Thursday, 6 August 2009

On Kindness

I just listened to a really good interview of Adam Phillips [1], co-author of the book "On Kindness". What was refreshing about his analysis of kindness is that he is *not* saying that we should be kinder and here's how to do it. Instead he proposes an examination of the pleasures and the perils of kindness, making relationships between kindness and other concepts such as success.

He starts with a definition, which draws on the fundamental sympathetic connection we make with others of the same "kind". As an example he shows how two different types of people would react to a child falling in the street. The sympathetic person would feel for the child, while the person who wants to be right would say something like "you should have looked where you were going."

He also contrasts two different starting points for kindness. Many people feel that kindness is simply an elaborate means to a fundamentally selfish end. We think we are kind to others simply to get favours from them. But Phillips sees kindness as a primary human expression: "It's not a question of whether we are being selfish or selfless but whether we feel something in the other person's presence that make us want to do something for them." Kindness is an exchange so avoiding a conversation with someone for fear of hurting them, for example, is not kind. He also thinks that we are wrong in seeing independence as a worthy goal. Indeed, he believes that we are always exactly as dependent on others throughout our lives but that it's simply more apparent at infancy and at old-age, and that a culture that promotes independence from others discourages people from being kind. Finally, he talks about some of the road blocks preventing people from being kind.

One of the problems with being kind is that while it brings us closer to others, it makes us vulnerable to their pain. No-one is immune to other people's suffering however. Acknowledging someone else's vulnerability also at the same time acknowledges our own, thus in essence, being kind requires us to let our own guard down. Being invulnerable is incompatible with being kind.

When we are kind to another, we are also vulnerable to their response, which could be unkind. The danger that Phillips cautions us against is in the ways that we cure ourselves from others predicaments: do we let ourselves suffer too, or do we try to suppress it, or even worse, turn it into pleasure.

Another very interesting point, at the heart of his argument, is that the sense of duty to be kind spoils it. Kindness, he argues, is a pleasure, not a duty. As such, we don't need to *try* to be kinder, we need to be *freed* to feel the pleasure of being kind. This could explain why many people are kinder in situations of crisis: they are given the opportunity to rethink what matters most to them, and to act more freely from a societal point of view.

Finally, he links all of this to the concept of success and how it is measured in different cultures. He discusses the cultural differences, for example, between Britan's wealth-fare state, and the USA's war-fare state. In a competitive culture, people have to repress their pleasure of kindness because they know that one person's gain is another person's loss. To make things worse, in such a culture, those still committing acts of kindness will be taken advantage of. And these people realize that they can't afford to be kind, but the kind part of themselves is the part that they value very highly, which leads to a terrible internal tension: One of the nicest thing about yourself is the thing that's the least valuable to you.

His interview was not as logically organized as it could have been, but I found it to be very insightful. It definitely made me want to read his book, and to examine my own responses to others.

  1. On Point, The Case For Kindness ,<>

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