Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Border of Twilight, Part II: Kindness That Can Kill

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to  love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
                                                  -Micah 7:8

This command weighs down heavily on those who walk the border of twilight.
Plato defines justice as "minding your own business," that is, "having and doing what is your own, what naturally belongs to you." This is a reasonable definition, when you stop to think about it, since it involves going about one's vocation diligently, remaining loyal to one's friends and family, and not meddling with or aggressing against other people.  It seems a helpful concept, one which can be readily applied to the Christian life, that is, until the disconnect emerges between the "do" and the "don't" of justice.

This conflict is sure to arise in the minds of those who walk the border.  Justice demands that each of us "mind our own business" in that we must fulfill our responsibilities to friends, family, coworkers/employers, teachers/students and the like, showing respect towards all people and investing in the lives of others as our relationships with them require.  But justice also demands that we "mind our own business" in that we stay out of affairs in which we have no responsibility or right to interfere. 

So where is the line between what is "our business" and what is not?  How are we supposed to tell whether that personal problem our friend is having is something we can help with or not?  How do we know whether our interference will be helpful or harmful?  Who tells the parent when his child is old enough to make his own decisions - and thereby to make his own bad ones?  Who tells the concerned friend when his counterpart desires his presence and when he wants to be left alone?  Who tells the philanthropist if he will be greeted as a long-awaited hero or rebuffed as a condescending fool?  How are we supposed to "mind our own business" when we don't know what our business is?

Kindness also seems a straightforward concept, until the lines between cruelty and kindness become blurred in the perpetual twilight of the border.  Bring the light into the realm of darkness, and we might well sear the eyes of the dwellers therein with a blinding glare.  Those encouraging words we speak to our friend might seem helpful, but to them they may be shallow and empty, attempting to lay a happy veneer over their deep pain.  Well-meaning attempts to give advice backfire when the recipient lashes out at out failure to comprehend the depths of his suffering.  Trying to "just be there for someone" flies back in our face when we realize that he really just wants us out of his life completely.  Experience can be no guide, for words and actions that encourage and comfort one person might offend another.  Kindness doesn't mean much when every kind act we perform could very well feel like a punch in the gut to the recipient.

Finally, the high and commendable virtue of humility is sure to bring peace and unity to any community, but not to those who walk the border.  For if humility, as C.S. Lewis writes, is not thinking less of ourselves but merely thinking of ourselves less, then border-dwellers have little ground to stand on when considering this command to be "walk humbly."  To think of others instead of ourselves is surely an admirable goal, but on the border of twilight, to think of others necessarily means that we must also consider our own roles in their lives: whatever we can do to assist the sufferers for whom our soul pines.  But pride lies in waiting whatever we do.  For to aid the suffering, in a sense, is to put ourselves in a superior position to them, able to help them due to our superior understanding of their situation.  To withdraw from the situation, on the other hand, is to distance ourselves from the suffering, once again placing ourselves in a "superior" position, one free from the brokenness of others' lives.  Even to suffer with the suffering, to sit by their side and to listen to their complaints, is to assume that they want us there, that their affection for us transcends their pain, which in many cases is a dangerous assumption, founded in pride and not in reality.

Justice, kindness, and humility: three commendable virtues, good in themselves and beneficial in practice.  But confusing concepts for those who walk the border.  For although we may be able to identify and define justice, kindness, and humility, we cannot discern the feelings of others, the depths of the labyrinths of their minds, the backgrounds behind their situations, all of the factors that influence the application of these virtues.  How are we supposed "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God" when we don't know what is just, what is kind, and what is humble?  Therefore this Scriptural instruction becomes a burden for us, a cause for confusion, a catalyst for conflict, a cognitive crisis for us when we don't know the difference between kindness that heals and kindness that can kill.

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