The Literary Mind

Life, literature, and politics, from the inside out.

Is Kindness a Weakness?

Are independent people developed and generous people stupid?

A new book, On Kindness, by psychologist Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor, asks why we generally see independent people as strong and charitable people as dumber or less developed. It asks how we got to a place in human history in which heroism is most often depicted as independence, and in which we interpret small acts of random kindness as suspect--as a repressed need to be recognized, as a sign of an overly submissive nature, or even as a symptom of mental illness.

On Kindness starts with a short history of kindness, from Christ's notion that kindness was naturally human, through Enlightenment skepticism (Hobbes' claim that we are naturally greedy), to the modern ideal of ownership. Today, when prompted to imagine a hero, we think of independence; and kindness is generally considered the icing--the sweet lining but not the principle sign of a strong human being.

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In parallel to this issue of kindness, see last week's great The New Yorker article, "The Kindest Cut," by Larissa MacFarquhar, in which she looks at kidney donors. She explains that some people donate their kidneys to strangers for no apparent reason other than a need to give something big to another human being. She notes how we tend to see this as pathological. While she tries for balance in her article, MacFarquhar herself indulges in caricature at times, depicting the donors as whacky, or suspicious in their willingness to give up a part of their bodies with no promised reward.

One of the donors, Melissa Stephens, aged 24, is introduced through her blog with its childish punctuation and all: "I LOVE CAKE, ask anyone. my favorite cake is funfetti with funfetti frosting.... i love my friends and i'd do anything for them. my biggest flaw is being too nice to people who are mean to me." So, when Stephens makes the decision to donate her kidney to a stranger, she essentially seems like an adolescent who's scared to know her more complicated desires.

Another donor featured in MacFarquhar's article gets seriously depressed after giving an unknown woman his kidney. He says it feels like withdrawal to come off the rush of feeling like a hero. By showing us the secret lives and conflicted emotions of donors, MacFarquhar is essentially asking what we feel about kindness: Are altruists generous because we all have a simple desire to give? Or, do these people have possible imbalances in their psychology, like excessive submissiveness or a repressed need to be recognized as worthy?

Taylor and Phillips do offer a short answer to those sort of questions in their book On Kindness. After exploring the history of kindness, they essentially offer their own definition of it, using Freud to root their argument. Their idea (via Freud) is essentially this: When we're children, we idealize concordance with the world. We don't yet have the frontal cortex to conceptualize the difference between a "me" and all of the physical stuff we hear, taste, and feel. We simply feel as if everything is one thing--existence without description. That's an initial vision of bliss.

But as we grow up, we begin to separate one thing from another, label it all, and come to identify with a sense of "me," in contrast to other people and events. This is how self-interest--aggression and defensiveness--develop. As we learn about the difference between ourselves and the world, we want to protect ourselves, to fight for our recognition or existence. Freud, the authors admit, comes to a standstill at this stage of maturity--saying that for most of our lives, we're aggressive in defending the self. We want to have sex to protect our bloodline; we largely want to protect or proclaim our stance in the world.

Taylor and Phillips essentially agree with Freud's picture of how greed emerges, but they add another stage to life (which Freud admitted but did not emphasize, and which Freud's sometimes-rival Alfred Adler ardently supported). They say that after individuation--and if we can think our way beyond an animalistic fear for our lives--we see that what humans call "meaning" only comes through collaboration. That is, without language and work among others, we have no meaning. But to honestly and openly acknowledge this fact, we need to make ourselves vulnerable again. We need to listen, to be patient--and, often, to be kind. Collaboration demands a giving and taking of gifts without guarantee of reward.

This is where real kindness sits, the authors say (modernity is perhaps just too much a rat-race for us to acknowledge this). Kindness is one of the highest modalities of human behavior, because it means moving from an infant's idealism, on to a young person's defensiveness, on to a wiser willingness for vulnerability. The wise-and-kind are the people who give in order to risk and thereby create.

There are more and less mature forms of kindness, Taylor and Phillips suggest. A child simply wants everyone to "make nice." An adult knows more about our natural needs to aggress and defend. In turn, an adult acknowledges her own vulnerability and defensiveness even as she tries to be generous. Call "mature kindness" a more "neurotic" than "simple" kindness. It's full of thinking. An adult who is kind is kind principally because she wants to foster a collaboration--as a risky but necessary part of living a full human life.

What do you think: What is the driving force behind generosity, or kindness? 

Ilana Simons, Ph.D., is a literature professor at The New School as well as a practicing therapist.

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