On Kindness

November kindness

     The original title to this piece, which is part of a monthly series I started last September, is November Kindness. The painting is a reflection on – as its title suggests – warm-heartedness and how the simplest, most basic gestures can be the most valuable sources of well-being and altruism.

      As a child, I was a fairy tale, manga and Disney enthusiast and to be honest, I must admit that I still am. Of course, fairy tales, and more particularly their Disney adaptations, have been criticised in recent years for the gender stereotypes they impose on children, even though such films as Rapunzel and Frozen have been applauded for proposing somewhat stronger, more independent female figures than Cinderella or Snow White did. The change seems only natural – the position of women in society has evolved since the 1930’s and 1950’s although there remains much to fight for and against. However, when I watched Disney films and read fairy tales as a little girl, what was sparked in me was not a desire to become a princess married to a prince (I did wish to be a princess, but only because, let’s be clear, being a princess is pretty awesome and dreamy and that meant I could have helped people in need and given my family all they had ever wanted – plus marvellous dresses). No, what I remember from watching and reading these tales is that you should always be kind, courageous, passionate, patient, adventurous and aspire to justice, knowledge and freedom while following your dreams.

      As a young woman, I still value what I learnt from tales and from, let’s not forget them, An American Tail and All Dogs Go to Heaven, but the one thing I cannot fathom is how often I am criticised for being kind or compassionate. Some people have called me weak, submissive, passive or straight out stupid. I have met with incomprehension and frustration – resentment even, and been charged with being manipulative or controlling, which has made me truly question my behaviour. Was I really a sum of the things I was reproached with being, or were people mirroring their own issues on me because they could not take my kindness? Answering this question would be, of course, near impossible – there are too many shades and uncertainties. But I started reflecting on the meaning of kindness.

        I recently stumbled upon Brain Pickings, a little gem of a site which describes itself as a “free weekly interestingness digest,” and interesting it surely is! Among the many articles proposed online is one entitled “How Kindness Became Our Hidden Pleasure.” It offers a reflection on psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor’s On Kindness. As I have not read the book, I cannot provide my own interpretation, but the quotations Maria Popova chose to insert in her article are very insightful. One in particular struck me as representative of the way kindness has come to be considered:

“Kindness — that is, the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself — has become a sign of weakness (except of course among saintly people, in whom it is a sign of their exceptionality)… All compassion is self-pity, D. H. Lawrence remarked, and this usefully formulates the widespread modern suspicion of kindness: that it is either a higher form of selfishness (the kind that is morally triumphant and secretly exploitative) or the lowest form of weakness (kindness is the way the weak control the strong, the kind are only kind because they haven’t got the guts to be anything else).”

       This pretty much sums it all up and no further explanation is needed here, but if kindness is so strongly rejected for fear of being deemed too weak or manipulative, of showing vulnerability and of letting people in even as you reach out to them, can you really claim that open-heartedness is a sign of weakness? It appears, rather, like the greatest of strengths since remaining compassionate and generous no matter what demands more self-control, altruism and sympathy than caring only for your own interests does, especially in a world so centred on individualism. It is about accepting that people may hurt you and try to use you but refusing to give up on kindness. It is about building a solid core of confidence for yourself so that you can recognise yourself in another without being forced into a social mould that shapes you into thinking that warmth is futile. Being nasty, however, is easy – it may spur momentary feelings of guilt, but superficially, it is more comforting since meanness, distance or cynicism build a sort of protective fence around you that protects you from the pain deep, intimate bonds may cause. But in so doing, it also deprives you of the indescribable joy of knowing that bond, the relief of giving without expecting, or the simple pleasure of sheltering a kitten from the rain.

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now”
– Jack Kerouac