Some Kind of Kindness

Scenario one: you are in perfect health and in a loving relationship. You are not rich but your material needs are met. You live in a society that allows you to be yourself. However, people treat each other poorly. Kindness is rare and hardly anyone will ever lend a helping hand, no matter what the need. Are you happy there?

bolder4According to statistics, probably not. On the whole, people prefer to live in a society in which humans help each other. Whether it is a town picnic to raise money for the family hit with insane medical bills or a nationwide effort to send relief to flood victims, the fact that folks look out for each other, even somewhat, makes us all feel better. Interesting, huh?

Where do I get this idea? Well, several times now I’ve posted about a report on which countries have the happiest people. I spent some time reading the report once I became intrigued to learn that six attributes account for most of the variation in world happiness. I summed up the six categories as health, wealth, freedom, love, kindness and fairness. I’ve already written about the first four and today I’m thinking about kindness.

The very idea that humans prefer a world in which people look out for each other flies in the face of the writings and philosophies of a still popular author from the 1950’s named Ayn Rand. Ms. Rand grew up in a totalitarian country, and she brought her hatred of government and social obligations with her to the United States where her flair for writing fiction enabled her to reach a wide audience with her ideas. Part of her philosophy, known as objectivism, involved the importance of personal freedom and personal wealth, and these concepts resonated with many. It’s not surprising. Both have been shown to play an important role in human happiness.

raising8As to health and love, the heroes of Ms. Rand’s books were always in perfect health, in spite of smoking a great deal of cigarettes, and they generally found love, at least the romantic variety. However, they all really hated the idea of helping out anyone else, and I think this is where Ms. Rand ultimately lost a lot of followers.

One could argue that we prefer a kinder society simply because each of us hopes that we would be helped if we were in desperate need, but I think it is more than that. Somewhere deep inside, most of us get that we are linked. A natural disaster elsewhere effects us with its ripples, a tragedy in our town saddens not just our neighbors, but us as well. Pulling together to overcome the problems foisted on us by fate or by acts of human destruction makes us all realize that we are stronger together. Being strong feels good. Overcoming adversity makes us happy. We can overcome more adversity when we work together. Working together requires kindness. It’s an equation that resonates inside each of us.

sungazing4How did the happiness survey measure kindness? Good question. For each of the attributes they sought out simple, black and white yardsticks and in this case I do not think that they were able to find one that was adequate. They went with using philanthropy; normalizing donations made based on population and income. While this might be be somewhat indicative of kindness in wealthier counties, even there it also reflects extraneous variables like tax codes and social norms. And for countries in which people barely make enough to meet their own needs, helping others is more likely to be found in giving shelter or food to strangers, or by providing services like health care or construction help to those beset by disasters. These acts of generosity work to hold the society together and bring joy to all, and yet they were missed by the yardstick used. I suspect that many low-income countries received lower happiness scores because of this.

In the end, of course, no country’s ranking matters. What does matter is how the people who live there feel. Are they happy? If it is common to extend kindness, any kind of kindness, to others, then yes. They are happier because they do so.

(For more posts on the subject of what makes us happy see If you want to be happy move to a cold country?, Happiness fascinates me, None of us are normal if we’re lucky, Four Reasons I Love It When “Love Wins”, The fairest of them all?, and When is it time for “More”?)

 

A political kindred spirit: A review of Scott Haworth’s novel Abraham Lincoln’s Lie

lincolnThere are two reasons why I want to speak highly of this book, and it’s fair to tell you of them. First, this book has a strong political slant, and it turns out that I largely share the author’s views. More-over, his sort of moderate-liberal-progressive outlook, in my opinion, shows up too infrequently in political fiction specifically written to make a point, and I admit up front to wishing to encourage him.
Second, this is the first review I have written for a self-published complete stranger since I myself became a self-published author reviewed by complete strangers. I recognize how important reviews are and what an accomplishment it is to produce a coherent novel, much less one with only two typos. I am inclined to be gentle. That being said …..

This is a novel that covers about a forty year span after the USA breaks in two to form a red nation and a blue nation. The author wisely glosses over details, but focuses instead on following a few key families in each of the new countries. It’s a good format and he develops some compelling characters and covers issues from foreign policy to gun control.

The biggest problem with the book is that it can’t quite decide if it wants to be realistic, or satire. The smaller satire parts work well, like the number of things in the red nation named after Ronald Reagan and the conservative states getting corporate sponsors for their aircraft carriers. Funny stuff, although I personally would appreciate the humor more if some of the satire went both ways. Let’s face it, there is plenty to laugh about throughout the political spectrum.

At the other extreme, the human drama that is not satire works well also, such as the story of the two gay men who find their home is in the red nation, and are forced to flee to the blue with their adopted daughter. To me this was the most emotionally compelling story line and these were the most fully drawn of all the characters.

It’s the stuff in between the satire and realism that gave me pause. The blue states gradually turn into utopia, while having no problems with debt or high taxes. They get along famously with other countries, and somehow encourage innovation among the citizenry in spite of more government controls. Lazy or greedy people do not play a role, a fact that I find very hard to believe. In fact, after forty years the place is so perfect that I briefly thought I might have fallen into conservation satire that had been waiting to reveal itself.

Meanwhile, the red nation fares far worse. Citizens roam the countryside with legal automatic weapons. Criminals are tried and executed within days, with no appeals. Sex education has been abolished and science is barely taught. The nation is plagued with teen births, ignorant angry people and wars it cannot afford. Absolutely nothing works better here. As satire, one can do this of course. As a realistic novel, I’d have been more engaged if the red nation produced some sympathetic characters and occasional unique solutions of its own. In the real world, there are truly good people across the political spectrum. I know, I am related to many of them. Furthermore, real politics is a messy nuanced business and there are surprises.

Two things to this author’s defense. His main protagonist is the conservative politician who causes the split to begin with, and he does infuse this one character with warmth and humanity (and of course with mounds of regret for what he has done). Secondly, I skimmed through a little Ayn Rand before writing this review. I have not read her in decades and wondered in retrospect how balanced her world in Atlas Shrugged really was. Not very, so this author is at least in renowned company. Unfortunately, at this point his writing lacks the plot intricacy and the suspense that Ayn showed in her two most famous novels. We aren’t compelled to find out how this book is going to end, but rather have a pretty good idea much of the way through it.

click cover to purchase for kindle

click cover to purchase for kindle

His character’s motivations are sometimes unclear and their emotions sometimes range significantly from one sentence to the next. Author Scott Haworth also shows no skill at all in folding in either romance or sex, both of which do add to a book’s wider appeal. Lacking all this, his one-sidedness is more apparent than Ayn’s and will likely be more irritating to any reader that does not more or less agree with him already.

However, Ayn did write a first novel, called “Anthem”, and years ago I read it. I’m not going to bother to reread it now just for this review, but I remember it as a short, shrill and simplistic treatise in which she outlines ideas that she would later convey with far more power. I am a much more critical reader these days, and I feel certain that “Abraham Lincoln’s Lie” is a better first political book than “Anthem”.

I wavered between giving “Abraham Lincoln’s Lie” 3 stars or 4. I am rounding up in hopes that this is the first of several political novels we will see from Scott Haworth, and that one day soon his skills will grow enough to be able to powerfully convey the fictionally underrepresented ideal of a freedom-loving progressive nation. I am really looking forward to reading those future works.