Note: I wrote this article around the time of the first Covid-19 outbreak and lockdown.
I’ve been thinking about kindness.
I’ve never written a blog post like this before. Personal and a little political. But I’ve been thinking about kindness and what it really means because I have been deeply disturbed by the accounts coming through the media lately of families who have been denied access to loved ones during their last days.
I know what it’s like to not be there when someone close to you is dying. Not Covid-19 related, but over the last 10 years Mum, Dad and my brother have all sadly been taken by cancer. I wasn’t there at the exact moment they died because they lived in other countries and cities, but I was able to spend time with them and say my final goodbyes. So I can imagine how painful it is for those in quarantine being locked out of hospitals, hospices, and homes, unable to see their loved ones. It’s unfathomably cruel, and this is an area where our country is failing us.
In trying to show kindness, we can often do more harm. There can be unintended consequences.
The South Africa Society of Actuaries has just released a research paper projecting that if their economically restrictive lockdown measures are not discontinued immediately, they may cause 29 times more deaths than the measures aim to prevent.
We’ve all been asked to be kind, but well-intentioned as that is, manifesting empathy and kindness is about much more than just a “feel good” slogan. We need to use our heads as well as our hearts. And we need to consider the needs of the many, not just the few. It’s easy to feel the plight of certain groups while cutting off from feeling the plight of others.
The need for intelligence and insight
True kindness is not possible without intelligence and insight. It requires experience and intuitive insight to deeply understand the world around us. Without that deep understanding, true kindness is impossible, and it can lead, unintentionally, to bad outcomes. That’s because it can create a situation where the suffering of a small group can matter more than the suffering of thousands.
A great example of someone who lives by this principle is Bill Gates. He doesn’t get caught up in the “warm glow” of celebrity philanthropy, the aspirational rhetoric, and symbolic gestures. His philanthropy is driven by intelligence and practical insights. He takes the time to gain a deep understanding of what’s going on and develops science-based solutions to solve stubborn problems. It’s a very effective approach and he will be remembered in history as someone who achieved great things.
A new model: rational compassion
Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale. He has written a book called Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. He believes that empathy is a bad tool to use for allocating resources, because we have a limited capacity for feeling the pain of others and we tend to identify with those who remind us of ourselves. This is one of the reasons why governments and individuals often appear to care more about a little girl stuck in a well than an event that will affect millions.
In the book he talks about a series of studies where psychologists asked one group how much money they would give to help develop a drug that would save the life of one child. They then asked another group how much they would give to save the lives of eight children. People gave roughly the same amount in both cases.
When a third group of subjects was told the child’s name and shown her picture, the donations shot up and exceeded the donations of the group asked to save eight lives.
This is known as “the identifiable victim effect”.
It’s natural that one person’s story is always more compelling than a group’s stories. However in these difficult times, we need to be careful that we take a rational, balanced, holistic, insight-led approach to manifesting empathy and kindness to everyone in our society affected by the pandemic. The rest home residents. The health care workers. The people waiting for elective surgery. Those diagnosed with serious diseases. Families with loved ones dying. Mothers giving birth. Workers who have lost their jobs. Business owners who are about to lose their dream. Tourism operators. Airline workers. Bar and restaurant owners. The list goes on.
Let’s continue to practice daily acts of kindness on a personal level, but at a government / national level I believe that our well-intentioned, “kind” Covid-19 policies must cease causing further pain and heartache.
PS. Here’s a feel-good story to come out of Covid-19, to inject some kindness and positivity into this blog post 🙂