The virtue I treasure more than any other is loving-kindness. I do not always embody this virtue in my daily life, but when I am at my best, it is because I’ve tried to imbue all of my decisions with kindness & love. This seems like a no-brainer. When you are thoughtful & kind, your interpersonal relationships are made less thorny, your outlook on life lightens, & the way tends to smoothen out.
Wait a minute. That isn’t true. Kindness does not make your life easier. Often, it makes it more difficult. In a world where everyone is looking out for himself or herself, kindness is often exploited. The Kind are seen as weak. The greedy & aggressive disregard & take advantage of kindness.
You know what, this is also completely untrue. The world is not peopled by “The Good” & “The Bad.” Nothing about our world is binary, not even the things we’ve been taught to think are binary, like gender, morality, etc. Sometimes, I am kind. Someone may see this behavior & think, “Gee, Adam is a nice person. He is Good.” Complete garbage. Every choice I make, I handle well, poorly, or a mixture of the two. I do things everyday that are objectively unkind, selfish, & decidedly NOT loving. What are we even talking about when we say “loving-kindness?” Why is it not always the clear choice?
In 2008, my father Mike Flowers was diagnosed with throat cancer. In December of that year, he had surgery to remove the tumor that also resulted in the loss of his tongue & epiglottis. Needless to say, it was a very sad & difficult time for my father & our family. After spending over a month at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, my father finally returned home to the house he shared with my mother Kathy. He began chemo & radiation. Because he no longer had a tongue & could no longer swallow, his life had been completely upended. His speech was greatly hindered. He could no longer drink or eat food. He received his nourishment from a feeding tube that attached to a quarter-sized port in his abdomen. He had been selling Real Estate in my hometown of Davis at the time of his surgery. Imagine what the ramifications of having your tongue removed are for someone in sales. It is drastic for anyone, but extreme for a salesman. Not only do you need to clearly & effectively communicate with your client, such an extreme physical disability makes many people extremely uncomfortable. In short, it was an existential upheaval. Not to mention the fact that there was no guarantee that the cancer was totally gone.
I will spare you the suspense. On June 1st of 2011, my wonderful father died after a stint in the hospital when the cancer returned to the lining of his lungs. It was the worst thing that had happened to me to date, because I was blessed with a wonderful man for a father.
What does this have to do with loving-kindness? Between the time my father had his cancer surgery & his death, an amazing thing happened. Between his return home from the hospital in February of 2008 & his return to the hospital in May of 2011 (the day Osama Bin Laden was killed) my father lived almost an entire second lifetime. His situation allowed him, no, forced him to really focus on what was important to him. Instead of focusing on what was taken from him, he chose to focus on what he still had. Whenever he came into contact with someone, he immediately disarmed their apprehension/pity/revulsion with good humor, grace &, yes, kindness. He even kept selling houses. Think of that. Imagine using a Real Estate agent without a tongue. I only say this because for many people, that would be unacceptable. He figured out a way to talk & be understood. His good cheer (which was a decision on his part, not something that just happened) put people at ease & made it ok for them, for us, to abandon our pity, sorrow or ill ease.
I asked him bluntly & often how he did this. To me, it was nothing short of miraculous.
”If you can show someone that they matter & that you are paying attention to them & who they are, anything is possible. All I want is to make people feel that joy is possible & that they MATTER.”
I could write a book about all the instances of my father’s loving-kindness & how it concretely transformed the lives of not just his friends & colleagues in Davis, California, but people he had never met. Every Saturday he got in the habit of writing a blog post on CaringBridge.org to keep friends & family apprised of his health. People spread the word. Soon, hundreds of people that my father never met were avid readers of his thoughts & observations. Upon his death, i received innumerable messages of consolation from people he had never even met. One colleague of mine, told me that reading my father’s blog had “literally transformed” the choices she made in parenting her young son. His message was simple: show people that they count through word & deed & do your damnedest to show people not only that they are loved but that they are WORTHY of that love.
One element to all this that completely changed my life was what my father said about how kindness was a privilege.
“The more comfortable & safe you are, the easier it is to be kind. Love can’t stop just because it isn’t returned or doesn’t come easily.”
I have spent my whole life being told that one must be kind. That love is all that matters. But, what the hell does that really mean? What I began to glean from the time I spent with my father during what we sometimes referred to as “The Bonus” was that most people most of the time are not being unkind because they want to hurt you, but because they are hurt. Sure, there are always sociopaths, psychopaths, & people with extreme mental illness who are working at a severe disadvantage. But then there are the rest of us, with our phobias, fears, challenges, poor mental health, lack of food, lack of work, stress, PTSD, survivor’s guilt, substance abuse, poor bodily health…are you beginning to catch my drift? My dad felt that, despite his “setback”, he, as a heterosexual white man in a North American college town, had the luxury of having loving-kindness loaded into his chamber when he stepped out the door. Make no mistake, he believed with all his heart that loving-kindness, even in the face of extreme obstacles, was always best, but he decided not to forget the obstacles to kindness that others faced & be even more loving in the face of someone’s perceived failings.
This, to me, is the key. The empathy required is monumental & extremely difficult. To overcome these obstacles that we have had thrown in our way, some of us daily, is extremely difficult. So, if you, like me, are privileged enough to not fear for your existential safety & health most of the time, to not suffer from debilitating health issues, to not feel victimized de facto or de jure; then make loving-kindness & empathy & awareness your watch-words. The only way others will join you in this great kindness is if you are patient, gracious, & kind. My father’s favorite saying was “Never resist a generous impulse.” That impulse is the result of privilege. It is a complex privilege woven together by circumstance & choice. Together, we can make it a reality for everyone, not just those of us who usually have something to smile about.
(this YouTube has captions that only work on a desktop or laptop—AF)