Charles Bukowski’s Poem, ‘Be Kind’

Charles Bukowski
Charles Bukowski.

You know what another great aspect of poetry is, and why it pulls me in? Because like any great work of art, it can challenge me and my own perspectives. The latest Charles Bukowski poem I want to look at, Be Kind, does exactly that.

Here it is:

we are always asked
to understand the other person’s
viewpoint
no matter how
outdated
foolish or
obnoxious.
one is asked
to view
their total error
their life-waste
with
kindliness,
especially if they are
aged.
but age is the total of
our doing.
they have aged
badly
because they have
lived
out of focus,
they have refused to
see.
not their fault?
whose fault?
mine?
I am asked to hide
my viewpoint
from them
for fear of their
fear.
age is no crime
but the shame
of a deliberately
wasted
life
among so many
deliberately
wasted
lives
is.

My modus operandi is to be kind to people, or another way of putting it, at times, is “accommodating.” I’m a people-pleaser, in many respects, and I don’t like to unnecessarily get into confrontations. I’m more of an ideas person. That is, I can be more biting, brash and confrontational when it comes to ideas rather than people. But people, even if they hold ideas for which I’m being confrontational about? I’ll probably be more tactful.

Let me be particularly precise here, though: I’m not saying I’m presenting a false kindness. I endeavor to be a good person and I think that means being authentically and genuinely kind to other people for its own sake, with no expectation of anything in return. When I say, at times, I’m being accommodating, that means I’m being accommodating to someone who I disagree with on issues, but I don’t want to get into an argument with them, i.e., I’d rather keep the peace than make war.

I don’t think this Bukowski poem changes my overall view on that idea. I can disagree vehemently with someone on any number of ideas and still be friends with them.

But.

Bukowski makes a good point as far as this idea of accommodation is applied to those with “outdated, foolish or obnoxious” ideas. I’m down with not accommodating or giving any quarter to bigots, misogynists, homophobes, and so on. We should always be courageous enough to call those people out because the moment we stop doing so, they make inroads. Or they think we implicitly approve of their ideas.

What particularly struck me and challenged me in reading this poem was centering it on age. I can’t get over these lines in particular, “but age is the total of/our doing./they have aged/badly/because they have/lived/out of focus.”

We, and I, certainly are accommodating of older people and it’s almost a paternalistic hand-waving, “Oh, they’re old.” Like, we’ve written them off — and whatever ideas they advocate — as being the product of old age, as if old age is a cover for bad ideas. As if, contrary to Bukowski’s thought, old age isn’t the sum total of a life well-lived, but a rationale for someone’s bad ideas.

This even spreads to the “outdated, foolish or obnoxious” ideas. How many of us have had family relatives, in old age, say bigoted things, and we excuse it as old age? I know I have. But that’s asinine, and the sign of a “life wasted,” or more, a life “deliberately wasted.”

There’s always been parallels made between toddlers and older individuals; the whole, diapers to diapers thing, and needing to be taken care of. I don’t know how well that actually holds up, but one parallel that does seem salient: Coddling. We can coddle old people the same way we coddle toddlers, but you can understand it more with a toddler, not so much the older person.

As Bukowski says, why be in fear of their fear? Accommodation certainly has its downsides, but worse is thinking someone who thinks and says ugly things at old age is doing it because they are old rather than someone who lived a life “out of focus.” That’s an affront to getting older. I don’t expect that when I hit my 70s, I’ll turn into a bigot or start thinking stupid things (some would argue I think stupid things now, but you know what I mean).

A long life well-lived ought to bring wisdom and understanding, not be cover for a stunted, unfruitful life.

What do you make of this poem? 

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