You hate homework assignments just as much as someone in the next galaxy, but since your race has mastered the technique of invisible telepathic transport, you figure you might knock off the paper over the coming weekend. But where should you start? A brainstorm! Why not take a look at little Earthlings to spot characteristics and behavior that will show up later, full-blown in big Earthlings?
Almost instantaneously you find yourself looking over the shoulder of Julie, a 24-year-old day care worker at the Sunny Valley preschool day care center in Wilmington, N.J. No saucer required. You think it, you’re there. And you’re invisible.
Two 3-year-olds are having a tough time. One of them has just thrown a pile of Duplo plastic bricks at the other, who reacted by kicking him. There it is. Right off the bat you see an example of the renowned aggression that has put Earth on the official Altairian list of “Forbidden Planets.” But then you see something surprising. When Julie hugs the crying child who took the Duplo hit, the 3-year-old thrower slowly comes over to hug him, too. These humans are complicated.
In their short, provocative 2009 book “On Kindness,” authors Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor state that “it is one of the contentions of this book that children begin their lives ‘naturally kind,’ and that something happens to this kindness as they grow up in contemporary society.” They admit that this is not a new idea, but say that what is new is that today we are persuaded “not to take kindness too seriously.”
After further research, you discover that humans are divided in their allegiance to two opposing ideas. Simply put: Is it better to be right or to be kind?
On your astrocorder, you record two scenes. As a mother and father pick up their little daughter from the Sunny Valley day care center, she trips and scrapes her knee. The exasperated mother explodes. “I told you not to try to run to the car. That’s what happens when little girls don’t listen!” In the second scene, when another 3-year-old hits her head as the car door opens, the father picks up the crying child and cuddles her.
Now you have a beginning for your research paper. “There are two different species of Earthlings. You can’t tell them apart by their appearance. Some are sympathetic and others are trying to prove something.”
But that night you witness something that forces you to revise the opening of your paper. The mother who yelled at her daughter, patiently reads her “a bedtime narrative” and “gently positions her under warm blankets,” while the father who comforted his daughter earlier, “increases the volume of his verbalizations when the offspring tips over a container of white liquid during the evening consumption ritual.” The mother who had to be right, became kind, and the sympathetic father turned mean.
New beginning: “Earthlings are at war inside themselves. They like it when someone is kind to them, and want to be kind back, but sometimes something gets in the way. And then they can forget about kindness for a long time.”
Phillips and Taylor would say that in order to be kind, we have to master our ambivalence about it. As human beings we are vulnerable. We need other humans to help us and support us. But our vulnerability scares us. And putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, i.e., showing empathy, scares us, because what happened to them could just as easily happen to us. Because we’re vulnerable, we know we could suffer again, and we understandably don’t want to.
In their book, the authors give a short and interesting “history of kindness” in which they show that we have a pattern of trying to deny our vulnerability by pushing and stretching independence and self-sufficiency beyond human capacity. This results in political and economic systems which promote ruthless competition and a winner-take-all mentality.
The Altairian finished the paper with the conclusion that “all Earthlings need to be reassured by others of their race. When human beings go too long without reassurance, they feel like being violent. But when they are kind to one another, they find that to be one of their greatest joys. It’s almost worth it to be an Earthling.”
(Pankratz is a marriage and family therapist at Catholic Charities Milwaukee regional office.)