This week there has been a lot of chatter in the news about a TikTok phenomenon that has gone somewhat sour. There are several influential young TikTok creators who have devoted themselves to performing 'random acts of kindness' on their channels, and sharing video of them doing so in order to inspire others to do the same. The 'random acts' range from giving strangers compliments, flowers, money or even more substantial gifts. Some of the channels have millions of followers, who are enthralled by all of these acts. Sounds very positive, what could be wrong with doing nice things for people and encouraging others to do the same?
Well, the problem here of course is that for some of these it's not just about the kindness, it's about the clicks. The goal often isn't to do something nice but to get good footage to engage your followers. And many of the recipients of the kindness don't like being used in this way, and can feel ambushed and dehumanized in the process. They may receive an unexpected (and possibly unwanted) bunch of flowers, but their likeness and reaction is then used for the benefit of the content creator. This has lead to much discussion on the ethics of these so-called 'random acts of kindness.'
As I was reading all of the discussions on this many things arose in my mind, a couple of which I will share with you here. Turning intentions of kindness into action is remarkably hard, and it is so easy for things to go wrong.
One of the first things I thought of was the well-known example of when the late chef Anthony Bourdain was filming in Haiti. He and his crew had stopped to film at a roadside soup stall, and after filming him trying the food he recognized that they were a bunch of rich Americans eating while a group of young kids were starving around them. So they paid for the whole of the day's food at the stall and allowed the children to have some free food.
Which all sounds wonderful and noble, but it soon got quite ugly. Bigger kids, who were equally starving, arrived and pushed away the younger ones, and then came the adults, who were also starving, and very soon the 'act of kindness' turned into a full blown riot with violence and people getting beaten. You can hear Anthony Bourdain reflecting on this experience here - it is worth listening to as it shows how a well-intentioned act can have very negative results.
A number of years ago I attended a weekend retreat with Sharon Salzberg and she shared a teaching that was very helpful for me, and I hope it will be helpful for you too. It speaks to exactly these issues and gives us a bit of a roadmap for how to navigate the tricky issue of how to turn Metta - lovingkindness or goodwill - into action. And - I want to be clear on this point - action is important. It isn't enough to just have warm and fuzzy feelings for people. If we are truly filled with Metta we will be drawn to somehow reducing the suffering of others. And that is tricky, which is why I found Sharon Salzberg's teaching so powerful.
She encourages us to think about action as having three parts - intention, execution and outcome.
Starting with intention, our actions should start from a place of love and compassion, of a genuine desire to bring joy to or alleviate the suffering of the other person. While it is not for me to judge the motivations of the TikTok creators, there is clearly a possibility for an impure motive, that the desire for clicks, likes and monetization is the true driver rather than the desire to actually bring joy. In Anthony Bourdain's case it feels like the motivation was truly one of compassion for the starving kids (it is possible that it was from pity, the near-enemy of compassion). On the surface at least it seems like the intention was positive. So what went wrong?
The second part of outcome is execution, and this is where things get interesting. We are taught that we should actually perform acts with skill (kusala) - and to use our best skill. Part of this skill is having the wisdom to know whether we have sufficient skill. It is possible to have the most compassionate and noble of intentions, but to perform the action without the necessary skill. This is what happened in Haiti, he didn't understand the dynamic, that the depth of starvation around him meant that the well-intentioned act would have seriously negative consequences. With 20-20 hindsight it can be seen that this wasn't a skillful act, though I am not at all sure that if I were in the same position I would have been able to predict the outcome either.
Which brings us to the third part of taking action - the outcome. The first two parts are within our control. We can examine our intentions and motivations, and question their purity to better ensure that our actions stem from a root of love and compassion. Having done that we can develop and work on our skills, and be sure that when we take action we are using our 'best skills,' and that we have the wisdom to know when our own skills are lacking. The third aspect, the outcome, is however outside of our control. We can never know fully the complexity of what is going on for the other person, where they are in themselves and how they are feeling. Sharon Salzberg teaches us that if we have examined our intentions, and acted with our best skill, then we have to let go of any attachment to the outcome. It needs to be a true gift - one where we attach no control or even desire as to how the gift will be used.
I find that viewing compassionate action in this way, with these three simple steps, is extremely useful and also explains why sometimes things go wrong. I hope that it is useful to you too.
P.S. I would like to thank all of you for your patience over the last few weeks as I was away for a number of reasons. And special thanks for those of you who wished me well for the vacation part of my absence - yes I had a wonderful, relaxing time in CDMX and came back refreshed!
P.P.S. I have written before about how Wisdom and Compassion go hand in hand, and the above is an example of how important it is to develop both. I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation on the Bell and the Dorje, and how they can remind us to cultivate both compassion and wisdom together.