It’s been an interesting week here… as in the Chinese curse, May you live in interesting times. My son has been sitting his end of year exams, exams, I should point out, that are of no great relevance whatsoever to the trajectory of his education, but which his over zealous school worships as if their outcome might be responsible for world peace. On the whole they didn’t go too badly for him, but he arrived home one day bitterly disappointed by his result in biology. There was a reason for this: my son is immensely squeamish. He has traditionally spent most of his biology lessons being revived in the nurse’s office, and only chose the subject as an option because of a misleading but happy year discussing plants. This year has been all about teachers fishing hearts out of buckets and the processes of excretion on the blackboard and my son has baulked at it all somewhat. I did try to tell his teacher about this on parents’ evening, but he smirked at me and was a whisker off rolling his eyeballs, in that, oh-aren’t-mothers-tiresome way. Why do teachers (or indeed husbands, who occasionally make similar mistakes) think this will help? He missed getting his nose punched only because a) I don’t know how to punch, and b) Mister Litlove and I are as squeamish as our son, and if there’d been blood we would both have passed out, thus spoiling the gesture.
But I digress. My poor son found that revising plants was insufficient for a good grade in biology this year and it was against this context of feeling wronged and insufficient that he sat down to his French homework. I’ve already mentioned that French is his bête noir, and that night he had to do a listening comprehension paper, perhaps the hardest language test there is. And after that, he had an essay to write. Well, he got through the comprehension and then proceeded to have a huge emotional meltdown. He was pierced on the horns of a dilemma: he had to do the French essay, and he couldn’t bear to do the French essay. ‘So don’t do the French essay,’ I said to him. ‘So what? Tell the teacher why you couldn’t face it.’ But no, that wasn’t possible. ‘Okay, so we’ll do the essay together and I’ll help you,’ I said. But no, the mere thought of writing it produced too exquisite a pain to contemplate. And it seemed to me, in the end, to be a problem of kindness that was at stake. In the terrible universe where he was stuck, there was no kindness to be had, no amelioration of his situation, no comforting solutions, because at its heart, he couldn’t find a way to be kind to himself. He faced the prospect of having to force himself to do something that every fibre of his being revolted against, and there was no real way around it.
It was by chance that I happened to pick up On Kindness to read, by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor. Phillips is a psychoanalyst (one of my favourites) and Taylor is a historian, and together they tackle the subject of kindness, motivated, they claim, by its imminent extinction in the modern world. ‘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.’ Kindness, Phillips and Taylor argue, is part of the very best of us, an essential pleasure, a way of feeling in touch with our full humanity. At the time of the early Christians and the Stoics, kindness was joyful, and loving others was the best possible way of loving ourselves. And then revolutions, of the industrial and political kind, undermined such sentiments because they were useless to their aims, and the work ethic transmuted into capitalism, with its dog-eat-dog competitiveness. Even the moralistic duty of kindness beloved by the Victorians met a sticky end in post-colonialism and feminism, where it was shown, when silently allied with power, to have a patronising and oppressive element. Equality meant independence, individualism, the same rights for all. The extent to which, as human beings, we are inevitably and necessary dependent upon one another and in need of sympathy and support, was eclipsed, and only women and then eventually, only mothers, were left in charge of dispensing kindness.
Being kind is dangerous, the authors argue, because it opens us up, not just to other people, but to the vulnerabilities and neediness that we all share. Our identification with other people’s sufferings and pleasures rate among our most immediate experiences, but at the same time, we have an instinctual aversion or terror of feeling for others in case it somehow endangered ourselves. Adam Phillips takes over here (it doesn’t say it’s him but it must be; I’d recognize his voice anywhere) to give the psychoanalytic perspective. In his account, kindness attends the child’s earliest interactions with the parents. The child wishes to rescue its parents from everything that might make them unhappy, and thus interfere with the parents’ ability to meet the child’s needs. Kindness arrives in the child’s life as a form of magic, or if you like a bribe against indifference and neglect. But eventually the child will realize that kindness cannot fix the parents and cannot ensure the supply of loving attentiveness the child wants. This is essential to the child’s development, but inevitably rage and hatred will result. Why are we ever unkind? Phillips asks. And the answer is, to protect ourselves emotionally from the fundamental threat to our survival that is loss of love. If we are cruel, it is out of anguish at the breakdown of idealized love, or out of a vain attempt to make things revert to the way they once appeared to be.
The real question is how the next part of the process shapes up, the part that might transform this magical kindness that might make everything happy and right, into genuine kindness, that is ‘a simple exchange’, something proffered from the place of shared humanity. Here we switch to Winnicott, who provided a list of eighteen very good reasons why a mother hates her baby: ‘he is ruthless, treats her as scum, an unpaid servant, a slave… The baby is an interference with her private life, a challenge to preoccupation… If she fails him at the start she knows he will pay her our forever…’ etc. His point was that mothers and babies love and hate one another from the start, and the only way things can go wrong is if it has to be too strenuously denied. Essential, in his opinion, was the ability to integrate hatred into love; it is the mother’s job to ‘hold this difficult line between feeling this inevitable hatred and protecting the child from feeling too much of it.’ For the real bond could only be forged in authenticity. ‘Without felt hatred – without the acknowledgement of harm and frustration as integral to human relations – kindness becomes a protection racket, fellow feeling becomes a denial of the feelings actually held in common.’ This is tricky to understand, but I think it boils down to the fact that genuine kindness seeks nothing in return. If we are kind simply to secure the object of our kindness, to make sure we get kindness in return, then we are indulging in magical thinking. Real kindness is the kindness of the Samaritan, who helps because a stranger is suffering, who does not need gratitude as recompense. We can only open ourselves up to others in their troubles if we accept that the same uneasy mix of love and hatred, desire and aggression, inhabits us all, and that this is okay.
Or as it is expressed in the book: ‘It is kind to be able to bear conflict, in oneself and others; it is kind, to oneself and others, to forego magic and sentimentality for reality. 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 might find them.’ All of which takes me back to my son and my fundamental interest in the book: what happens when we cannot be kind to ourselves? Well, let’s go back to that question of unkindness and cruelty that arises out of thwarted idealized love. At school nowadays a dangerous message is driven into students: that they cannot be pleased with themselves unless they pass their exams well. This doesn’t account for the ordinary relationship a student might have to their lessons, hating some, indifferent to others, and their ordinary humanity, which might allow them to do well one day but not so well on another. School insists, in other words, that pupils conform to an unreasonable ideal of achievement, and inevitably, if they fail in this, only cruelty towards themselves can be the outcome. We cannot give something an honest try, if the outcome has to be success. And so more and more, I imagine, the children who emerge from our education system will be stuck with being unkind to themselves to provoke achievement, or locked in reliable apathy, where they are safe from the perils of trying. If kindness is disappearing from the world, doesn’t education have a share of the blame here? It’s pretty crucial, I think, that education takes a long hard look at kindness, and thinks about how it might be incorporated properly, compassionately, into the classroom.