screaming for help." This web site has not yet reviewed a novel about high school students who aren't in a student clique because they're actually more interested in more adult-like aspects of life, by a writer who obviously was one of us...I obviously was not an angry young man, but Cynthia Voigt's "Runner" relates to his high school friends in a way that's much closer to the way I related to mine than anything else I've seen portrayed in fiction. It's not because he's angry that "He didn't care about people, and so people cared about him" at school; it's not even that he completely doesn't care about his school friends--he wishes them well, and tries to help them as best he can, when he does think about them. It's just that he's much, much more involved with his job, sport, and family.

So how can we tell, when someone seems to be alone in a group, whether the person is a bemused outsider with a full life of his or her own--either an introvert, or an extrovert who thinks his or her own crowd is superior to yours--or a would-be member of your group "screaming for help"? We can't. (Teenagers aren't always sure about that themselves.) Either way, though, if you want to practice kindness, it's a kind thought to remember that you're unlikely to make a friend by judging a new acquaintance to have so little to offer that talking to him or her is an act of pity. It's kind to think about what you or your social clique might gain from knowing this person before you let yourself wonder whether this person believes he or she has anything to gain from knowing you.

I've learned from experience that, the more kindness and pity a social relationship requires from me, the more essential it is that I bear in mind at all times why I respect, appreciate, am even obligated to, the other person. As long as I'm aware of John Doe only as "the multiply handicapped man who spends his days sitting in his wheelchair on his front porch, giggling and gabbling unintelligibly when people pass by," I really have nothing to offer John Doe, socially; even if I were his nurse, that wouldn't qualify me to be his friend. If his disability happened to be caused by cerebral palsy, and he happened to be a gifted writer despite his inability to speak or hand-write, and he was able to type well enough that he and I could collaborate on a writing project, then I might easily become his friend. Apart from material help with survival needs, however, John Doe really does not need to spend more time around someone who is merely trying very very hard not to be grossed out by his disability. He's had far more of that experience than he needed in the course of getting material help with survival needs, all his life.

Material help with survival needs is of course what's being discussed in the Bible passage Pastor Swindoll cited. Jesus did not, in fact, say anything like "I was feeling left out, and you chattered at me." He said, "I was hungry, and you fed me; I was sick or in prison, and you visited me." In the Roman Empire, although many polite phrases were exchanged--especially about the special "friendships" between poorer neighbors and wealthy neighbors who gained status by inviting poorer neighbors to share meals--none of the relationships Jesus described would really have been mistaken for a merely social or emotional exchange; all of them were about survival needs. People who were in prison often depended on "visitors" for food.

Some of us have heard that we're not responsible for helping our neighbors meet their survival needs, only their emotional "felt needs." To this I have to say: bosh. We can't help others meet their emotional "felt needs." We can practice civility, such that we don't aggravate their unhappiness--again, in order to do this we have to begin not by assuming that all people want more or less of our attention, but by asking whether a particular individual wants our attention. But even the people who feel that they are emotionally "screaming for help" aren't screaming for casual chitchat. The great howling emotional hole in their lives is the lack of a parent, a child, a teacher, a mate, a synergistic partner, maybe even a way to worship God...and even if we happen to be the person they most want to meet, that emotional hole will not be filled by mere social chatter.

We can, however, help people meet their survival needs. We do this not in some ham-fisted social-worker-type manner, by snooping and finding out all about how much money they have and what they spend it on, but by exchanging goods and services with them. We can be the regular customers, or the occasional generous customers, who make it possible for businesses to survive. We can be good neighbors who barter things like baby-sitting or yard work. We can be the faithful relatives (or friends) who make sure people are properly cared for in hospitals.

Despite the existence of "dating sites" and matchmaking services, when people who aren't closely related by birth do become the kind of close friends who meet each other's emotional "felt needs," they usually begin by being good neighbors. Not by burdening someone who doesn't enjoy "small talk" with lots of "small talk," but by exchanging whatever kind of social benefits people do in fact want.

I read as a comment on a web site--I'm not sure that the person wants the comment highlighted--that, when people try to be polite or "friendly" by smiling and uttering pleasant words while they're not doing anything to meet the commenter's expressed material needs, the person's reaction is, "Your smile is a lie." I suspect the only reason why anybody has ever failed to mention this is that, when they're among people of similar physical ability and income levels, many people don't like to express their material needs...but then, when those people are aware of material needs, they down-rate their "so-called friends" or the whole idea of friendship, fellowship, fraternity, etc. Even those who choose to do it don't really like standing around making "small talk" while they're aware that their parents are withering in nursing homes or their business investments are on the verge of bankruptcy. For those of us to whom friendship means much more than acquaintance, friends talk about the things that really matter (material, then social-emotional, then philosophical-spiritual).

And smiles...don't get me started. I'm all in favor of social interactions in which people are, in fact, pleased or amused or both. But if you're not, in fact, pleased or amused, nobody wants to look at your teeth. Or, if nature intended our teeth to be bared, why do we have lips?

So, maybe people who see each other in social groups--Swindoll was thinking of churches, I suspect most people in cyberspace are thinking of schools--should be thinking less of chatting with strangers as an act of kindness, and more of "ministering to" the needs people post on bulletin boards. Instead of burdening someone with your company just because s/he "looked lonely" while waiting for someone else to arrive, try meeting people's expressed "needs" for car pools or passengers, buyers or sellers, pet sitters or errand runners. That's a respectful, unintrusive way to let those people know that your character and intentions are good, so if they are also looking for someone "to talk to" or "to hang out with," they have a valid reason to consider you for that position.

And if by any chance they're sincerely spiritual people who are still looking for a religious group to join--not that I personally have ever met such a person!--a job well and promptly done says a lot more on behalf of your religion than the sight of your bare teeth ever will.