This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 3 2017
The Unkindness of Strangers
July 24 was the anniversary of my discovery that my G-Mail accounts had been hacked. Soon afterwards my Facebook account was also hacked and hi-jacked and I lost contact with many real as well as virtual friends and with family members. My bank accounts were not hacked but I did lose money because I lost contact with editors who published my work. Even friends I had known for many years became suspicious of me. It was a horrendous experience and I wrote about various aspects of it in these pages.
One of the most disturbing aspects was that I was victim of seemingly vindictive acts perpetrated by a complete stranger. A malevolent stranger, for no discernible rational purpose, rifled through my personal correspondence on G-Mail and used the information gathered to try to convince people that he was me. I think I know his name now but I still know nothing about him or what his real motives were. I doubt that he made much money from the hacking. He had the gall face to write this to me:
“I am sorry for all the problems i have caused you this past few days. However, i want you to know the follwing (sic): I don’t know you nor have any particular personal motivation for taking over your mailbox other than looking for little money to survive on. I am willing to hand you all i have taken from you if you will help me with very little money to enable me settle my school bills. I know i have wronged you but please i need your help. I will let you know how to prevent future hacks as creating new emails is not the best line of action.”
A real-life friend tried to engage with my hacker and got a threatening response. All pretence of being me was dropped: Using the name “Spitfire” he sent this message: “Maybe you should just mind your business because your email might be next.PS: tell your friend that this is what happens when he tries to recover the email i already hacked into. If he tries recovering it with any other email then he looses that one too!”
Kindness to Strangers
Had he simply asked me for help he might have had more success than he did by disrupting my life. In one of his messages to my real-life friends he revealed that he had gathered from looking through my personal correspondence that I was in the process of giving away my home to the local Buddhist temple to be used as a meditation centre. He could also have read that I had previously given away my car to the High Priest of the local temple so that he could more easily perform his official duties and attend his clinic appointments. The car itself has become a community project. A local mechanic, without charging, has put everything right that was mechanically wrong and spray-painted the car. He said how can he expect payment when we gave the car as a gift. Many little accoutrements and furbelows have been proudly added. A local builder constructed a new garage free of charge to house the vehicle and the completion of the structure was marked with a little ceremony with songs sung by small schoolchildren.
Every month, I make regular payments to people in need and often make one-off payments to complete strangers. I write all of this not to boast of my own saintliness but to demonstrate the effectiveness of direct and active rather than passive charity. Not everyone will have the time and circumstances to be active and giving is probably better than not giving even if we do not investigate the political background. While charity doesn’t always benefit the intended recipient, it usually manages to make the donor feel better.
The anniversary of the hacking came at a time when I was reading a book called On Kindness, co-authored by Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst, and Barbara Taylor, a historian of ideas. In the book, they argue that in our contemporary times kindness has become something almost to be ashamed of. “Bullish capitalism harnessed to counterrevolution pushed kindness from the moral centre. Kindness was steadily downgraded from a universal imperative to the prerogative of specific social constituencies”.
“An image of the self has been created that is utterly lacking in natural generosity. Most people appear to believe that deep down they (and other people) are mad, bad and dangerous to know; that as a species – apparently unlike other species of animal – we are deeply and fundamentally antagonistic to each other”. This follows on from Thomas Hobbes’s view in Leviathan (1651) that human life is nasty, brutish and short and is a matter of “all against all”.
They contrast this with the different view taken by another philosopher, David Hume. Hume insisted that any person foolish enough to deny the existence of human kindness had lost touch with emotional reality. In his A Treatise on Human Nature (1740), Hume claimed that sympathy was the necessary foundation of morality. He insisted, in his later work, that sympathy for others was experienced by everybody, part of the essential nature of man.
In his review of On Kindness in the New York Times, Peter Stevenson wrote: “By walling ourselves off from our inner kindness, we end up skulking around, hoarding scraps from the lost magical kindness of childhood, terrified that our hatred is stronger than our love.” This echoes what Lewis Hyde wrote in his book The Gift (Subtitled How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World) that in a market economy, wealth is increased by ’saving’. In a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is circulation within the community that generates increase in connections and strong relationships.
“At its strongest we have come to believe that feeling too much for others – being too sympathetic – either endangers our lives or is against our natures”. Taylor and Phillips argue that kindness is dangerous because it creates vulnerability: “kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others”. “By involving us with strangers . . . as well as with intimates, it is potentially far more promiscuous than sexuality.”
Delicate Web of Reciprocity
There is much evidence that other animals besides human beings can enter into the sufferings and fears of others of their kind. On the lake in front of our house, there is a goose and two ducks who are constantly together. We have a daily ritual of feeding them every evening. One evening, the duck with the orange bill was missing and we became concerned. Eventually we found it hiding in the undergrowth. Its back was badly torn and it was having difficulty walking. We applied Betadine to the wound and telephoned the vet and who came quite quickly in the pet ambulance. We kept the duck indoors in a cat carrier overnight. The goose and the other duck were distraught and were waiting anxiously outside our gate until morning when we released their companion. The next time the vet came they tried to get into our house where their friend was being treated. The duck is still able to swim but the leg injury makes walking difficult. Her companions make sure she is looked after. Often one sees cows on the roadside grooming each other. A couple of street dogs in our shopping precinct are always together and I saw the male licking the female’s ear.
This kind of empathy is not the same as sentimentality. One must be kind even to people one does not like, people who are not one’s ‘kind’. Kindness means accommodating the unpleasantness of other people, dealing with conflict and aggression. Kindness means seeing people as they are but treating them well anyway.
I am sorry if I seem selfish and egotistical about this but I feel good about paying for electricity to be put into someone’s home, good about giving money to a man whose child has hideous deformities requiring constant surgery. Does Atthula feel good about threatening elderly ladies who are offering to send him money but cannot afford as much as he asks? You do not need to die to experience hell Atthula. You are hell and you will never be free of it.