In their own peculiar ways, each generation believes itself to be closest to end times. The ancient Greeks were altogether pragmatic about the dissolution of civilisation and believed that not only had the world ended before but it had done so many times. It’s a comforting thought, if you wish the apocalypse — their word — to be well practised.
The supernatural fire and brimstone unease was later replaced by the man-made kind and, post World War II, most of the world lived in the shadow of mutually assured destruction.
These days the existential dread comes from a Cold War 2.0 and a splintering discourse based on convenient versions of the truth. Not to get all “doomsday prepper” about it but it is hard to be exposed at length to acidic discourse and global tensions without wondering, at least once, if there are any abandoned oil rigs left on which one could set up a sovereign nation.
The Stoic philosophers articulated a coping mechanism of sorts, which was to fully recognise the world is terrible and just get on with whatever it was you had to do.
To my mind, Nero’s adviser, Seneca, said it best. “What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears,” he wrote.
It’s all well and good to have a philosophy of endurance in difficult times but to deploy this without ballast ensures the status quo. Ballast, I’m thinking, is kindness. That’s what is missing. There’s a reason dialogue has moved to the extremities in the modern world, where people and their essential humanity are hidden online. Kindness relies on a built-in understanding of personhood and, in any case, we’ve all been divided into categories. Crazy conservative, loopy leftie, religious minority, person who claims their religion is in a minority, dog person, cat person, hermit crab evangelist.
Poet Naomi Shihab Nye has a great verse on this subject in which she establishes this empathy as the foundation for generosity of spirit: Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth.
One doesn’t need to be sad to be kind, though we’ve all known sorrow. Nye is simply asking us to plumb the depths of our own lowest moments and transpose them on to others. In such circumstances it is difficult to be anything other than gentle. Many would think it weak to live in orbit around the vulnerabilities of others. These people, however, have spent so long in fear even their mail is delivered there.
Scientist George Price lost his mind trying to find out the evolutionary basis of altruism. He couldn’t imagine a world in which pure acts of favour existed without any reward. In a way, he found one. He proved that even acts of altruism by a person served to help their family, or the extended family and the social group — humanity — itself. There was no such thing as positive action without benefit, his equation surmised. Price eventually gave away everything he owned in an apparent attempt to dis- prove his equation and ended up homeless. He later killed himself in a London squat.
Perhaps he found it all disheartening, but the gene has no feelings. We are no more aware of what it wants than we are the sound of our own mitochondria. But it acts in service of more than itself, and that’s kind of the point.
People think of random acts of kindness when these subjects come up, and they have a healing power all of their own. This week, a man in front of my mother at the petrol station paid for her jerry can of fuel. He didn’t know she was short on cash and that it meant a great deal. Mum went off cheerily to refuel the lawnmower and do the lawns, a yard-based pastime that has always made her inordinately happy.
But there is kindness, too, in the simple act of speaking with another person, especially another with a different world view, in a manner that says: “I see you, I see where you’ve been and I know how you came to be here.”
Reciprocated, there emerges a view from the meeting point that is unlike any other.