Gordon Livingston

Gordon S Livingston M.D.



Kindness is the essential virtue from which the others flow.

Posted Jun 09, 2009

      Kindness is the indispensable virtue from which most of the others flow, the wellspring of our happiness. If the definition of love is raising the needs and desires of another to the level of our own, then kindness implies an ability to weigh these needs in every interaction with people. It assumes, but does not demand, that others will reciprocate and is in that way determinedly optimistic. It also reflects a belief in the essential decency of other human beings and so it must be tempered with an ability to recognize those who are unwilling or unable to respond and instead wish to take advantage of people naïve enough to believe that a capacity for kindness resides within each of us. The ability to love is not randomly distributed in the population and can be overwhelmed by a devotion to one's own self-interest.
      Under its umbrella kindness shelters a variety of other traits - empathy, generosity, unselfishness, tolerance, acceptance, compassion - that are highly valued and easily recognizable. Implied in all of these is the conviction that the quality of our relationships with other people is the primary determinant of our own happiness. Beyond that, however, is the belief that in our efforts to live successful lives we cannot do so at the expense of others. The notion of people prospering together is frequently submerged in the competition to achieve our share (and more) of whatever is valuable and advantageous to us: money, prestige, power. If these things are obtained at the expense of others it is difficult to assign meaning to our lives that will sustain us.
      We must be able in the end to reconcile our past behavior, derive pleasure from the moment, and envision a purpose to our future if we are to be happy. An ability to do all of these tasks requires that we learn to be kind. The linear story of our lives, past and future, viewed in the present, constitutes a story that we both write ourselves and contemplate as time rushes past. We want our narrative to make sense, to express something about us that is uniquely valuable, that leaves some footprint in the hearts of those whom we care about. Few of us can take satisfaction from a life that does not include some sense that others have benefited from our time on earth.
      To be in the presence of another person who accepts us as we are, gives us the benefit of the doubt, cares what we think, and assumes we will act generously is an immensely gratifying experience. We are drawn to such people, both because they are unusual and because they encourage us toward similar behavior. True kindness blurs the line between giving and receiving. It is the opposite of the "contractual" view of relationships in which we trade favors and keep score to insure that we give no more than we receive. The latter construction, unfortunately, describes most marriages. Typically, the division of responsibility in such relationships is carefully negotiated so neither partner feels taken advantage of.
      The point is that dissatisfaction with whatever bargain is struck is frequent and the subject of a lot of renegotiation in search of the elusive balance point of "fairness." This need to be self-protective is burdensome and is the antithesis of a relationship in which kindness prevails. When I hear with some frequency from married people that they "love" their partner but are "not in love with them," I never know what to make of this distinction. It sounds as if people are talking about some obligation that they are forced to discharge without enthusiasm or excitement.
      If kindness begets love why is it not more prevalent? The simplest answer is that we do not value it sufficiently as a culture. We are from an early age taught the importance of material success and encouraged to compete to achieve it. The multi-billion dollar advertising industry bombards us with images that encourage dissatisfaction with what we have or how we look and perpetuates fantasies that we can purchase some better version of ourselves. Implied in this view of the world is that we must win a series of competitions involving academic success, occupational achievement, and status-enhancing relationships. In each of these areas we are expected to compete as if we can succeed only at the expense of others. Is it any wonder, then, that our lives are guided by self-interest and a fear of failure? Our attitudes toward relating to others are shaped by a similar apprehensive striving, which is why our mating dances are so complex and fraught with mistrust.
      Picture the alternative. In the presence of one disposed to kindness you will notice an absence of guile, an ability to listen, and a disinclination to compete. If you can reciprocate, you will experience a growing feeling of safety and trust. You may find yourself disclosing things about yourself that you have previously been at pains to conceal: fears and vulnerabilities. The need for self-protection drops away as does the requirement to appear to be something other than you are. You feel, paradoxically, a growing satisfaction with yourself combined with a desire to become a better person. You feel that a great burden has been lifted from you. You are, at last, good enough. In fact, the image of yourself that you see reflected in your loved one's eyes may be nearly perfect. You would like this moment to last forever. Imagine that.

About the Author

Gordon Livingston

Gordon Livingston, M.D., writes and practices psychiatry in Columbia, MD.

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