Chapter 4.Sociability: Social Virtues


The Need for Kindness

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 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P78250

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.

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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.

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