December 2020 Touchstones Theme: “Kindness”

William Kittredge wrote, “Many of us live with a sense that there is something deeply wrong in our society. Many feel our culture has lost track of the reasons one thing is more significant than another. We are fearful and driven to forget the most basic generosities.” Nicolaus Mills argues that a culture of meanness has come to characterize many aspects of our nation’s social attitudes. He writes, “Meanness today is a state of mind, the product of a culture of spite and cruelty that has had an enormous impact on us.” The culture of meanness has been on steroids over the past four years with horrifying impact in America on people of color and immigrants.

 There have been many periods in which “cruelty targeted the vulnerable” beyond the above: Indian removal, anti-Semitism, McCarthyism, anti-LGBTQ, violence against women, etc. This new and growing meanness is pervasive as it seeks to withstand public scrutiny because it has become “part of our everyday world in ways that we now take for granted.”

Mills argues that the “new meanness is style and attitude, meanness without guilt,” as evidenced by white supremacists proudly marching in Charlottesville. We see it in growing incivility, both public and private; the demand for a vile “entertainment” offered by radio and cable personalities. And it has been a staple of the 45th president where meanness is a staple amplified by acts of cruelty.

 Meanness and it coarser forms are not new. In the 4th century the Christian monk, Evagrius Ponticus, included anger as one of eight evil thoughts. In the 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great revised this list to create the seven deadly sins. Meanness was subsumed under the sin of wrath. Beginning in the early 14th century, European artists used the seven deadly sins in their work, which sought to warn against them in Christian culture and consciousness, and oppose them in society. 

 In Dante’s, The Divine Comedy, hell is divided into nine concentric circles, with the fifth circle corresponding to the deadly sin of wrath. Understood as meanness, wrath includes feelings of anger and hatred, and acts of violence. While the deadly sin of wrath has traditionally been paired with the virtue of patience, the virtue of kindness is the better and more necessary antidote.

In a sense, acts of kindness are the fundamental expression of goodness. In his book, The Fragility of Goodness, Tzvetan Todorov writes, “Once evil is introduced into public view, it spreads easily, whereas goodness is temporary, difficult, rare, and fragile. And yet possible.” 

Join us during the month of December as we explore the importance of kindness in our lives.

Exploring Kindness

Touchstones Journal

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Ways to Engage Kindness This Month