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On Kindness

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Living in these strange and troubling times, there's a mantra that I often repeat to myself (as I've mentioned here before): Be gentle, be gentle, be gentle. Stand your ground, know your truth, but be kind.

"Kindness" is a quality I value very highly although it's given little credence these days, dismissed as soft, simple, and sentimental in a culture that rewards the sharp, the hard, the self-reliant (or merely self-absorbed), lauding those who push to the front of the queue of success, wealth, and celebrity -- too often with little regard for the "losers" and "weaklings" thrust out of their way. Thus it was with great interest that I came across the little book On Kindness by two distinguished modern thinkers: historian Barbara Taylor and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips.

"Why do the pleasures of kindness astonish us?" they ask. "And why are stories of kindness often so corny or silly, so trivializing of the things that matter the most to most people?"

Why indeed?

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"The pleasures of kindess were well known in the past," Phillips and Taylor point out. "Kindness was man's 'greatest delight,' the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius declared, and thinkers and writers have echoed him down through the centuries. But today many people find these pleasures literally incredible, or at least highly suspect. An image of the self has been created that is utterly lacking in natural generosity. Most people appear to believe that deep down they (and other people) are mad, bad and dangerous to know; that as a species -- apparently unlike other species of animal -- we are deeply and fundamentally antagonistic to each other, that our motives are utterly self-seeking and that our sympathies are forms of self-protectiveness."

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On Kindness, say the authors, is an explanation of how this state of affairs has come about. Despite the devaluation (and feminization) of the ideal of kindness in the modern age, "people are leading secretly kind lives all the time, but without a language in which to express this, or cultural support for it. Living according to our sympathies, we imagine, will weaken or overwhelm us; kindness is the saboteur of the successful life.

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"We need to know how we have come to believe that the best lives we can lead seem to involve sacrificing the best things about ourselves; and how we have come to believe that there are greater pleasures than kindness. Kindness -- not sexuality, not violence, not money -- has become our forbidden pleasure. What about our times has made kindness seem so dangerous?"

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That's a question I very much want an answer to -- and this book, alas, did not fully provide it, simply because it's too short to go very deeply into such a complex subject. It makes for a good beginning, however: the chapters on the history and philosophy of kindness are both fascinating and illuminating. (The middle of the book, by contrast, is devoted to Freudian theories of kindness; they are well explicated, but can be skipped over if, like me, you're allergic to Freud.)

Despite these reservations, I recommend On Kindness because it starts a much-needed conversation on the subject. I hope that other writers will continue the conversation, going beyond Taylor & Phillips' classical focus to examine kindness in other societal traditions. We need new conceptual frameworks for re-building kindness as a cultural ideal: genderless, classless, diverse and inclusive. We need to lift the ideal of kindness above the cliche of sentimentality and see it for the brave, vital, necessary force it is. Let's make the Beautiful Resistance a movement rich in kindness.

Are you with me?

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On Kindness by Phillips & TaylorThe passages above are from On Kindness by Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor (Penguin Books, 2009). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (March 2003). All rights reserved by the authors.

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