On Kindness

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.

Catching Up Again

It was so nice to chat with you all again that I thought I might occasionally post progress reports. Just every once in a while, because on the whole the days roll past here with little to differentiate them from one another, which is exactly the way I like it. But it occurred to me, that being said, that writing a book is like the most awful love affair you can imagine. One of those unhealthily exciting relationships that you torment yourself over even at the time that you live through it, wondering whether it wouldn’t be better for all concerned to make a good, clean break. The reality of it is tedium itself and yet the process is transformed by a thick gloss of excessive emotions. Every day I turn up to the keyboard, needy and insecure, wanting to be affirmed in my value, and every day the manuscript looks back at me, indifferent for all its promise, unapologetically rich in flaws. It’s the very mismatch between the two of us that keeps me fascinated, though, that and the occasional flash of almost euphoric love that lifts the experience out of the realm of reasonable expectations. ‘Why can’t it be like that all the time?’ I ask no one in particular. ‘Why must we fight one another so?’ Ah but I exaggerate for the sake of the metaphor. It really is the most interesting way to pass the time.

Over the past couple of years, while I’ve been getting into the writing, Mister Litlove has been sitting by and watching and thinking about his own creativity. Career-wise we have always been chalk and cheese: he favours science and technology, I favour the arts, he is the practical one, I am relentlessly cerebral. When we did the Myers-Briggs psychometric tests, he came out as the Field Marshal, or something similar. What I really retained was the sentence that said ‘you would willingly send men to their death for the sake of the battle’, which sounds an awful lot like daily life chez Litlove. My husband went into management partly because it was the sort of thing that smart young chaps like him were destined to do, and mostly because he didn’t have a real passion that he wanted to pursue. But above and beyond that, he does like to order people around; I mean, he really likes it. And given that he is the kind of man who looks laid-back and super-reasonable, and who never loses his temper or bears grudges, he is more suited to issuing orders than most. There’s much about management that he has enjoyed; he loves meetings for instance, (when I would rather pull my fingernails out individually than have to sit through them), he enjoys business travel, warmly embraces phrases like lean or agile manufacturing, can be part of a power huddle with colleagues without being swamped by irony, etc. But it seems that more and more lately he has been bored and dissatisfied by it. He’s ready for a change.

What he would really like to do is take a course in fine woodworking and see where it leads him. He has made some beautiful things during our marriage – a blanket box, a bookcase, matching bedside tables, a chest of drawers. They are lovely objects to live with, all clean lines and sharp joints and smooth, grainy surfaces. But making them was often a slow and slightly painful process. If you met Mister Litlove your main impression would be of a very confident and capable person, but his creativity is the place where he loses faith in himself. As the witness here, I know he can do it. Even without the hours of practice that I, as a seasoned campaigner in the struggle to make things, know is necessary, he has turned out pieces of furniture we love and appreciate and still admire every day. That’s natural talent. But it has been intriguing for me to note how talent doesn’t go hand in hand with the permission to believe in ourselves. Mister Litlove loves making furniture, he is fascinated by the process, and yet every step of the way he struggles with doubt and uncertainty. This is mostly because he finds it very troubling to make mistakes. It’s almost as if one single error cancels out all the successful, clever, beautiful parts of the process he’s accomplished so far.

Making mistakes is always frustrating, I do agree. But I suppose I feel that there is no real creativity without them. In fact, sometimes I think you have to get it wrong before you can see your way to getting it right. And words cost nothing. I don’t mind writing 5,000 words only to throw them away later. I’m sure it’s harder to cut or shape a piece of wood wrong and then feel it is only fit for putting on the fire. But I also think that mistake making has to be incorporated into a creative attitude. I haven’t quite managed to persuade my husband of this yet, although I think he accepts it as an abstract truth. In practice, the uncertainty he feels about his own abilities lies in wait to discourage or disqualify him at the first sign of any error. But, he is seriously thinking about undertaking a long course, one he could do one day a week, and I’m all for it when the right moment arrives in his paid job. Gradually, he inches closer to thinking this might be a dream he could make real. I’ll let you know how he gets on.

Bad Blood

Most stories do something satisfying with the mess of tedium and violence that is living; they give it focus and form, tone it up, calm it down, shape it tidily, fluff it or primp it or tame its wilder edges, until you have something sleek and purring in your hands, rather than the slightly unkempt beast that life usually resembles, with a tendency to charge at you out of dark places. So what is at stake, then, in the case of a memoir? A story about life itself, as it has been lived, for one individual? When a memoir writer sets out to transform life into a story, what is the guiding principle or higher intention? What kind of order is being carved out of the chaos?

In Lorna Sage’s exemplary memoir, Bad Blood, the main thrust of the narrative seems to be to show how we are composite characters, made up of pieces of the people who raise us. But the memoir also suggests that what we do with those pieces may well be quirky or downright subversive. For half of the narrative, Sage herself stands aside, in literature as in her life, to let center stage be dominated by her colorful cast of family members. It’s only towards the latter stages of the book that she makes the reader gasp herself, by nearly succumbing to her family’s demons and then magically rising above them.

What I loved most about this book were the character portraits, as Sage has a genius for taking ostensibly repulsive people and making them human in a blackly amusing way. Her grandfather offers the first, prime example in the book. A womanizer, a drinker and a dreamer, not to mention the vicar of the middle-of-nowhere parish of Hanmer, a small town lost between England and Wales, and more importantly lost still in the 19th century, he manages to behave like a criminal while feeling like a victim. He was a showman in the pulpit and a libidinous cad with other women, but at home he was ostracized with a mixture of fear and contempt. He had a ‘violently unhappy’ marriage to Sage’s grandmother, a woman who had grown up living above a grocer’s store and could never get used to the fact that she no longer had access to unearned plenty. She was a rabid man-hater, a principle she had derived from her particular experience of marriage. Much as her husband’s adulterous pursuits gave her good reason for injury, she was far from blameless, having loathed him and shown it since their earliest days together. She gave as good as she got; having found his private diaries in which he documented his extramarital relationships, she blackmailed him for a chunk of his salary to keep her in sponge cake and trips to the cinema. Sage’s mother grew up sidelined and overlooked by the violence of emotions in the household. Worse still, one of her school friends became the mistress who would cause the greatest domestic disharmony. When Lorna was a small child, her family lived at the vicarage while her father was away at war. When he returned, so imprinted by his experiences of battle that he continued to be a martinet and a belligerent disciplinarian despite the peace, her mother was finally obliged to run a household of her own, and the madness of vicarage life rushed to the surface in a series of phobias. Food, in particular, was a nightmare, as she had a terror of anything natural: joints incinerated in the oven, vegetables were set on the stove first thing in the morning and cooked to a paste. She longed to be able to feed her family with pills. But the 1950s were in some respects a perfect age for her. Processed food was starting to make its way onto the average dining table, and fish fingers represented her ideal triumph over bones, scales, and other distasteful relics of real life.

I think it was Tolstoy who said that happy families all resemble one another. But it struck me, reading Bad Blood, that unhappy families are not so very dissimilar. There are, after all, only a few elements of ordinary disorder that find themselves arranged in different permutations. There are families in which bad emotions and bad actions rule, dominating daily life; there are families in which the older generation refuse to take responsibility for themselves; and there are families who resist change, who insist to their children that nothing can improve or fade away with the mere passage of time. It was just Sage’s bad luck to be in a family that demonstrated all of these characteristics. But what Sage makes of it is never mournful or depressing. Her voice is firm, concise, appraising, elegant but down to earth. She may have lived her childhood forced to put up with other people’s madness, but her own way of keeping even is to have seen her family members without illusion, to hold herself apart in order to get some honest perspective. The lifeline that allowed her to do this was provided by books. A voracious reader and an insomniac, Sage was given license to indulge both by the local doctor, thwarting her family who felt vicarious pride in her intelligence, but also feared it as bad blood in a new incarnation. In fact, it would be her ticket out of small town hopelessness as she was to become a distinguished professor of English literature, but not before nearly ruining it all for herself in a moment of careless ignorance.

I loved this book purely for the strength of the writing, which is vivid and fierce. It is also a beautiful study in the power of repetition and obstacles in family life. And it is a hymn to books and their ability to provide mental and emotional space in situations that are dominated by claustrophobia. Warmly recommended for anyone who enjoys memoir. Read other reviews of this on the Slaves blog, or come and join in the discussion.