Great review article in The Guardian today about a book called On Kindness by Adam Philips & Barbara Taylor (only available in the UK). The gist of the review is that we, as a society, are suspicious of kindness and see it as a form of selfishness or weakness, in part because we've been taught we are all in fierce competition with each other for survival. Here's a good example: I was catching up with a friend I hadn't seen in a while over New Year's and was telling her that I'd been helping my friend Helen (whom I've known longer than the friend I was talking to) get her new pied-a-terre set up over here. It's been over a year-long process, from the house-hunt to the final move in and Helen, who has a nice house in London and a very successful business, stayed with me several times along the way. We've gone shopping together, I've picked things up for her, met with realtors, and basically shared everything I've gleaned about living in New York for the past 20 years. As I was describing this, my friend kept asking me "what's in it for you?" over and over, until I felt like I was justifying my actions.
While it's true that Helen could probably throw me some freelance work now and then, and she's already invited me to stay with her next time I'm in London, the truth is that I've been helping her out (a) because she's a friend, (b) because someone else (Laurie) helped me out when I first moved here, and (c) because I like helping people. There: I said it. Yes, I do like helping people. It's one of the reasons I teach. The best moments in the classroom are those
ones where you see the lightbulbs go on at 1,000 watts when students get something they've been struggling with, or when you see a thoughtful look on their face because they're considering a viewpoint brand new to them. It's not about you, then, it's strictly about them, even though it's fantastic to watch and know that you helped them get there. It gives one the proverbial warm, fuzzy feeling. And who doesn't like that?
This idea that there has to be a quid pro quo for everything is poisonous. The book's reviewer, Hamish Hamilton, agrees:
"A sign of health in the mind", Donald Winnicott wrote in 1970, "is the ability of one individual to enter imaginatively and accurately into the thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears of another person; also to allow the other person to do the same to us." To live well, we must be able to identify imaginatively with other people, and allow them to identify with us. Unkindness involves a failure of the imagination so acute that it threatens not just our happiness but our sanity. Caring about others, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued, is what makes us fully human. We depend on each other not just for our survival but for our very being. The self without sympathetic attachments is either a fiction or a lunatic.
Or broken. As he points out, we (western civilization) view ourselves as a society of rugged individualists, independent and self-sufficient. This is very much how I was brought up and what I believed for a very long time. When I was a kid, the Barbra Streisand song "People (Who Need People)" was really confusing to me. My mother loudly proclaimed that she didn't want to needed; she wanted to be wanted. Only now have I come to understand that she wanted to be the one taken care of without the responsibility or necessity of caring for others or being kind herself. But this is a luxury we only allow to the very young, who must be taught to care, and the very old who've done their caring already. And the truth is, we expect each other to care, to be kind. It's what we want from each other, and certainly one of the ways we pick our friends.
Neither my mother nor my father "wanted to be bothered" with other people. If either of them were asked or had to do something for someone else that inconvenienced them, they'd do it, but under protest and with much grumbling ad whining. My mother was lucky in her old age that people from her church were kind enough to do a lot of things for her and my dad. Dad wasn't so lucky, and was left pretty much alone after she died, though folks from church did look in on him. Neither of them, I suspect, got sufficient emotional care when they were kids, and were never taught to care for others. They weren't mean, as such, and were well-liked but they weren't generous, except with me.
Which is why I think being kind, being generous, going out of your way for no immediate or discernible personal benefit is so important now, though it took me a while to really learn it. Even as a child, their grumbling isolation bothered me. I couldn't articulate it then, but it spoke of a lack of love. Love is the basis of kindness, and if you can't love yourself and others indiscriminately, fearlessly, you can't truly be kind. Even as a kid, I went out on a limb for my friends. When one friend in high school wrote me a suicide note, I went to our school counselors, even though it cost me our friendship. My dad urged me not to "get involved," but I knew he was wrong. I don't know whether she would have killed herself, but she's still alive, today, with two kids of her own. That's enough for me.
I think we've seen over the last eight years the results of a culture of unremitting competition and individualism, of the highest order of unkindness. We've had a government full of people lacking in the ability to empathize or even sympathize with others who are not like them, whether poor, from another country, powerless, or just the ordinary fellow citizens who elected them. It's led us to war and bankruptcy, fiscal and moral.
It's not that hard to be kind. It's not, actually, hard at all. It doesn't mean totally eschewing your own needs or always putting the needs of someone else above your own. It means putting them aside temporarily sometimes. It means, sometimes, doing the right thing when it's actually painful. But it doesn't mean constant, martyring, self-sacrifice in the Victorian Angel in the House mode. In the end, that benefits no one because it wears out the person who cares. Being kind means being kind to oneself so you can be kind to others. The beauty of doing it this way is that it allows one to be the beneficiary as well as the dispenser of kindness, and that, in a beautiful feedback loop, makes other people feel good too. And there's nothing wrong in feeling good. Misery is not a virtue or a sign of toughness or independence or strength. It's just misery: a sign that things could be better.
If only someone were kind enough to care.