Social Virtues Archives - The School Of Life

There is a kind of person who seems, on initial acquaintance, to be astonishingly in agreement with us on all major and minor topics. Whatever political statement we make wins their accord. Wherever we want to go chimes with their wishes. They have come to identical conclusions on every book and film we mention. They find exactly the same things funny; they were just about to suggest exactly the same kind of sandwich filling for lunch.

Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Unsplash

It seems as if we have chanced upon a long-lost twin or divine soulmate, but the reality is more prosaic and complicated. The other’s boundless propensity to be aligned with us springs not from some magical twinship of the psyche, but from their terror of the consequences of disagreement. The people pleaser has imbibed an impression that voicing contrary opinions, from what to eat to how to run a company or a nation, will be met with titanic fury or vengeful disappointment. They agree with us from a sense that it would be impossible to say authentically what they thought and survive as an object of regard and affection.

The people pleaser is likely to have started life as the offspring of a parent with particular ruthlessness around diverging views. In the initial family setting, there might have been only one right way to organise a meal, one right place to go on holiday and one right way to polish shoes, and it was certainly not for a child to decide which these might be. Alternatively, a beloved but fragile-seeming parent might have collapsed at the slightest sign of protest or independence, and implicitly accused a child of endangering their sanity or life through their ‘wilfulness’.

As a result, the people pleaser labours under a punishing internal directive never to utter their own thoughts. Or, worse, they may have stopped even having them; they aren’t just keeping quiet, they have nothing left to keep quiet about. They still have ringing in their ears, perhaps many decades after they first heard them, voices that advise them in the sternest ways not to be so silly, to shut up and listen, to not get above their station and to obey their betters. Self-hatred has destroyed the development of their own minds. 

Liberation begins with an idea that might at first sound disorienting and frightening: that whatever the people pleaser’s early experience might have taught them, most humans do not in fact find those who agree with them on everything very pleasing. Despite the occasional charms of compliance, an unbounded servility grates, and for good reason: we sense the danger in such passivity, we know that someone who will tell us only what we want to hear will be a risk to our understanding of the world and keep us blind to vital sources of challenging information. Paradoxically, people pleasing doesn’t please.

Along the way, these unfortunates must be given a chance to trust in an idea that would at one time have seemed deeply taboo: that they can afford to think of themselves as centres of original perception and novel thoughts, some of which may be of supreme importance and validity, even when they don’t immediately align with fashionable opinion or received wisdom. 

Through the case of people pleasers, we glimpse the surprising origins of good thinking in the experience of love. Feeling loved is what enables us to use our minds imaginatively and freely. To have felt truly cared for is to have surmised that we do not need to toe the line faithfully at all points in our speculations and that others can cherish us even as we raise contrasting or challenging points of view. What the lucky ones among us understood from the outset, people pleasers must learn painfully and intellectually: that with sufficient self-love, it need not always feel like an impossible gamble to nurture and disclose the contents of our own minds.

In 1821, the 45-year-old English painter John Constable went out on to Hampstead Heath and did something very loving. He set up his easel and looked closely at an elm tree. He observed the weathering across its bark, the lichen around its base, the moss clinging to its roots; he looked at the water stains that ran down its sides, its canopy of toothed celadon-green leaves and its purple-black buds. He spent around forty hours over a few weeks lavishing attention on an object to which most of us have never accorded more than a minute. Commenting on this capacity after his death, Constable’s friend and biographer, C.R. Leslie, remarked: ‘I have seen him admire a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms’.

John Constable, Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree, c. 1821

Constable’s move feels central to the definition of love because when we consider someone through the eyes of love (it might be a cherubic child or a criminal, a beggar or a derided celebrity), what we are first and foremost doing is studying them closely, solicitously and with benevolence. For once, we are enquiring what might actually be motivating them, what they might have been through and the distinctive forces that have shaped them, as particular as the patterns on bark.

The close studies of painters are touching because we recognise in them a degree of care from which we have been exiled in the ordinary run of life. We unconsciously sense how much we secretly long for steady attention to be brought to bear on the world’s trees and flowers, domestic scenes and vistas, people and ideas. It may have been a very long time – perhaps early childhood – since someone took a proper interest in details about us: sincerely enquired how we are feeling, looked at each of our fingers, caressed the back of our heads or delved into the nuances of what excites and saddens us. We recognise an attitude of consideration in art by which we are nourished and sustained in life.

Through the eyes of love, we are not crushed into a headline, our case is not dismissed with a rapid ironic sneer, and through thoughtful engrossment, we can expand into our true multi-faceted selves. The early-19th-century Danish painter Johan Thomas Lundbye may have been engaged in drawing flowers, but he was at the same time modelling for us how we might behave when someone comes to tell us that they are getting divorced, or when a child has destroyed their room in anger, or when we read about the trial and imprisonment of a stranger in the newspaper. We too might follow Lundbye’s implicit lesson and take the time to scrutinize every particularity; we might care to see to the underside of things; we might note what is beautiful and tender in inauspicious places.

Johan Thomas Lundbye, Sketch of Flowers, 1840

In 1836, the Austrian painter Jakob Alt allowed us a biographical glimpse into his creative life when he drew his studio in a suburb of Vienna, tracing the objects inside as well as the view onto the mountains of Wienerwald and the houses of the village of Dornbach. The result is a depiction of a place of work, but it is also an inadvertent rendition of what it means to love: that is, to look out at the world through the window of our souls with special attention, to open ourselves up to otherness, attempting to give true value to existence, to rescue so-called minor elements from inattention, striving to correct our normal disregard and coldness, and so honouring the true beauty and complexity of things before darkness falls.

Jakob Alt, View from the Artist’s Studio in Alservorstadt toward Dornbach,

Some of what holds people back from showing greater love is a sense that it would be dangerous and woolly-minded to do so. Too much sensitivity and sweetness, too much tolerance and sympathy appear to be the enemies of an appropriately grown-up and hard-headed existence. Such types are not saying that it wouldn’t be delightful if we could display compassion and tenderness towards one another, if we could be sensitive to the sufferings of strangers and quick to forgive and understand the failings of our colleagues and lovers; they just don’t think that this has much relevance in the real world.

In seeking to show why, they might refer to cases like that of the early-19th-century English poet John Keats, a gifted young man who wrote movingly about birds, the sky and autumn mists and stands as a representative of a universal attitude of gentleness and kindness, an exemplar of sensitivity and love.

Joseph Severn, John Keats, 1821

Keats’ life was far from an inspiration, however; indeed, it was a practical disaster. He trained as a doctor, but never got a job; he received a modest inheritance on his mother’s early death, but never managed to earn any money and was constantly pursued by creditors. His poems were not very well received; one particularly practical-minded reviewer described him as ‘a miserable creature’, longing for ‘a world of treacle’, in which everyone and everything is sweet. He died of tuberculosis aged twenty-five.

There seemed to have been a fatal misalignment in his life: Keats was broadly and warmly loving, but success eluded him. His ideas may have sounded elevated, but they didn’t help him to secure health or peace of mind. If we are to thrive, the interpretation goes, we need to harden ourselves, be realistic and accept the painful but important fact that excesses of sensitivity and kindness actively ruin our chances of flourishing.

Yet the temptation here is to assume that being loving and being realistic are contraries, that they are set like a fork in the road. We can be practical or we can be loving, but never both. The dispute is commonly translated in political terms; broadly, one side wants to be kind but will probably destroy the economy, the other side wants to support material prosperity, but the means will be brutal.

What has too often been missing in our ideas is the possibility that we might hold on to both love and rigour. Rather than seeing practicality and sympathy as alternatives, we could see them as different ingredients within a life. We’re not being asked to choose; good results must depend on a combination.

An exclusively loving person might be inclined to overlook how much love needs a clear eye for unwelcome facts. It’s not loving to tell someone that their business idea is bound to succeed when it is in fact naive or unworkable. It’s not loving to persuade someone that they are delightful just as they are when they may benefit from acquiring further skills or education. Love that loses touch with the reality of an imperfect world is no longer kind.

Yet the pure pragmatist, who trusts that cynicism lends them a perfect grip on how things work, is equally deluded. Kindness and generosity are essential lubricants; to get the best out of people involves magnanimity and decency; in order to negotiate successfully we need to feel the legitimacy of another person’s concerns. If we are to persuade others of anything, we have to enter into their minds with solicitude.

We’re lacking vivid descriptions and portrayals of people who have learned to be practical and loving. There have been too many people like Keats on the one hand and too many robber barons on the other. Sanity involves recognising that it is as naive and ultimately as dangerous to surrender indiscriminately to the claims of love as it is to ignore them altogether.

One of the reasons why we may end up acting more destructively and cruelly than we should is that it can take us a long time to fathom how someone like us could cause trouble for anyone. By ‘someone like us’, we mean someone who is as unpowerful, as put upon, as much subject to the whims of others, as obscure and forgotten as we generally feel ourselves to be. We know that certain people can be dangerous: those who run corporations, for example, or the heads of governments or investors in oil companies (we might get incensed when we think of what these mighty sorts get up to). It’s just that we’re nothing like this. We’re ordinary; we’re not in the midst of history; we’re not privileged; we’re the victims.

This sense of innocence tends to take hold when we are very young. At that time, it is obvious that we are not qualified to do much damage at all. We are weak before the world and it is always more likely that someone else will be the aggressor. Parents make unfair demands on us; teachers bully us; strangers might interfere with us.

From this, we may continue to trust in our own inability to aggrieve others. We therefore don’t try hard to reassure other people that we like them and that they are of value: why would they need to hear such messages from someone like us? We don’t rush to tell our hosts that their hospitality was satisfying; they surely know it anyway. We don’t feel we should pay someone a compliment; they obviously have more important friends than us to take care of their self-esteem. If we’re feeling oppressed and angry, we might sit down at our computer and lash out at a famous person online: it clearly can’t matter to them; they wouldn’t be listening to a character as negligible as we are. And thereby, bit by bit, on the back of touching feelings of innocence and powerlessness, we end up adding more than our fair share of poison to the collective bloodstream.

To be a loving person is to wrestle with an always profoundly improbable idea: that however modest our position in society might be, however much we may have been maltreated in the past, however mesmerised we are by the deplorable behaviour of powerful individuals, however shy and frail we are, we are constantly capable of causing other people significant hurt.

Loving people understand the extreme psychological susceptibility of everyone who crosses their path. They might have a neighbour, someone who is much more successful than they are and who holidays abroad several times a year, whom they still take care to share a few warm words with in the morning, knowing how a blank stare can hurt even someone who goes paragliding in the summer and has an elegant car. Even though one of their old friends is now a professional chef and seems confident about their work, the loving guest nevertheless bothers to write a witty and careful few lines of thanks after a dinner. There may be a big gap in age or status between them and their boss, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t say something encouraging when this figure has to go into hospital for a routine operation.

The loving know that you can be employed at the dry cleaner’s or work as an attendant at a cinema and still play a role in someone’s life through a small act of graciousness and solicitude. At the same time, they are aware that you could leave an unkind comment online – just a few words reminding a celebrity living thousands of miles away that they’re a piece of shit – and thereby help to strip away one of the last reasons why someone might bother to keep living.

The loving know how much everyone suffers from feelings of self-doubt, worthlessness, loneliness and pain beneath a veneer of imperviousness and strength. They may not have the precise details to hand, but they grasp enough about the general picture: how much each one of us is haunted by self-recriminations, how weighed down we are by opportunities we have missed, how isolated and overlooked we feel.

The loving intuit that there is a large gap between what people will tell us of their difficulties and what is almost certainly going on inside them. The conditions of society require a great deal of surface bravery; it is easy to miss the desperation. The loving have their senses open: they look out for signs of pain, they don’t wait to be overwhelmed by evidence. They know about pride and our reluctance to let people in on our defeats. They know how much we collude in keeping people at bay, even as we long for comfort. That’s why the loving write so many thank you notes, make so many apparently routine phone calls to say hello and leave openings in their conversations where others might venture a confession or a question. They aren’t being fake or putting on airs; they’re keeping the agony involved in being human at the forefront of their minds.

At a collective level, we describe the heightened awareness of our susceptibility to insult and harm as ‘manners’. History shows how long it has taken humanity to acquire manners in different areas. It now seems natural that we should ideally express gratitude to those who offer us gifts, shouldn’t eat with our fingers, should avoid burping loudly and mustn’t spit in the faces of those who irritate us – but the historical record tells another tale. What we might take to be ‘normal’ impulses to be modest, restrained and thoughtful are the hard-won fruits of a long and unsteady civilising process. We’ve only been using forks since Catherine de’ Medici promoted their use in the 1550s; we’ve only been writing thank you letters since the royal courts of Europe spread the habit in the 18th century. For the largest part of our presence on the earth, it has been customary to behead our enemies, to defecate in front of strangers and to use derogatory words towards the inhabitants of other lands.

Manners can seem irritatingly artificial and untrue to who we ‘really are’, but the loving know that it is no treat for anyone to be exposed to the full and unvarnished reality of another person. They are kind enough to shield everyone they encounter from an authenticity that is likely to include large reserves of irritability, unfairness, prejudice and self-pity. The loving don’t feel any need to take other people fully into the darkness of their hearts; they don’t need to be honest at any cost, they know that sincere kindness may mean leaving a huge amount unexpressed.

Though it may seem as if we now have all the manners we could possibly need, the loving also recognise how much further there is to go. We are only at the dawn of understanding how destructive an online comment might be; the power of the media to shame us is barely grasped, and generally discovered by individuals only when it is far too late. Our loud, self-promoting, angry, justificatory way of life exacts an unexplored and devastating toll on our psyches.

Small children do us a great favour by tending to burst into tears when they are in pain. Adults who look after small ones for the first time may be surprised by how delicate their feelings are: these adults only raised their voices slightly and now the three year old is in floods of tears; it was only a passing sarcastic joke, and now the little one is terrified or sulking under a blanket.

We shouldn’t wonder at this tenderness of heart; it belongs to all of us once we are properly attuned to our sensitivities. Our lives are constantly demeaned by missing small acts of grace: by the reassurance that doesn’t come, by the viciousness that isn’t held back, by the comfort that isn’t accorded. The loving never let this fragility out of their sight. It doesn’t matter that they might apparently be bit-part actors in the dramas of the world, they know that they wield a potentially decisive power to redeem or to damn, to depress or to cheer. They appreciate that they may be the last stop between a stranger and a decision to end it all. They don’t wait for obvious cries of help; they know that the emergency of being alive is general and ongoing.

Born in 1606, Rembrandt became a hugely successful painter when he was still only in his twenties. He earned a fortune and lived a wildly extravagant life. 

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait with Saskia, circa 1636

But by his early fifties, he was all but bankrupt: he had to sell his house and all the beautiful objects he had accumulated. In the world of respectable, prudent Dutch merchants, his economic ruin was regarded as deeply shameful – and, self-evidently, it was entirely his own fault.  

Around the time financial disaster struck, Rembrandt painted a self-portrait, burdened with an honest, deeply sorrowful awareness of his own idiocy and folly: it is evident in his eyes that he knows he doesn’t deserve anyone’s sympathy. 

  Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, aged 51, circa 1657 (National Gallery of Scotland) 

Fittingly, given what he had gone through, his culminating masterpiece, painted at the very end of his life relates to another, more famous character who has behaved in a clearly appalling way. 

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1669 

The picture illustrates a parable from the New Testament known as The Prodigal Son. The kneeling man has been prodigal – in the sense of profligate; he took his father’s money, ran away and spent it all on wine, women and song. The prodigal son stands in for Rembrandt himself – the waster who has brought ruin and disgrace upon himself. The son deserves to be hounded and humiliated. But this is not the reception he gets. In the painting, the elderly father-figure greets his son with great compassion and gentleness. Instead of giving his son the stern condemnation that he deserves, the father provides the love, warmth and forgiveness the son needs

The picture conveys Rembrandt’s moving and very intimate realisation about the true nature of love: it reaches out to the selfish idiot, to the wastrel, to the passion-driven fool. Love properly understood is destined also for the undeserving.

Perhaps Rembrandt’s most moving work is a modest looking print entitled Christ Preaching. Significantly, it isn’t set in Galilee or Jerusalem in the 1st century AD. Instead the message of kindness is being preached in a back street of a Dutch town, in other words, to Rembrandt’s contemporaries. 

Rembrandt, Christ Preaching, circa 1657

The message can be boiled down to three words: ‘I love you’ and it’s being beamed out to precisely the kinds of people who – in Rembrandt’s day – were viewed (with some justification) as particularly odious: they are, we can guess, thieves, layabouts, drunks, pimps and  people who lent money at terrifying rates of interest; mean employers and con-artists. If Rembrandt were creating this work today, we might see – ranged around the alleyway – the representative unloveable figures of our times: a politician who incites conflict, the owner of a newspaper that puts profit above truth; someone who is proud of their vulgarity; a snobbish socialite, an arms trader, a feral youth, a sexual deviant or the kind of person who seems to take satisfaction in distressing others. It is to them that the message of love is being directed. 

Rembrandt’s key insight is that everyone needs love – whether they deserve it or not. If we wait to be kind only to those who deserve kindness, we will be waiting for a very long time; in fact, we’ll have turned into monsters.

There is so much talk of love in our societies, it would be natural to think that we must by now know what it is and why it counts. Love is the excited feeling we get in the presence of someone of unusual accomplishment and talent – great intelligence or beauty for the most part – whom we hope will reciprocate our interest and whom we badly want to touch, caress and one day share our lives with.

This definition sounds so plausible and enjoys such powerful cultural endorsement, we are apt to miss another vision of love altogether, this one focused not so much on the appreciation of strength as on a tolerance of, and kindness towards, what is weak and misshapen. 

According to this vision, we display love when, on the way home, we come across an itinerant drunk – weather-beaten and dishevelled, beer addled and ranting – and do not, for once, turn away and instead make the momentous internal step (with all the eventual outward actions that might follow) of considering them as a version of ourselves, prey to the same passions and distempers, visited by the same longings, upset by similar losses and worthy of their own share of compassion and tolerance.

We show love too when we see a well dressed person shouting grandly and imperiously at an airport, filled with self-righteousness, apparently bloated on their own self-regard, and do not dismiss them immediately as insane or entitled, but instead, take the trouble to see the frightened vulnerable self beneath the bluster, when we grow curious as to the sickness of the soul that might be operating just below the surface and are able to wonder what has hurt them – and why they might be so scared.

We show love when we see a small child throwing themselves on the floor in the aisles of a supermarket, shouting that they want ‘it’ again and again, and do not focus only on how inconvenient it is to steer our trolley around them and how piercing and maddening their screams are, but also feel how much we understand their frustration – and would want to tell them that their pain is in its general form ours too and that we would also like to rest against a kindly adult’s chest and hear ‘I know, I know’  until the pain ebbs.

It is love too, the proper and most serious variety in the universe, when our partner is – on this occasion – being plainly irrational, unfair, mean-spirited and maddening, and yet we do not, as we so easily might, direct back a full dose of righteous anger their way, but instead hold back a little and wonder why this formerly sane and interesting adult should have fallen apart in this manner and hold open the idea that they are not merely awful and vicious but might not have slept very well last night, are perhaps panicked by what the future might bring them and might inside be dealing with feelings of lacerating self-contempt they hardly understand or know how to master. It would be love to go up to them at precisely the juncture when we would have so many reasons to slam the door on them and extend our arms.

However many songs celebrate the act, it is no particular feat to love someone who is on their best behaviour, who looks beautiful and moves with grace through the world. What really cries out for our attention is the love of what is crooked and gnarled, damaged and self-disgusted. In this definition, love is the effort required to imagine oneself more accurately into the life of another human who has not made it in way easy to admire or even like them. 

It is love when a novelist spends three hundred pages detailing the interior life of a violent criminal – and allows us to see the innocent child within the guilty adult. In the Western tradition, it was the man from Nazareth who gave us the most memorable demonstrations of this sort of love, who made it seem glamorous to love differently from the Romans and the Greeks, to love the prostitute, the prisoner and the sinner, to show love to a wretch, a catastrophe and an enemy. To extrapolate from the approach, a truly Christian dating app would not merely highlight the beautiful and the dazzling, it wouldn’t allow us to swipe away every slightly displeasing person at a stroke but would instead stop us arbitrarily at photographs of hugely challenging figures – malodorous lepers, shocking reprobates – and would command, with all the authority of divine intonation, ‘Love! Here where it would feel so natural and so easy to hate, your duty is to love…’

It’s a measure of how we far forgotten everything to do with this sort of love, how committed we are to love-as-admiration, that such a command would sound so peculiar and so laughable. Yet we might say that nothing is more important than this love, that this is the love that rescues nations from intolerance, that pauses wars, that halts recriminations, that calms furies, that prevents murders – and that allows civilisation to continue. True love involves precisely not giving someone what is their due, but giving them what they need in order to survive instead.

Not least, the spirit of love demands that we acknowledge how much we ourselves may one day stand in need of this form of love-as-forgiveness. We cannot rely on always having justice on our side, in always being able to make a claim on others based on our own unsullied righteousness and goodness. At some point, we may well be have to cry our for mercy. We may have no leg to stand on. We may have behaved foolishly and might reasonably be in line for the worst sort of punishment from a judge who was closely following the letter of the law. 

At this point, we need to hope that there will be a few people around who still remember what true love is, someone who will undertake the heroic effort of not giving us what we deserve, who will recall that there must be a sweet and distinctly blameless child beneath the horrible and difficult adult we have become, someone who can bypass the jeering mob and offer us counsel and reassurance, knowing that every human has a claim upon forgiveness and imagination.

And perhaps, by this example, we will in turn become people who know how to love properly – and after our particular crisis has passed, we may make the effort to extend love to others who have themselves failed and transgressed – perhaps in ways similar but also different from our own – so that society can through this enriching mutuality of imagination become a less frightening and less harried place for all, one in which we will know how to treat one another like naughty children who can be redeemed, rather than felonious wrongdoers who must be loathed and forgotten.

When we are little, one of the first, and most boring, lessons we ever receive is in the primordial importance of being – as adults put it – ‘kind’. It’s because of this peculiar-seeming imperative that our mother will remind us up to fifteen times in a single week to send granny a thank you letter for the horrible hat she knitted us. Or that we have to add a ‘please’ every time we ask for almost anything, even a paper napkin, from anyone. Or that we have to invite the weirdo in class to our birthday party and even give him his own balloon. We’re left in little doubt: kindness is at once very important – and entirely stupid.

As we grow up, we get better at the superficial mechanics of kindness – but not necessarily better at understanding why kindness should matter as it does. The subject remains under some of the strict or sentimental cloud beneath which it was first introduced to us as small children. We simply succumb to its dictates more readily and are a little swifter with the cards.

The Sitting Room (Francis Place) III 1997 Sarah Jones born 1959 Purchased 1999

The true reason why it matters boils down to a thought that we may resist for a long time: because we are alarmingly, and almost limitlessly, sensitive, by which is meant, hugely unconvinced of our own value, of our right to exist, of our legitimacy, of our claims on love, of our decency and of our capacity to interest anyone in our pains and in our ultimate fate. We need kindness so desperately – even its tiniest increments (a door held open, a compliment on a biscuit, a birthday remembered) – because we are, first and foremost, permanently teetering over a precipice of despair and self-loathing. The impression of grown-up self-assurance is a sham; inside, just beneath a layer of competence, we are terrified and lost, unsure and unreassured – and ready to cling avidly on to any sign, however small, that we deserve to continue.

No wonder if we were to try to hide this kind of susceptibility from children (and ourselves), and to present the need for kindness as flowing from some kind of abstract requirement for manners. What we don’t properly dare to tell children is that if granny doesn’t get the card, she might wake up in the early hours – a few weeks from now – and wonder whether anything she ever does is really worth it, whether she hasn’t wasted her whole life and whether this little rejection isn’t part of a long-standing pattern of things never working out for her. It may not be edifying but we truly are creatures who will worry about an off-hand remark, and who may fall into self-loathing because someone jostled us in a shop or didn’t say thank you for a pencil. What we call being polite is a way of lending others some small change in the currency of hope and courage which we depend on for our emotional survival. 

We become properly invested in being kind when we realise the power we possess in most situations to rescue another human from self-contempt. We start to be kind too when we realise how much we need others to be kind to us. It isn’t an obvious thought. A degree of machismo can feel more acceptable at the outset. We may stoically imagine that we don’t mind at all how others behave, that we are above such petty details, that we aren’t going to allow ourselves to be wounded so easily – with some of the same pseudo bravery of a child who leaves the house on a wintry day without its overcoat, despite the entreaties of its parents. But gradually, we may come to know our own hearts slightly better, and feel our own pains more sincerely – and therefore realise that we are very much at the mercy of all those we interact with. We may find ourselves sad and listless at the end of a day at work, and rather than distracting ourselves with the internet or taking our frustration out on a partner, we may register that we are feeling defeated because – a few hours earlier – a colleague looked at their watch just a bit too obviously as we were embarking on our presentation. Or we might admit that we are really very upset that someone we’d invested a bit of hope in hasn’t returned our call at the appointed time or that we received only a text rather than a card from someone we’d taken considerable care to cook supper for a week earlier.


When we in turn have a child, we may find ourselves insisting that they write a letter quickly, though we might add – if we know ourselves well enough – something that might just get the letter written with a bit more feeling: that if granny doesn’t hear from us, she might get sad, she might start to worry about herself, she might wonder if she isn’t very good at being granny… We don’t ultimately grow kind by thinking about manners. We grow kind by thinking about fear and self-hatred. A kinder world would be one that wasn’t more decorous, but more alive to the presence of despair, to our susceptibility to shame and to our craving for any sign (however small) of our right to exist.

We have reduced it down to a trite error – ’worrying about what the neighbours think’ – as if this were a trap that only a mediocrity could ever fall into. In fact, it’s what we all automatically do unless we have taken some radically conscious steps to overcome our impulses. Letting our lives be guided by the verdicts of those around us isn’t a mistake worthy of a minority of numbskulls, it’s the primordial instinct of every human – which we have to take immense care to outgrow intelligently and nuance rationally in order to stand any chance of claiming our rightful share of freedom.

What then are some of the key ways not to give in to the unhelpful ideas of our numerous so-called neighbours:

1. Firstly, we have to appreciate the history and, at a stretch, the biological basis behind our intense worries about what everyone else thinks. We aren’t demented to be so concerned; until very recently in our collective evolutionary pasts, we lived in small communities where the views of our fellow clan members truly could constitute a matter of life and death. 

However, as with so many areas (diet is another), our natural impulses have not kept pace with our modern realities. A key advantage of the contemporary world is that we’ve done away with neighbours: we can lead hugely independent lives, in large and anonymous cities, where we may eat on our own, define our identities by ourselves and earn money in diverse solitary ways. We sentimentally overlook that it can be a very good thing that we don’t know the name of anyone on our street. So it is especially unfortunate that we generally continue to respond to every rumour about us in the same panicked way as our ancestors might have done in tightly-packed forest encampments 6,000 years ago. We should take the advantages of our modernity fully to heart: there are police forces to guard us, an angry person or two on another continent can’t damage us and we are beyond being injured by mob thinking – just so long as we can induce our imaginations to remember that not caring about every stray opinion is at this point the sane option.

2. Part of the reason for our respect is that we have a very hard time shaking off the idea that neighbours thoughts’ must somehow be the result of an intelligence worthy of respect. Why else would so many neighbours think in a particular way and might have done so for a very long time? Yet that is to miss the extraordinary and always surprising role of error, happenstance and delusion in the formation of that large collective brew we know as ‘common-sense.’ An idea can sound eminently plausible, be believed by millions, have been around for centuries – and still for that matter be entirely and grievously wrong. 

Our credulity is, ultimately, a hangover from childhood, a period in which we readily took the adults around us more or less on trust, because they were twice our size, knew how to drive, could kick a ball fifteen meters into the air and appeared to know everything. 

But a continued adherence to a child-like way of thinking is a form of low self-esteem for which there is no ongoing rationale in an appropriately adult life. At some point, we need to imagine that the teacher doesn’t know. And correspondingly, that each one of us might be the originator of important perspectives which the dominant mentality has missed. With nothing remotely vindictive being meant by this, and on the basis of reasons for which one can feel immense compassion, the neighbour might simply be – on a range of key questions, and where it really counts – a total idiot.

3. We tend to assume that neighbours have always thought a certain way and will always do so – and therefore, that the onus must be on us to tailor our ideas to match theirs. But this is to forget just how much neighbour-thinking keeps shifting and so how foolish we would be to lean on it too heavily with any expectation that it might not leave us looking ridiculous one day. At certain points, neighbour-thinking might be firmly identified with a given position on how to earn money, conduct one’s personal life or raise children, and then – only a few years later – just as firmly with some quite different philosophies. There seems little point sacrificing our integrity or vision of happiness for the sake of ideas which the majority might itself rethink a few years down the line, when our lives will be almost over.

4. It isn’t the case that we merely worry about what the neighbours ‘think’. We also often want something a lot more emotional and touching (but also more dangerous) from our neighbours: we want them to like or even love us. We want them as our friends. We want their respect and concern. We associate fitting in with their opinions with being cherished and looked after. But we would do well to grow a little more cynical about what can truly be expected of the average neighbour. These types aren’t in fact, ever going to adore us in return for our obedience to their rules. There aren’t any special prizes for fitting in. This isn’t a love worth paying any advanced price for. However obedient we might be, the neighbour will be eminently ready to abandon us and turn the other way if ever we ran into difficulties. We shouldn’t be paying the price of living in a clan (the nosiness, the intrusion and the group bullying) when the real benefits of doing so (loyalty and high trust) aren’t even on the cards.

5. We are right to seek love from others; but we’re deeply wrong in how many people we seek it from. We do need a few characters who will be profoundly on our side. What we don’t require is a whole village to offer us its tepid and wavering good cheer. We need – at most – three fantastic friends of the kind who’d take a bullet and fight hard to get us out of prison. 

6. Finally, let’s be generous to neighbours. No one is merely a neighbour inside. In their timid heart, every neighbour is in rebellion against neighbour-think. He too in the middle of the night thinks the whole ideology he’s labouring under isn’t probably really worth the candle. He too has his doubts about the petty moral code he is following. He too would long to stop being an oppressive neighbour, if only he knew how. He too longs for freedom. The neighbour is an outlaw who, as yet, lacks sufficient courage. 

We aren’t – by openly breaking with neighbour-think – doing the neighbour an injustice. We are merely giving a voice to a spirit of independence that actually represents the neighbour’s best hopes for himself and which he might one day try to access – were he to learn to follow our newly rebellious and strategically defiant example. 

In every life, we are constantly confronted with situations where a stranger will do something acutely irritating or discomforting: perhaps they’ll turn up their music too loudly on the train, or they’ll be wiggling their leg maddeningly next to us on the plane. Maybe they’ll assign us a room in a hotel that has a strange musty smell or where a high pitched whine will be coming out of the air conditioning. In a restaurant, we may be given the worst table by the toilets, the bread may be stale and, proverbially, a fly may be found floating in the soup.

For many of us, our upbringing and cultural traditions will prepare us to say nothing at all in relation to these frustrations, and to forgive and overlook our agony instead. We may have emerged from childhood with a deep sense that we must – whatever happens – stay quiet and not cause a fuss for other people.

At the same time, we may inwardly twitch and boil. At points, we might even explode into sudden unpredictable rage. Though normally shy, we might surprise ourselves with the unbounded fury we let loose at the car rental resk, the hotel reception and with the hooded teenager in the train.

But neither the silence nor the rage seem, on reflection, to be quite the way forward. What we’re ideally searching for is a way to be at once polite and honest, or civil and forthright.

To achieve this, we should – first and foremost – build up a good relationship with our own needs. This involves accepting that not everything that makes us happy will please others or be honoured as especially convenient – but that it can be important to explore and hold on to what we want nevertheless. The desire to be unfussy is one of the loveliest things in the world, but in order to have a genuinely good life, we may sometimes need to be (by the standards of the good child we once were) fruitfully and bravely a bit tricky.

At the same time, in order not to shout, we must hold on, even in very challenging situations, to a distinction between what someone does – and what they meant to do. Our idea of motives is crucial. Unfortunately, we’re seldom very good at perceiving what motives really happen to be involved in the incidents that drive us mad. We are easily and wildly mistaken. We see intention where there was none and escalate and confront when no strenuous or agitated response is warranted.

Part of the reason why we jump so readily to dark conclusions and therefore shout more than we should, is a rather poignant psychological phenomenon: self-hatred. The less we like ourselves, the more we appear in our own eyes as really rather plausible targets for mockery and harm. Why would a drill have started up outside, just as we were settling down to work? Why is the room service breakfast not arriving, even though we will have to be in a meeting very soon? Why would the phone operator be taking so long to find our details? Because there is – logically enough – a plot against us. Because we are appropriate targets for these kinds of things, because we are the sort of people against whom disruptive drilling is legitimately likely to be directed: because it’s what we deserve. When we carry an excess of self-disgust around with us, operating just below the radar of conscious awareness, we’ll constantly seek confirmation from the wider world that we really are the worthless people we take ourselves to be.

The ideal complaint emerges from an unparanoid assumption: they aren’t deliberately setting out to irritate us; they haven’t got a plan to make us unhappy, they really just haven’t thought about us very much at all. We’re able to imagine that they could be quite a nice and reasonable person who nevertheless – without thinking about it – has upset us profoundly.

Sorry to be a bore, I’m sure you don’t realise but the back of your seat is squashing against my knees.

Apologies for interrupting, I can’t help overhearing more of your conversation than I should.

I rather love this song as well, but at the moment, I need to get some sleep.

I know it’s not your fault, but a fly does seem to have entangled itself in the minestrone.

The actual words hardly matter, what counts is the lightness of tone that comes from an impression of the legitimacy of one’s position and of the innocence of those who annoy us most. Viewed in this way, complaining is not an insult, it’s an ambitious, authentic and ultimately kind attempt to offer someone a small bit of education.

One of the reasons it can be so hard to buy other adults presents is that we haven’t at some level quite factored in that we are now all grown-ups. Presents were probably a deeply special part of our childhoods. We anticipated them eagerly, depended on them almost exclusively – and could be driven to either paroxysms of joy or of sadness by their quality.

But a lot has changed since then. Chiefly, all of us now have our own money. Anything that our friends are badly likely to want, they will either be able to buy for themselves – or we won’t be able to afford to buy it for them.

This isn’t to say that other adults don’t have any requirements; it’s merely that what they seek from us is largely psychological rather than material in nature. Our adult friends do – just like children – need us to offer them things that they can’t get for themselves. But, unlike children, these are not things we could ever buy in a shop: they want encouragement and compassion, they want to be listened to with understanding and sympathy; they want someone to fathom the agonies of their relationships and their struggles with colleagues at work. They crave our kindness, care and interest. They want us to be active in their lives, to forgive them for their follies and to appreciate their strengths.

© Flickr.Chris Oakley

The sense of despair that hangs over the process of choosing a present stems from our background awareness of how hard it will be ever successfully to identify a material object out in the world that could properly quench a sincere need in another adult. Though once or twice in our lives, we may hit on just the thing, the chances of locating such an object are too miniscule to be statistically relevant – as our own attics and cupboards, filled as they are with the fruits of others’ misguided good intentions, poignantly attest.

We would be better off facing up maturely to the hurdle we face. We cannot hope to guess with any degree of specificity at the objects still missing from the lives of our friends. At the same time, there is no question that we should and must bring presents, for we are all too fragile to believe in love without a wrapped box to underpin our claims.

The solution lies in toning down our ambitions. We won’t be able to determine the subtler contours of the gaps in the material lives of those we love. And yet it is still open to us to offer the kinds of objects we know they will need, not because we can peer into their souls, but because they are human. We should concentrate our efforts on buying them somewhat above-average examples of the ‘material’ of daily life: scissors, rulers, rubber bands, pencils, notepads, olive oil, salt, nail clippers, earplugs, mineral water, washing up liquid… the things one can be guaranteed to need and always to lack. By investing in slightly higher quality versions of these staples – for example, tracking down one of the very best kinds of dust pans or cans of tuna – we will be emphasising our degree of care. But the very obviousness of the present is a way of owning up to the dilemma we are up against and of signalling with grace that our real role in our friends’ lives is of an emotional, not a practical, nature.

Showing up with a particularly large and tempting loaf of bread or a luxurious collection of paper clips, we are implicitly declaring the impossibility of fathoming the genuine material gaps in our friends lives – while taking on board our true responsibility towards them, which is and always was: to love them.