So yesterday, a young man knocked on my door. I live in the suburbs and work from home, so his happens from time to time. I always answer the door, because about half the time, it’s the postie delivering something and I really don’t want to have to go to the post office to pick it up. Occasionally, it’s even a friend or neighbour! But often, it’s someone who wants me to do or buy something (and yes, I consider changing electricity providers as ‘buying something’).
If they are collecting for a charity, I consider the request. If they are kids selling school fundraising chocolates or the like, I buy some. (It’s only neighbourly and I am, after all, a writer. Coffee and chocolate are necessary adjuncts to the creative process.) If they open with ‘I’m not selling anything,’ they get short shrift, as I object to being lied to. (The politeness or otherwise of the short shrift depends on whether they let me get a word in edgewise and how well the writing was going before they interrupted.)
Yesterday, though, was different. The lad at the door was representing a company that provides solar installations at a discount through community bulk buys. I don’t know anything about the company, because I already have solar, so I didn’t bother researching them. But it seemed at least a reasonable idea, and I don’t object to being offered a reasonable thing politely.
Anyway, once we had established that I wasn’t a potential customer, he asked me what kind of work I do. I told him I was a writer and he then asked me if I was a philosopher (which is not a segue I’ve had before, so props to him for that).
He asked me if I was an existentialist, then without really giving me a chance to answer, asked if I knew what existentialism was. (Bless. My first brush with existentialism was probably before he was born.) I temporized, because I know these discussions on existentialism. Seasons can change before they’re over and I had work to do.
So then he asked me, ‘what’s your philosophy of life?’
As random questions in the mid-afternoon go, it was a doozy. But he was a sweet and apparently sincere young man, so instead of telling him to get lost with his unanswerable questions, I answered it.
No, I’m not kidding. I actually came up with an answer to that question, off the cuff. And bizarrely enough, I think it’s a pretty good answer.
So, what did I say?
I said, ‘Be kind to people.’
I don’t think it satisfied him. He wanted me to quote a school of philosophy, a Big Idea that he could argue with. I know, because after a short stunned silence, he came back with ‘but you said you were an existentialist!’
I pointed out that it was he who had brought up existentialism, not I, and further confused him by adding,
‘And when kindness isn’t enough, be fierce.’
I added that because, while he was floundering around looking for a Big Idea to hang an argument on, I had reflected that there is too much injustice in the world for kindness alone to be a complete answer. Sometimes you have to fight. I could have said, ‘when you can’t be kind, be fierce,’ but I don’t think that kindness and fighting in the cause of justice are mutually exclusive. Indeed, I would argue that they must not be. Once we abandon compassion, we lose whatever moral superiority our cause might have had to begin with.
He still wasn’t satisfied, and would have continued, with vim, but I gently pointed out that I really did have to get on, wished him success and sent him on his way.
The conversation was not so easily dismissed, though. It has been kicking around in the back of my mind ever since and on reflection, I like this ‘philosophy’ that leapt up out of my subconscious in response to his challenge. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t suddenly think that it’s the be-all and end-all of philosophy. I’m not suggesting that we should stop exploring and arguing and searching for Truth – far from it.
But for a workaday philosophy that covers a lot of what I believe and provides a blueprint for action, I like it – with one small edit, since I think the kindness goes for everything, not just people.
Be kind. And when kindness isn’t enough, be fierce.
That’s my philosophy. What’s yours?