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.


25 thoughts on “On Kindness

  1. Great post! My big project for this summer is to be kinder to myself – though in my case it’s not academic success but moral perfection that I always seem to insist that I must achieve (never mind that it’s impossible). It is hard to break oneself of the habit of harsh self-criticism, I’m afraid.

    I sympathize with your son on the biology! When I did biology, I was fortunate enough to have lab partners who actually enjoyed dissection, and I mainly stood back and wrote notes and let them get on with the nasty formaldehydey bits. My memories of biology are still not pleasant (when we were dissecting squids, one of the kids in class spilled the bag of dead squid, and the whole hall smelled of fish and formaldehyde for two weeks), but I did avoid passing out or being sick.

  2. Very interesting Litlove! I think, at least in the U.S., part of the problem with that missing kindness in education is a government that keeps imposing standards on school achievement but that doesn’t act to create laws and policies that would make an underperforming child’s life in general better. It’s one thing to demand certain test scores and another thing entirely to foster the creation of a home environment that would allow children to attain those test scores. For more advantaged children I think the parents put a lot of pressure of them to do well and go to college so they can get a good job, blah, blah, blah. It’s sad really the things we are doing to our children in the guise of caring for them and their future.

  3. How wonderful to see a post from you! I had to laugh at your story about your son because I’ve had a short presentation I needed to write this weekend that I also couldn’t bear to do. In the end, I decided that I also couldn’t bear the consequences of not doing it, so I’ve done it, but the work is perhaps not up to my usual standard 🙂

  4. LOL! I’ll have to come visit and show you how to throw a punch. It’s possible to do so without blood.

    Many children today have such a love-hate relationship with education.

    I didn’t mind dissection; I was wearing gloves.

  5. I am intrigued by the Kindness book and have put it on my list.

    I agree about overtesting and overstressing our kids. My son will be starting high school soon and I worry about how he’ll cope with the high-stakes testing.

  6. Very interesting post. There is a perverse relief in knowing that the English school system puts as much pressure on students to succeed as we do here in the U.S. The idea of your son feeling unable to produce his essay because he could not be kind to himself is an intriguing one. I hope you were able to convince him that he does not have to be perfect, and that he got through it all right anyway.
    I have to say that Winnicott’s take on motherhood sounds scary. Isn’t he the guy who came up with the “imperfect mother”? And that it was okay?

  7. That last paragraph should be widely circulated, that line about ‘Being locked in reliable apathy’ because it is safe certainly resonates.

    I hope you’ve managed to convince your son he should be kinder to himself, but I suspect the pressures coming from outside are too great in this case. I can’t even imagine what would have happened if one of us had said ‘I couldn’t bear to write my essay’ to a teacher when I was in school. It’s just not an option for them to look at your circumstances individually in secondary school, the world of rigid standards, standardised marks and a pressure for teachers to encourage exceptional performance across the board. I’m afraid that thinking back to teenage years the only thing that tended to convince them you were having a terrible time was a massive crying break down and that tended to earn you a ‘you just can’t get so upset about these things’. They never seemed to understand it wasn’t that one little thing that made you so frustrated, but an accumulation of things.

    Oh dear these wonderful essays of yours do seem to send me flying back to my own terrible school years, um, my point was probably something like an agreement that it’s the systems that push down on all of us from the top that enforce us all into place and cause us to be cruel to others and ourselves. We need to break out of those systems, but it’s incredibly hard to because of the nature of the reward structure attached to the systems (salary, validation etc). How do we fix the world when all we have is the power of resistance and that’s typically derided as apathy, or sulking?

  8. You have my sympathies, son and all, as here I have two in the thrall of examdom. I never had to face biology in the raw, but I can’t think I’d have coped very well. The kindness ideas are fascinating and bring to mind Dickens, not just ‘A Christmas Carol’, but Pip’s story and his constant worry about his treatment of Joe.

  9. Great post, Litlove. I was also wondering about the internal pressure that your son might place on himself as the son of a French lecturer. And whether you feel more anxiety about his performance in this subject over other subjects. Biology you can write off since he’s not really interested but French is a different matter.

    And “On Kindness” sounds very interesting indeed. You’ve reviewed it so well that I don’t feel that I need to read it.

  10. I cut and pasted the paragraph about Winnicott and sent it to one of my friends, a mother with two small children who suffers horrible, agonizing guilt over the resentment and anger she sometimes feels toward her children. I can’t tell you how often I’ve tried to explain to her that it’s absolutely natural and normal to sometimes hate her kids, and sometimes they will hate her in return, and it doesn’t really matter what she feels, as long as she acknowledges it to herself, and then doesn’t act on it.

    I fear that education has taken any love or excitement out of learning, and it’s terrible that it has done so. There must be some middle ground between experiential learning, and testing for basic skill levels to make sure the information is being correctly assimilated. But what that middle ground is, I couldn’t begin to fathom.

  11. To learn to be kind to oneself is one of the last important skills we seem to acquire. I’m still struggling with it — today in particular after I discovered a stupid mistake I’d made at work.

    What I hope for our sons is that they understand that what matters is finding the thing they love to do and doing it, rather than their grade on the bio test. (By the way, my kids learned an entire semester of biology by watching really good youtube video lectures with animated demonstrations. I even enjoyed it. Really.)

    It’ll be over soon!!!! xo

  12. One of my favorite quotations has always been this one of Plato’s: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

    Thanks for this post. It’s reminded me to be kinder to myself as I slog through the inevitable (and seemingly innumerable) rejections and failures that come with trying to find a job I can be excited about, armed with little more than B.A. in English. To me, at least, the classroom certainly felt kinder than the “real world” does.

  13. Your poor boy’s predicament sounds so very familiar to me, bringing back all the angst involved in my own son’s school days. There is so much pressure placed on students to achieve at any cost, that I think they simply lose all the most enjoyable aspects of learning for pleasure. I’m afraid the notion that most people “appear to believe that deep down they (and other people) are mad, bad and dangerous to know” is coming quite true, especially in the educational system. As my husband is fond of saying, “It’s a dog eat dog world out there.” How sad that schools feel duty bound to perpetuate that philosophy.

  14. What a fascinating post, Litlove. That’s a wonderful quote from the book at the end, about kindness requiring the ability to tolerate conflict and accept reality. And then the conclusions that you draw about the school system and your son’s experience give me a lot of pause for thought about my own children. Thank you.

  15. ‘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.’ Gosh, LL, I just don’t feel that way at all! I was really taken aback by their general attribution to ‘most people’ – I can’t believe it’s so, I can’t believe ‘most people’ feel anything of the sort.

    But I do think you’re probably right that part of Master Litlove’s difficulty lies in not being kind enough to himself. As I recall, his age is one tinged with self-loathing and oftentimes crippling doubt, hardly the time to ask any favours of oneself because usually one hasn’t yet grasped the finer points of the balancing act between love and hate that you and Winnicott so rightly identify. I think many people feel balanced on the beam for the very first time somewhere in their late 20s, which doesn’t help Master LL right now, but does offer hope for his future.

  16. A fascinating essay – we need more of these I think. I look back on my childrens schooling with many similar memories. Alas, the world demands we conform to its schedules and priorities and is unforgiving of those who wish to play it differently.

  17. What a wonderful essay. I’m so glad I checked to see if you had posted anything! Even if you feel you’re not being much help to your son right now, I’m sure the kindness you’ve modelled throughout his childhood will form part of his reality and stand him in good stead in the longer term.

    Of course we all continue to find ourselves from time to time in EXACTLY the horrible situation you describe of having to do something we just can’t BEAR to do at this moment! it gets a bit easier, because we’ve been there before, but not all that much easier, does it?

    I should clearly get the book.

  18. Oh, there’s lots to think about here! I struggle with kindness in my teaching — partly because as a perfectionist myself, it’s hard to acknowledge that my students don’t have to be perfectionists too (and they are often better off not being that way!). But also because I struggle with finding the balance between being kind to individuals and being fair to the entire class. If I give a student a break of some sort out of kindness, am I being unfair to those who maybe needed a break too, but didn’t ask for one? But it’s worth trying to get the balance right, even if it’s difficult.

  19. Hi there,
    Not really here to comment properly – just to say hi, I’m Sarah (nee Mirams, we were family friends as kids…) and am v. impressed with this site (Dad told me about it) which has partly inspired me to start my own blog – can we get in touch off line?

  20. Just realised I’m not sure it gives you any details of how to reach me – you can through my blog http://www.keepingyourspiritsup.org.uk – and for anyone else interested that touches on some of the psychological issues mentioned in Litlove’s blog – aimed mainly at adults – I’ve love to have any interested readers and comments etc as I too am writing a book on the theme of morale/sanity/survival/enjoyment in the workplace…

  21. I don’t at all think of kindness as disappearing from the world. Maybe this is because I became kinder as I got older and the world responded. But I see kindness everywhere in personal life, if not in the public world. The stress on competition and success is horrible and dangerous, and I fear for the children who’ve grown up with that and have to face an economy that has no use for so many “successes.” Far better to enter the adult world with the attitude that jobs are necessary but generally unpleasant, and rarely indicative of worth. I was talking to a young woman a year or two ago about the current emphasis on success, and she said, “But things haven’t really changed, have they? Hasn’t it always been like this?” And me and the other people there my age all shouted “NO.” Okay, we’re artists, but so was this young woman.

    I’ve found (and I could have learned this at 20, if I’d believed anything I read) that when I am most inclined to be unkind to myself, it helps to be kind to others. It’s a much easier prescription than figuring out how to manufacture self-esteem. Maybe your son should spend some time with animals before tests.

  22. Your post is incredibly interesting. What a compelling treatment of the deeper meaning of kindness, and how easy it is for that to shatter into commodification, that will bring instant gratification, but no satisfaction. Humankindness, be like the rest of our kind, understanding that we are akin, how hard this understanding is, especially without the framework of religion. To me kindness takes form in language and actions, it is a ‘measurable thing’, but any framing of it immediately extinguishes it in smugness, and Victorian self-righteousness. Fantastic to read your analysis — and what was the outcome about son’s French essay? I have the same with Daughter’s violin practice.

  23. Jenny – I hear you on the harsh self-criticism! I could do with giving that up myself. But how useful to have lab partners who were into dissection – I admit I was/am hugely squeamish myself and spent most of my own biology lessons with my eyes closed. It’s a shame that you can’t choose not to pass down certain DNA….

    Stefanie – I can assure you the situation is just the same in the UK. We too have far too much focus on testing, not enough thinking what we really need children to learn (usually qualities rather than facts) and a culture that risks making parents pushy in the name of love. I keep hoping things will change, but no sign of it so far.

    Teresa – my son would send his deepest sympathies!! I remember many an occasion in my academic life when writing a lecture or paper was the last thing I wanted to do. I do hope you gave yourself a really good reward afterwards!

    Bluestocking – you crack me up! And oh yes, yes, please to being taught to throw a punch. You have no idea how much I want to learn.

    Gumbomum – it’s a really good book – I’d love to know what you think of it. It’s tough with the kids. I keep telling my son I don’t care how well he does so long as he gives it a good shot, and you know what? I think I’m just confusing him.

    ds – yes, absolutely, Winnicott championed the ‘good enough’ mother. And really he’s doing so again here, saying it’s okay not to like your children every day. It’s okay to have personal resentments. That’s human, and real, and you can let your children in on it a little, so long as you don’t let it out of control. It can in fact be comforting to children, who have to separate from their parents to grow, and won’t be able to if they feel too depended upon. We did do the French essay in the end – I helped, and it wasn’t perfect, but it was done. Phew.

    ankarajeoteknik – thank you!

    Jodie – absolutely agree. It is so difficult to break out of systems that are so deeply entrenched in our thinking. I try to encourage my son to see things differently, but I often think I just confuse him. I suppose my own sense is that we need to separate performance for others from pleasure for ourself. We want to get rewards out of the doing of things, not out of the approbation (always uncertain, often never enough) that others mete out. I’m not sure anyone younger than 35 could get a handle on that, though, not in the present culture.

    Bookboxed – my deepest sympathies to you and your children. Isn’t it just ghastly? So much pressure and tension, and for what? No one asks me what my O levels were these days. Yes, I can see (from the little I’ve read) that Dickens is very interested in kindness and extreme cruelty, probably one inevitably begetting the other. A Christmas Carol is a most interesting book to look at in that light.

    Pete – oh I think you’re quite right that my work in French is somehow involved here. However, I really couldn’t care less if my son doesn’t like the subject. What matters to me most is that he comes to understand that learning can bring pleasure. So much of his education has been about the absolute opposite, and that REALLY upsets me. I hate to think of learning being associated forever more with chore and tedium. So heigh ho, perhaps that plays a part too.

    David – I am so glad you are supporting your friend! We live in a culture that insists mothers are perfect, and it’s a nightmare to live up to. Not to mention being harmful to children. If you don’t watch your mother making mistakes and laughing them off, or learning readily and willingly, how will you manage to deal with them yourself? You are so right that there should be middle ground. I can think of several ways of providing it, but alas, no one asks me to fix the problem. 😉

    Bloglily – it IS over thank goodness. And I love the idea of youtube videos. My son watches enough of them, surely he could squeeze in a few on biology. And it’s okay, I beat myself up over mistakes too. If we beat ourselves up over beating ourselves up, where will it end? 🙂

  24. mbolit – oh good luck with the job hunting! It’s true that’s a grotty process. But a friend of mine used to say, if you got rejected at interview it was because either a) they didn’t like you or b) you were wrong for the job. And why would you want to work in the wrong job with people who disliked you? Great quote, btw.

    Becca – I quite agree that school sucks the joy out of learning, and isn’t that awful? I’d so much rather the kids didn’t learn how to sit exams. Where other than school (and accountancy) do you find them?

    Lilian – you’re welcome. I’m sure you would enjoy the book – it is very interesting and I’d love to know what you think of it.

    Doctordi – I do agree that adolescence is a tough rite of passage. SO many emotions, and all of them extreme! I tend to argue against the Darwinist slay thy neighbour principle, not least because Darwin was very keen on community and said that it was as powerful as any other instinct (because community was the best way to survive, not individual competition). But I do think that we have cultivated an odd attitude to being kind towards ourselves – either we employ overly harsh inner critics, or let ourselves shamelessly off the hook. And I do sort of blame education for that, mostly because it never tackles the awkward subject of how to receive criticism and feedback. But here’s hoping that my son will get there in time. I absolutely agree with you that time and experience are the key.

    Tom C – thank you, and I quite agree the world is not kind to people who don’t conform. The older I get, the easier I say, to heck with the world. Not so easy when you’re young though.

    Jean – it is a very good book and I’d love to know what you make of it. I felt for my son so much because I know exactly what it is like to make yourself do things you really don’t want to. I gave up academia because there was too much ultimately that I had to force myself to do. And it hurts. Finding a balance between necessity, obligation and pleasure is a tough thing to do.

    Dorothy – I know just what you mean!! I used to be kind to all of them and yet it seemed to make them feel even guiltier. I remember one of my students saying to me, ‘when I say the right thing you say ‘YES!’ and when I say the wrong thing you say ‘ye-e-es’.’ I had to laugh because it was true. Didn’t actually solve anything at all! Good luck with your classes, I have every faith in you as a very just and reasonable teacher.

    Sarah – it’s been lovely to catch up after all this time! I’ll be emailing you again soon. And your blog looks fascinating.

    Margaret – I do agree that being kind to others helps. But I find it perfectly possible to be kind to others and then downright mean to myself. But that’s my own balance, and one I have to struggle with! 🙂 The thing is, making mistakes is good, because it teaches us to be humble. We can have more compassion for others if we see how easy it is to get things wrong from personal experience. But if we’re mean to ourselves because of mistake making, then we’re inevitably harsh on others too, and so the vicious circle continues. But the urge to be competitive definitely diminishes with age, and that has to be a good thing.

    Ingrid – I do like what you say about the way any framing undermines the act. It shouldn’t. We ought to be able to say, oh look this is me being kind, without deciding that’s irrevocably egotistic, but it doesn’t feel that way, often, does it? And I think you’re also right that liberal multi-culturalism has not truly produced a sense of unity, only a sense of barriers that could so easily be reinforced. It is a tricky one. As for the French essay, the storm clouds suddenly eased, and my son began to feel he could tackle the task. I helped him, and the homework was over quite quickly in the end. Hasn’t stopped him threatening to make a bonfire of his French books now the holidays are here though…. Good luck with the violin!!!

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