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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Risk Avoidance: Accentuating the Negative

"The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, 
but Teflon for positive ones."

 (Rick Hanson, Ph.D. "Taking in the Good." July 6th, 2010)

Negativity is prevalent everywhere: nothing is going right; things are getting worse; people just care about "number one"; and never trust a stranger are common themes. Distrust and feelings of doom and gloom pervade human relationships as people become more and more defensive and fear nearly everything containing an ounce of personal risk or a sliver of doubt.

The populace is conditioned to think in terms of "what is wrong?" Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist and New York Times best-selling author, contends that if you are a person who lies down at the end of a long day and thinks about everything that went right, you are a rare specimen, indeed. Instead, you most likely think about the fifty things that went wrong, not the fifty things that went right.

Hanson says:

"Your Velcro brain picks up all the negativity of the day 'like the guy who cut you off in traffic, what you wish you had said differently to a co-worker, or the one thing on your To Do list that didn’t get done... That shades 'implicit memory' -- your underlying expectations, beliefs, action strategies, and mood -- in an increasingly negative direction."

 (Rick Hanson, Ph.D. "Taking in the Good." July 6th, 2010)  

Although humans crave kindness, with kindness comes a perception of danger. Despite the honest intention to give and to receive kindness, people are often suspicious of it. In fact, it scares many because it has become our hidden pleasure.

In their book On Kindness, Barbara Taylor, historian, and Adam Phillips, psychoanalyst, explore the history of kindness. They find that "kindness" is a rough equivalent of the Christian non-erotic love, or charity, though it was embraced as a virtue and a source of pleasure by Cicero.

The philosopher Seneca and the Epicureans believed that a man sought friends for purely instrumental reasons and needed kindness for inner fulfillment. "No one," concluded Seneca, "can live a happy life if he turns everything to his own purposes. Live for others if you want to live for yourself."

Later, Christianity preached kindness as the obligation of charity to others famously extolled by St Paul in his Epistle to the Corinthians.

"Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up."

(King James Bible. 1 Corinthians 13:4)

The Christian view was also that much of humanity is sinful and damned. In the 17th century the influential philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously concluded that life was "warre of alle against alle."

Taylor and Phillips offer their own definition of kindness, using Freud to root their argument. Their idea (via Freud) is essentially this:

"When we're children, we idealize concordance with the world. We don't yet have the frontal cortex to conceptualize the difference between a 'me' and all of the physical stuff we hear, taste, and feel. We simply feel as if everything is one thing--existence without description. That's an initial vision of bliss. 

"But as we grow up, we begin to separate one thing from another, label it all, and come to identify with a sense of "me," in contrast to other people and events. This is how self-interest--aggression and defensiveness--develop. As we learn about the difference between ourselves and the world, we want to protect ourselves, to fight for our recognition or existence. 

"Freud, the authors admit, comes to a standstill at this stage of maturity--saying that for most of our lives, we're aggressive in defending the self. We want to have sex to protect our bloodline; we largely want to protect or proclaim our stance in the world."

 (Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor. On Kindness. 2010) 

The authors contend, "Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers." Phillips and Taylor say as people wall themselves off from their inner kindness, they end up skulking around, becoming terrified that their hatred is stronger than their love. What a dilemma for the exercise of kindness. 

Hanson believes the negativity bias shows up in lots of ways. For example, studies have found that:

• In a relationship, it typically takes five good interactions to make up for a single bad one.
• People will work much harder to avoid losing $100 than they will work to gain the same amount of money.
• Painful experiences are much more memorable than pleasurable ones.

All of these researchers agree that kindness is a high modality of human behavior. It means moving from an infant's idealism, on to a young person's defensiveness, on to a wiser willingness for vulnerability.

The "wise-and-kind" are the people who give in order to risk and thereby create. Unlike children who want everyone to "make nice," the "wise-and-kind" adults must acknowledge their own vulnerability and defensiveness to be pleasant. In good faith, kindness will lead to collaboration, and, thus, good collaboration demands a giving and taking of gifts without any guarantee of reward.

I Wonder

Do you go for conventional expressions of gratitude? How about your belief in small acts of kindness that seem to be shown as honest charity? And, do you trust in the mighty expressions of philanthropic gifts afforded by those with great resources? I think most can see their innate sense of doubt concerning this hidden pleasure of kindness. Our human condition easily sways into mistrust and negativity. The question becomes this: "Do we have an obligation to extend kindness even though we fear the risks?"

The honored ideals of self-reliance and independence lead many of us to think that kindness toward others, particularly kindness shown among strangers, is either a weakness, a luxury, or a more sophisticated form of selfishness. It is a pitiful realization to accept that benevolence may no longer be held as an ideal of human disposition. In the 21st century, we have become very adept in seeking "what is wrong" but much less gracious in offering and accepting human kindness as "what is right."


By Louise Glück

Do not think I am not grateful for your small
kindness to me.
I like small kindnesses.
In fact I actually prefer them to the more
substantial kindness, that is always eying you
like a large animal on a rug,
until your whole life reduces
to nothing but waking up morning after morning
cramped, and the bright sun shining on its tusks.

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