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Sociability • Social Virtues
Aphorisms on Kindness
In theory, we all love kindness of course, but in practice, a kind person sounds like something we would try to be only once every other more arduous and more rewarding alternative had failed. Learning to be kind means acknowledging how boring kindness can (unfairly) sound.
So much of what we value is in fact preserved by kindness and is compatible with it. We can be kind and successful, kind and exciting, kind and wealthy and kind and potent. Kindness is a virtue awaiting our rediscovery and our renewed, un-conflicted appreciation.
What we tend to be most short of from others is kindness of interpretation: that is, a generous perspective on the weaknesses, eccentricities, anxieties and follies that we present but are unable to win direct sympathy for. The kind person re-tells the story of our lives in a redemptive way.
The kind person works with a picture of us that is sufficiently generous and complex as to make us more than just the ‘fool’ or ‘weirdo’, the ‘failure’ or ‘loser’ that we might otherwise so easily have been dismissed as.
The kind person gives generously from a sense that they too will stand in need of kindness. Not right now, not over this, but in some other area. They know that self-righteousness is merely the result of a faulty memory, an inability to hold in mind – at moments when they are truly good and totally in the right – how often they have been deeply and definitively in the wrong.
Kindness remembers how there might still be virtue amidst a lot of evil. Kindness is aware that when someone shouts an insult, they are not usually revealing the secret truth about their feelings; they are trying to wound the other because they feel they have been hurt – usually by someone else, whom they don’t have the authority to injure back. Kindness is interested in mitigating circumstances; in bits of the truth that can cast a less catastrophic light on folly.
We should always strive to see people’s weaknesses as the inevitable downside of certain merits that drew us to them, and from which we will benefit at other points (even if none of these benefits are apparent right now). What we’re seeing are not their faults, pure and simple, but rather the shadow side of things that are genuinely good about them. We’re picking up on weaknesses that derive from strengths.
Kind people have overcome the unhelpful idea that – if one looks harder – it would be possible to find someone who was always perfect to be around. If strengths are invariably connected to failings, there won’t be anyone who is remotely flawless. We may well find people with different strengths, but they will also have a new litany of weaknesses. It’s always necessary to take a moment to remind ourselves that perfect people don’t exist.
The modern world is currently very uncomfortable around the idea of a good person not succeeding. We’d rather say that they weren’t good at all than embrace a far more disturbing and less well-publicised thought: that – in fact – the world is very unfair. Kind people keep the notion of injustice always in mind.
One of the most fundamental paths to remaining kind around people is the power to hold on, even in very challenging situations, to a distinction between what someone does – and what they meant to do.
We’re seldom very good at perceiving what motives happen to be involved in the incidents that hurt us. We are easily and wildly mistaken. We see intention where there was none and escalate and confront when no strenuous or agitated responses are warranted.
Part of the reason why we jump so readily to dark conclusions about other people and see plots to insult and harm us 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. That is why being kind must involve first learning to be kind to oneself.
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. It’s natural to see meanness everywhere when we see ourselves as fitting targets for insult.
The greatest kindness we can bestow on others in difficult moments is to treat them as if they were children. We rarely feel personally agitated or wounded by the bad behaviour of small children. And the reason is that we don’t assign negative motives or mean intentions to them. We reach around for the most benevolent interpretations. We forgive.
It’s very touching that we live in a world where we have learnt to be so kind to children: it would be even kinder if we learnt to be a little more generous towards the childlike parts of one another.
‘Never say that people are evil,’ wrote the French philosopher Alain, ‘You just need to look for the pin.’ What he meant was: don’t merely condemn, look for the source of the jabbing pain that drives a person to behave in certain irritating or appalling ways.
We need always to imagine the turmoil, disappointment, worry and sadness in people who may outwardly appear merely aggressive and ‘bad’. We need to aim for compassion in an unexpected place: at those who annoy us most.
Other people are almost only ever nasty because they are in pain. The sole reason they have hurt us is because they are – somewhere deep inside – hurting themselves. They have been catty and derogatory and foul because they are not well. We don’t have to hurt them back even more.
Kind people know all about filtering their thoughts. They understand that being ‘themselves’ is a treat they must take enormous pains to spare everyone else from experiencing – especially anyone they claim to care about.
The politely kind person is so aware of their own dislikable sides, they nimbly minimise their impact upon the world. It is their suspicion of themselves that helps them be – in everyday life – uncommonly friendly, trustworthy and nice.
The kind person starts from the assumption that others are highly likely to be in quite different places internally. Their behaviour in social contexts is therefore tentative, wary and filled with enquiries. They don’t take what is going on for them as a guide to what is probably going on for you. Their manners are grounded in an acute sense of the gulf that can separate humans from one another.
The kind person works with an underlying sense that other people are internally very fragile. Those around them are felt – without insult – to be forever on the verge of self-hatred. Their egos are assumed to be gossamer thin and at perpetual risk of deflating. Kind people therefore let out constant small signals of reassurance and affirmation.
Kind people know that however confident we may look, we are painfully vulnerable to a sense of being disliked and taken for granted. All of us are walking around without a skin. Therefore, scattering flattering remarks isn’t devious or slick; it helps everyone to endure themselves.
Kind people accept that they may never be able to transform another person’s prospects entirely, but their modesty around what is possible makes them acutely sensitive to the worth of the little things: they are always ready for a smile, they remember birthdays, they write postcards and devote time to friendly chats.
Kind people work with a conception of the world in which good and bad are deviously entangled and in which bits of the truth are always showing up in unfamiliar guises in unexpected people. They don’t judge quickly. Their careful politeness is a logical response to the complexity they identify in themselves and in the world.
Kind people know how to make confessions. They give those they talk to access to a very necessary and consoling sense of their own errors, humiliations and follies; insights with which others can begin to judge themselves and their sad and compulsive sides more compassionately.
What enables the kind person to please is their capacity to hold on in social encounters, even with rather intimidating and alien-seeming people, to an intimate knowledge of what satisfies, consoles and cheers them. They instinctively use their own experience as a base for thinking about the needs of others.
Kind people know how to be a little shy. Shyness has its insightful dimensions. It is infused with an awareness that we might be bothering someone with our presence, it is based upon an acute sense that a stranger could be dissatisfied or discomfited by us. The shy person is touchingly alive to the dangers of being a nuisance.
The kind person is a warm gentle teaser, who sometimes latches onto and responds to our distinctive quirks and gets compassionately constructive about trying to change us for the better: not by delivering a stern lesson, but by helping us to notice our excesses and laugh at them.
Perhaps the most instructive question we can ask – the one that teaches us most about the value of affectionate teasing – is simply: what would I want a kind person to tease me about?
Kind people know that however solid and dignified someone appears on the outside, behind the scenes there will inevitably be a struggling self, potentially awkward, easily bemused, beset by physical appetites, on the verge of loneliness – and frequently in need of nothing more subtle or elevated than a hug or a cheering chat.
Kind people flirt. Good flirting is in essence an attempt, driven by sympathy and imaginative excitement, to inspire another person to believe more firmly in their own likability, psychological as much as physical. It is a gift offered not in order to manipulate, but out of a pleasure at perceiving what is most attractive in others.
It is because we are so prone to self-hatred, so liable to forget how to appreciate ourselves properly, that we need more vigorously, and with fewer qualms, to engage in the important business of flirting with one another.
Truly kind people are always ready and even, at times, highly enthusiastic about telling lies. They do not lie for their own benefit, they lie to convince others of their genuine affection.
Kind people know that great truths (‘I really like you’) sometimes have to pass into the mind of another person via a smaller falsehood (‘your cake was delicious’).
However much they love the truth, kind people have an even greater commitment to something else: being nice. They grasp (and make allowances for) the ease with which a truth can produce desperately unhelpful convictions in the minds of others and are therefore not proudly over-committed to complete honesty at every turn. Their loyalty is reserved for something they take to be far more important than literal narration: the well-being of their audiences.
We shouldn’t believe we are heroically ready to embrace the truth, however painful. We may insist that others should tell us everything, but we thereby discount our own powerful tendencies to emotional upset. It’s why we should not only occasionally tell untruths – but actively hope that, from time to time, others will lie to us – and quietly hope that we will never find out that they have.
The kind person is a good listener, someone who doesn’t moralise. They know their own minds well enough not to be surprised or frightened by strangeness. They know how insane we all are. That’s why we can feel comfortable being heard by them. They give the impression of accepting without bitterness or censure that human beings in general are endearingly loopy.
Kind people reveal plenty about their own failings. They confess not so much to unburden themselves as to help others accept their own nature and see that sometimes being a bad parent, a poor lover or a confused worker are not malignant acts of wickedness, but ordinary features of being alive that others have unfairly edited out of their public profiles.
Kind people know that the existence of highly troublesome elements in others doesn’t preclude the simultaneous presence of vast zones of goodness, humility and benevolence. They know that everyone’s right to charity, attention and friendship should not be irrevocably lost on the basis of some darker sides. While hoping it might be otherwise, kind people simply take it for granted that decent humans constantly do and think not very nice things.
Kind people are interesting, not because they have done extraordinary things, but because they are attentive, self-aware listeners and reliable honest correspondents of the tremors of their own minds and hearts. They thereby give us faithful and fascinating accounts of the pathos, drama and strangeness of being alive.
At the right points, kind people know how to be themselves. It feels significant that most five year olds are far less boring than most 45 year olds. What makes these children gripping is not so much that they have more interesting feelings than anyone else (far from it), but that they are especially uncensored correspondents of these feelings. Their inexperience of the world means they are still instinctively loyal to themselves – as kind, charming adults remember to be.
The kind person we call interesting is in essence someone alive to what we all deeply want from social intercourse: an uncensored glimpse of what the brief waking dream called life looks like through the eyes of another person and the reassurance that we are not entirely alone with all that feels most bewildering, peculiar and intense within us.
Kind people know how to talk about their failures. They know that others so need to hear external evidence of problems with which we are all so lonely: how un-normal our sex lives are; how misguided our careers are proving; how unsatisfactory our family can be; how worried we are pretty much all the time.
It’s deeply poignant that we should expend so much effort on trying to look strong before the world – when, all the while, it’s really only ever the revelation of the somewhat embarrassing, sad, melancholy and anxious bits of us that is what makes us endearing to others, and transforms strangers into friends.
We’re so aware that it could sound patronising to treat people as less self-aware than they believe themselves to be, we overlook that it may sometimes also be the height of generosity to imagine that others don’t necessarily understand everything about how they feel or think.
Kind people know what a relief it is to hear confessions. They understand our delight when, finally, someone dares publicly to be a bit strange: when they say, for example, that they are sexually turned on by sports cars or the president or are so phobic about germs that they always open public bathroom doors with their feet. Their strangeness lends legitimacy to our own disavowed sides.
Kind people give us a more accurate and more consoling picture of human nature: one alive to the fact that – statistically speaking – we are all bizarre in quite a few respects. They confirm for us that it is extremely normal to be rather abnormal.
Kind people know that friendship begins, and loneliness can end, when we cease trying to impress, have the courage to step outside our safe zones and dare – for a time – to look a little ridiculous.
The kind person is not cynical because they have taken care to grow completely at home with the ordinary shambles of existence. They are never taken by surprise or shocked by how things can be, for they have taken full notice of the facts and stand to be bewildered by very little.
We should stop expecting people to be anything other than very flawed. Whomever we got to know would be radically imperfect in a host of deeply serious ways. There can only ever be ‘good enough’ relationships with others.
We shouldn’t blame other people for failing to know us as we want to be known. They are not tragically inept. No one properly and entirely understands, and can therefore fully sympathise with, anyone else.
Kindness is founded on an active sense of how difficult one is to be around. We should be gentle with anyone who has agreed to take on the arduous task of spending their days and nights with us. If we are not regularly and very deeply embarrassed about who we are, it can only be because we haven’t begun to understand ourselves.
We should accept that in many situations, other people will be wiser, more reasonable and more mature than we are. We should want to learn from them. We should bear having things pointed out to us. We should, at key points, see them as the teacher and ourselves as pupils.
We should stop expecting our lovers and friends to be exactly like us and focus instead on negotiating differences in taste intelligently and wisely. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn’t be its precondition.
We should banish self-righteousness by recognising how prone we are to error, how unable we have been to judge many situations correctly, how ready we are to overreact when we are hungry or tired, and how distorted our minds have been by the peculiarities of our childhoods. We’re too often wrong to berate others for their errors.
A solution to a lot of distress and agitation lies in a curious area: with a philosophy of pessimism. Expectations are reckless enemies of serenity. How badly we react to frustration is critically determined by what we think of as normal. We aren’t overwhelmed by anger whenever something goes wrong. Our greatest furies spring from events which violate our sense of the ground-rules of existence. A degree of pessimism is the royal route to kindness.
To love someone involves not just admiration in the face of perfection, but a capacity to be uncommonly generous towards a fellow human especially at moments when they may be less than straightforwardly appealing. Love is an ability to see beyond a person’s often off-putting outer dimensions, an energy to enter imaginatively into their experiences and bestow an ongoing degree of forgiveness in the face of trickiness and confusion.
Kind people know that we all have different tastes when it comes to being comforted. Some of us want to chat, others to be hugged, others to have fun. Kindness doesn’t remain at the level of intentions alone: it involves constant strenuous efforts to translate generous wishes into interventions truly aligned with the psychology and history of another human being.
Kind people know the role of humour in easing relationships. Our lives are strung out between the merely imperfect and the truly awful. At best, we can move from seeing other people as idiots to viewing them as that far more tolerable and truly kind alternative: loveable idiots.