Random Acts of Death


Life doesn’t care how you feel.


You can tell a lot about a culture by what it considers heroic. In Tibet, heroism is dying. No, that’s not “heroism, as the concept, is dying.” That’s “heroism, as the act, is dying.” Self-immolations, as protest against China’s occupation, are at an all-time high on the roof of the world. This is when a Tibetan, usually a monk, goes to a public gathering, pours gasoline on himself, draws his tinderbox, and makes the concept of burning man literal.

These self-immolations put Tibetan leaders in a tight spot. They want to acknowledge them without encouraging them. Even people who believe in reincarnation don’t want to die.

Tibetan leaders, however, necessarily encourage self-immolations through their leadership, or lack thereof. Self-immolations are the byproduct of desperation, and desperation is the byproduct of being unable to deal with the world. Few things exemplify an inability to deal with the world like Tibet’s inability to deal with China.

China is 1.3 billion people who have no problem pushing around Tibet as long as it’s allowed. And it is allowed. Pacifism courses through Tibetans’ veins like their high red blood cell count. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, the apparent reincarnation of Buddha, is so whipped by China that he doesn’t even care about Tibetan independence anymore. He only cares about Tibetan autonomy. That’d be like if your girlfriend only lets you go out with your friends if there’s a chaperon who reports back to her.

And if you’re going to be a pacifist, at least don’t be a wussy about it. But Mr. Lama still seeks to “create dialogue” with China. “Create dialogue” is Tibetan for “I’ve never had to actually figure anything out because I was anointed as a living god when I was 15.”

So what’s going on? Why does Tibet continue to turn the other cheek, creating a zeitgeist of frustration that leaves hordes of their best men indistinguishable from cigarette butts?

As I’ve said before, you can usually explain counterproductive human behavior in one of two ways:

  1. It’s a mating ritual, but killing yourself to get a date is too stupid, even for religious people. Or,
  2. There’s a secondary emotional payoff.

By process of elimination, we conclude that since the Tibetans, according to their pacifist philosophy, cannot do anything about their situation, they must at least do something to make themselves feel good about their situation. When you’re helpless, martyrdom feels good even if you have to kill yourself to do it.


In America, we may not light ourselves on fire, but heroism is devolving into something just as fruitlessly satisfying as self-immolation. I speak, of course, of the random act of kindness.

Sure, kindness is good, but it’s only lower case “g” good. If you are in the position to help somebody, then helping that somebody is a thing to do. I live in the Jewish Nursing Home District of New York, so when I’m walking around, there’s usually an old lady out dropping her cane, or getting her wheelchair stuck in a sewer grate, all while pooping her pants. So I help when I can. But in the scheme of things, even though it makes me feel good to help, it’s not much more useful than if I were to light myself on fire to raise awareness for lax elderly care.

Except the random act of kindness in America, like the self-immolation in Tibet, is becoming the new heroism. Company after website after radio station after, of course, non-profit organization have all started a random act of kindness initiative. I’d cite specifics but Google exists. There’s even an organization that specializes in random acts of pizza. “Gee, thanks for the pizza, dude. I guess I’ll eat this, not because I want to, but rather to assuage your need to feel better about yourself. I’ll deal with the food coma on my own, then.”

More disconcerting is the rise in random acts of kindness campaigns that spring up after tragedies, like the Newtown shooting. The last thing we need after a tragedy is an emotional buffer. Rather, we need more random acts of thinking, or random acts of “let’s figure this out.”

So while kindness is nice, kindness is only nice. Kindness doesn’t fix anything. Kindness doesn’t improve, for example, the way journalism communicates information, and it doesn’t improve the way the public consumes information. Kindness doesn’t improve how people find an investment advisor who’s right for them. Kindness doesn’t improve the way we think about beer. Kindness doesn’t send men to Mars. Kindness doesn’t revolutionize the automobile. And kindness will never be able to improve the way we teach children how to read and write.

I know at least one person working on each of these contributions. And while these people, these friends of mine, are kind, first and foremost, they work. They look at a situation, wrap their mind around it, and make the situation obey their mind, not the other way around. Whatever is the opposite of the Dalai Lama’s approach to relations with China is what these people do every day. For them, there is no secondary emotional payoff—only a primary one.

Every day, when you wake up, the world, like the Chinese, is taking control. It’s kicking you out of your home, it’s eroding your body, and its overwhelming indifference can swallow you whole as easily as it doesn’t. The feeling of constriction is enveloping all of us. If you don’t feel it, it’s because you’re too caught up in your kindness, or the belief good things happen to good people, or paying it forward, or Karma, or any other affect you fabricate to protect yourself from the chaos.

But life doesn’t care how you feel. Life doesn’t care if you succeed, life doesn’t care if bad things happen to good people, and life definitely doesn’t care about a free Tibet. As such, random acts of kindness, and the fuzzy feelings they engender, are burning you alive.

CultureMark Derian