Can an Individualistic Society be Kind as Well?

On jostling egos and personal branding

Photo by Anh Le on Unsplash

I believe kindness should have no other motivation than expressing compassion and care for our fellow humans. The way we do this is by treating them with compassion and care.

Isn’t knowing you have successfully shared a little human warmth with another being reward enough?

Connection and unconditional love are gifts. They demand nothing in return and only hope for acceptance, for another being to receive them in the spirit in which they were offered.

The drive to alleviate distress when we witness someone else’s pain or troubles is what makes us human. If someone is drowning, do we jump in to help or do we first pause to consider what advantages we might derive from being the hero of the day?

Is kindness still kindness, though, when it becomes a calculated move to garner attention, plaudits, and financial gain?

Is kindness still kindness when we weaponize it and use it as a way to show others we’re morally superior to them? Should kindness draw attention to itself?

Promoting human welfare is incumbent to us all and nothing less than our shared responsibility as members of society.

Or, at least. it is in many cultures, including the one I was born in. We French take “liberté, égalité, fraternité” so seriously we display the republic’s motto on every single public building. From city halls to schools via to police stations and more besides it is impossible not to see it. Same thing when you receive mail as it features on every stamp.

As a result, the values those words represent are deeply enshrined in public consciousness because people tend to be the product of the environment they grew up in.

Children who are raised with a focus on equality, solidarity, and collaboration will often blossom into helpful adults. But when the focus is on individualism, materialism, and competition from birth, altruism can be misconstrued.

Instead, we can’t help but examine every human interaction under the lens of mutual benefit because this is how we’ve been socialized.

Rather than an expression of fellow feeling, being kind becomes a transaction to try and monetize selflessness.

But “What’s in it for me?” doesn’t mean “How can I help?”

Being conditioned to put yourself first makes practicing kindness impossible.

As long as personal gain is in the back of your mind, kindness remains a misnomer for self-interest, as epitomized by the phrase “it pays to be kind.”

But isn’t solidarity innate?

Basic human decency doesn’t need prompts or incentives, just the courage to take a stand for the common good, even if this is at our personal expense.

And yet, philanthropy works on the principle that giving always means getting something back, often in the form of tax deductions. Designed to compensate for our moral failings, this approach is as endemic to North America as it is to Europe. Of course, whether to claim deductions or not remains a personal choice.

Resourceful and self-aware, philanthropy has found a way to enforce basic decency by outsmarting our selfish nature while still reminding us of our shared humanity. So what if it’s become big business? If corporate tax cuts can save lives by funding medical research, why not?

Philanthropic organizations often step in and make up for the shortcomings of governments to improve life for everybody. Applying business parameters to altruism to turn vision into reality is what philanthropy does.

Although those foundations have chairs and CEOs, the foundations themselves and many of the people who run them are driven by nothing more than the desire to transcend societal ills.

What is the meaning of life but to leave the world a little better than we found it?

In our endless quest for clues about how to live an “authentic” life, the topic of legacy often crops up. Mostly, it’s about how much cash and real estate we can amass in our lifetime rather than contributing to society in a way that will outlive us.

In that context, kindness can easily be hijacked and used as a front to manipulate others by making them believe we’re being altruistic.

When pride, arrogance, and the desire to look like we’re doing the right thing dictate our actions, kindness becomes pettiness in a ball gown, a mirage designed to tap into pathos and pay lip service to what society craves.

But kindness neither needs nor demand an audience. Kindness isn’t a performance but humility in action. As long as we’re able to set our ego aside, we can all practice it.

What better way to push back against individualism?

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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