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On Kindness

On a daily basis, I can’t help but wonder: Do we live in a world where displaying kindness is a weakness? In On Kindness (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009), Adam Phillips, West London psychoanalyst and literary authority, and Barbara Taylor, East London historian, provide an overview of how kindness has been viewed in the western world. This book outlines a characteristic, or virtue, that we often trivialize or view as overly sentimental. Bold statements such as: “Kindness … — not sexuality, not violence, not money — has become our forbidden pleasure,” and “We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us,” show the complexity of kindness in our society and in the individual psyche.

Starting with contrasting views of the Stoics and Epicureans, the authors trace the development of philosophy about kindness in the Western world (Eastern culture, philosophy, and religion are not considered in this text). They show that kindness is viewed as either a personal joy/pleasure or a means to manipulate and fulfill the human need for companionship and social connection. They cite the Stoics’ view that “People need other people not just for companionship or support in hard times but to fulfill their humanity.” In contrast, the Epicureans, the authors state, believed that individuals are “driven by self-love” and that all actions are ultimately governed by selfish motivations. Philips and Taylor write that in the post-Augustinian era, “kindness became linked, disastrously, to self-sacrifice,” which made it a target of criticism of Christianity and its motives. Viewed simply as a requirement to fulfill one’s “Christian Duty,” kindness — especially during Victorian times — was relegated to societies of benevolent women, and was viewed as a feminine trait (particularly of maternal love between a mother and her child).

This further trivialized the characteristic as one worthy of only the ‘weaker’ gender to display. Critics, however, argue that this kind of kindness was only for the benefit of Christians who felt the need to display their Christianity and fulfill the ‘white man’s burden’ as a charitable being to the underprivileged. All of this leads one to ask whether kindness can exist and flourish without suspicion or ulterior motive or if all acts of kindness are ultimately selfish.

According to Philips and Taylor, how one views kindness is filtered through one’s views of man’s purpose and origins. If one believes that humans are born with a propensity for and desire to act with kindness, then kindness is exhibited and is not linked to selfish motivations. However, if one’s premise is that humans are born evil and that only God’s benevolence brings about caritas (neighborly or brotherly love), then a motive for kindness becomes more complex because it implies that people are only kind for ulterior motives and through the grace of God. Early Christianity leaders posited this latter theory, which leads one to question whether Christians are simply selfish human beings (i.e. using kindness as a stepping stone to heaven).

The authors cite Rousseau as the father of the philosophy of kindness who claimed that one’s ability to empathize with others and feel sympathy for others was necessary before one could be kind. Furthermore, he claimed that one’s “capacity for kindness depends on the strength of his… healthy self love,” which ties to later psychoanalytic perspectives of the characteristic.

The authors also claim that because we live in an increasingly individualistic, capitalistic/materialistic society, this does not leave much room for kindness or for unselfish love. The Independent Self rules in a capitalistic society, but this does not mean that people love themselves any more than in the past. Rousseau would claim that this is precisely why people need to exhibit more caritas.

At the same time, our society also has a tradition in a Judeo-Christian-based philosophy, which dictates that the Good Samaritan’s kindness with no strings attached and Jesus’ unconditional love is the model to follow. Coupled with increased studies that claim we are becoming more narcissistic, the role of kindness in our lives becomes more important.

The model of the Good Samaritan implies a level of dependence, vulnerability, and self sacrifice that many are unwilling to participate in as either the recipient or the provider of kindness. The authors write that: “real kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can. . . . By involving us with strangers . . . as well as with intimates, it is potentially far more promiscuous than sexuality.” Many of us go out of our way to avoid being obligated to another. The trust that one must hold for another whenever kindness is enacted complicates our relationship with ourselves and with others.

If one is the recipient of kindness, it requires believing in another human being’s generosity instead of acting independently and self sufficiently. We so rarely see or experience — in our lives, on television, or in literature — the no-strings-attached model of kindness. We then become cynical to protect ourselves when we encounter an act of kindness.

On the other hand, if one is the provider of kindness, since it is accompanied with no expectation of repayment, we have to make ourselves appear trustworthy to the recipient of our actions and to convince them we have no ulterior motives. Either way, it’s more complicated than it appears on the surface.

Why is kindness so difficult to receive? For kindness to exist, both positions (of provider and recipient) render the parties vulnerable in that they are required to both recognize and fulfill the roles they should play without suspicion. If one attempts to, for example, repay an act of kindness, the provider is left feeling less generous and as if they cannot be trusted to simply be a generous human being. A level of trust is needed to maintain a relationship, however brief, and humans are not always able to suspend cynicism in favor of trusting others.

We are often suspicious of kindness that it is “either a higher form of selfishness (the kind that is secretly exploitative) or the lowest form of weakness (kindness is the way the weak control the strong, the kind are only kind because they haven’t the guts to be anything else)…What, afterall (sic), can kindness help us to win, except moral approval: or possibly not even that, in a society where “respect for personal status has become a leading value.” In this world of self-loathing and mistrust, can kindness continue to exist, or is it fated to die out?

The last part of the book delves into psychoanalysis and explores whether we are born with a kindness instinct. Psychoanalysts Freud, Winnicott and Bowlby are cited as examining how to reconcile the ambivalence of humans. The authors explain: “Kindness comes naturally to us, but so too do cruelty and aggression.” So, what is to be expected from human beings? What would our world would be like without kindness. The authors end with the idea that despite viewing kindness as something old fashioned and redundant, it is still something we desire because it “creates the kind of intimacy, the kind of involvement with other people that we both fear and crave; …kindness, fundamentally makes life worth living” and fosters our hope. Moreover, the act of loving one another, they claim, is a “joyous expression of one’s humanity,” not only something limited to Christianity.

Maria Rankin-Brown has lived on several continents (Africa, Asia, North America) but now writes from Angwin, California, where she teaches English at Pacific Union College.

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