On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor is a fascinating book that uses disciplines of history, philosophy ,and psychoanalysis to explore the concept of kindness. As a long-time believer in the inherent kindness of human nature (and long-suffering — I have been isolated during more than a few dinner table arguments), I was heartened by the writers’ early and consistent assertions that human kindness is indeed human nature; but so, they assert are aggression and even cruelty. The premise of the book is that kindness as a trait and as a virtue has been denigrated and down-listed to weakness and passivity, something that works fine between mother and child but has no place in the competitive world of individual survival. The authors wish to demonstrate that in fact humans are interdependent and the bridge between humans is best expressed through kindness, through recognizing kinship, shared interests, and mutual needs and desires.
This book is a must-read because it will set off firecrackers of thoughts in your mind, as it did in mine; certain assertions struck me as right on and perfect: that “kindness….creates the kind of intimacy, the kind of involvement with other people that we both fear and crave; that kindness, fundamentally, makes life worth living; and that everything that is against kindness is an assault on our hope.” Certain other statements were just incredulous to me, especially those which came out of the Freudian analysis of kindness (one example:”we tell ourselves we are being kind as a cover story for the trade in sex that is always going on when we think we are at our most virtuous“), although a very profound statement came from the same Freudian chapter, that guilt is “cruelty, the extreme unkindness, one is capable of doing to oneself.” This sentence and so many others (my copy of the book is heavily underlined) sent me spiraling into deep thinking about my own family and community, and where kindness fits in.
In defining kindness, and how it has been understood through the thousands of years of human interaction, the authors present the idea that connection between humans is underlying motivation in kindness: “History shows us the manifold expressions of humanity’s desire to connect, from classical celebrations of friendship, to Christian teachings on love and charity, to twentieth-century philosophies of social welfare.” Unfortunately, as the cult of the individual, combined with capitalism and competitiveness versus cooperation have all risen in influence and power in how humans define themselves and their goals, the impulse of kindness has suffered. Although kindness is often dictated as part of a religious or philanthropic discipline, the fact that it is dictated indicates a competitiveness in the acts of kindness: how much will it take for me to get into heaven or to gain kudos as a do-gooder? There is also a whiff of Protestant gloom in our society, the enduring Calvinist notion that man is evil, “wholly spoiled and perverted” (the words of Martin Luther) and in need of saving. The small, interpersonal, and nonjudgmental kindnesses have suffered, and even children become competitive and nasty.
Children and childhood are where the author’s hopes lie in reinvigorating kindness in our world. The authors use history and philosophy (Rousseau, of course, and his theories on the inherent sympathy — kindness — of children) to present the view that whether children are born kind and have their kindness positively re-enforced through the experience of having kind behavior elicit favorable and helpful responses or whether they learn kindness from mirroring seen behavior or trying to hold onto mother’s love, children are kind. Of course they also have capacity for cruelty but in my experience as a kid once and as a mother now, and as a sometimes teacher in kids’ classrooms, many, many children never are the bullies or the meanies: they are kind and affectionate and ebullient. And they are kind, affectionate, and ebullient especially if such characteristics are supported by the adults and mirrored by the adults in their lives. As children mature, their kindness is re-enforced not only by how people react to them, but how they see people around them behaving to other people. Children treated kindly at home and who witness kindness being shown to others, will generally be kind outside the home.
Which brings me to a notion that the authors of On Kindness never address: the notion that kindness is a respect that one person shows towards another. Kindness is an acknowledgement that others have feelings, needs, desires, ideas, and complaints. Respect is often what is missing in modern failures of kindness. The authors do present strong arguments for kindness as a kind of respect, without actually using the word: “It is kind to see individuals as they are, rather than how we might want them to be; it is kind to care for people just as we find them.” And later, “To live well, we must be able to imaginatively identify with other people, and allow them to identify with us.”
In my up-scale, competitive community, I see where the failure of kindness is a failure by Mr. Bigbucks to recognize that other people are just as important as he is, combined with a fear that the other person is actually MORE important than he is. Competition and self-importance nudge out respect and kindness. When friends complain about lack of kindness, they are usually saying one of two things: they are being used (taken advantage of) for their kindness, or they are not being treated in kind with kindness: they give, and they give, but get nothing back. Both failures of kindness are failures of respect.
One of the core spoilers of kindness in our world today, argue the authors and I agree, is the “enterprise culture” of “overwork, anxiety, and isolation.” They state that our “competitive society, one that divides people into winners and losers, breeds unhappiness….People placed under unremitting pressure become estranged from each other….Sympathies contract as openheartedness begins to feel too exposed….A culture of hardness and cynicism grows, fed by envious admiration of those who seem to thrive — the rich and famous: our modern priesthood — in this tooth-and-claw environment.”
As you can tell from reading this review, On Kindness is interesting, entertaining and provoking. It covers huge amounts of material on kindness that has been produced through the centuries by philosophers, theorists, scientists, psychoanalysts, and historians. But the authors completely miss the boat on one of the strongest proofs available that kindness is both an inherent trait and a salient desire of humans: the novel. Every great novel is about connection (Yes! Every single one!) and connection is the first and the ultimate kindness. When we can connect with another person, we are extending the kindness of taking them seriously, treating them with desire and respect and affirming their own importance. Their life has meaning to us: we show that through connecting with them, and we feel our own meaningfulness through their reciprocity of connection. This is a theme in books from Miss Lonelyhearts (definitely a Freudian analysis of kindness) to The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Rousseau on kindness), to Little Bee (kindness as a life-saver but also real and not the “magical” and false kindness that the authors discuss in On Kindness, to Revolutionary Road (failure to be kind destroys a family: I quote On Kindness, “Acts of kindness demonstrate….that we are vulnerable and dependent animals who have no better resource than each other“).
Despite the mildness often associated with the word “kindness”, to be kind is actually one of the potent of human endeavors, one of the easiest to exercise (a little practice may be necessary) and one of the most democratic: it can be used anywhere, anytime, with any person, whether it be your lover, your child, your dry cleaner, or your mother. Read On Kindness and think about exercising daily this most dynamic of all powers, the power of kindness.