Kindness – why it’s so important, so fulfilling, and so hard


~ by Winton Higgins •


Kindness – fellow feelings – goes to the heart of dharma practice. It combines three central Buddhist values – lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna) and generosity (dana). It springs from care (appamāda), which the Buddha identified as the master virtue. The Dalai Lama says kindness is his religion, a declaration which nicely encapsulates dharma practice and really cuts to the chase in orienting our lives.

But if I was giving this talk 2,000 years ago, in either the Buddhist east or the classical west, it would be very short, and probably redundant. In both cultures reflective people had a clear understanding of kindness as a (perhaps the) central mark of a flourishing human being.

A kind person was a mature and expansive character reaching out to her fellows and so enjoying one of the richest fulfilments life on earth has to offer. Someone relishing being alive. We are networked, interconnected beings, and our fulfilments come from reaching out to each other. No wonder the Dalai Lama looks so happy!

In the Metta sutta (the discourse on loving kindness) the Buddha situated kindness as the expression of a life consummately well lived, spiritually in tip-top order. The stoic philosopher and Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), named kindness as humanity’s ‘greatest delight’.

East and west, intelligent people understood kindness to be an exquisite pleasure, and that is why, if you were smart, you did it. Another Roman stoic, Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE), said we need friendship to fulfil our humanity. ‘No one can live a happy life if he turns everything to his own purposes,’ he wrote. ‘Live for others if you want to live for yourself.’

These ancients got it right. But since their time, at least in our own culture, matters have become enormously complicated, and kindness has become highly problematic since early modernity, the 16th century. When the recent research into what makes us happy rediscovers, for instance, that philanthropy trumps having hedonistic fun every time, it comes as a surprise. Not only a surprise, but a scandal, in terms of today’s anti-kindness phobia.


Kindness falls on hard times

A great way to understand something is to look at its history. Fortunately you can now (as I have) read good, well-researched histories of such things as filth and smells, crying, childhood and death. These are cultural histories, because our culture is the matrix which governs how we see and experience ourselves and our world, without being conscious of it. So how did kindness come to be disparaged and neglected as it is now?

In 2009 a wonderful history and explanation of kindness by a psychoanalyst and an historian came out: Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor’s On kindness [London: Hamish Hamilton, 2009].

What I want to say mainly bounces off their inspired work, and will deal with our own western cultural development.

Problems for kindness started with St Augustine’s (354-430 CE) theory of original sin. According to it, humans are vicious, mean and unkind, and only communion with God can turn them around and make them nice. This sounds like a sales pitch for the local church, which it was, and that’s why the good saint hasn’t attracted many non-Christian admirers, and some Christians aren’t so impressed either. Yet Sigmund Freud would later comment that Augustine’s theory of original sin wasn’t a bad approximation for someone who knew nothing about psychoanalysis.

So Christians had to be ordered to be kind – it was their duty. And kindness entailed self-sacrifice. The rosy-cheeked joyful giver and helper gave way to the joyless martyr to charity whose reward awaited her in the next world.

It was all downhill for kindness after that. The Protestant reformation laid on original sin thickly, trading in Augustine’s trowel on Luther’s front-end loader. Then came someone whose ideas still influence us today much more than Augustine and Luther combined: Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). He gave the doctrine of original sin secular legitimacy in his theory of what we would be like – our ‘state of nature’ – if we didn’t have an all-powerful state threatening us with dire punishment if we step out of line. Left to our own devices, our lives would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.

In this inspiring way he laid the foundations for later secular thought, especially that which informed economic theory and policymaking. Adam Smith (1723-90), at whose shrine neo-liberals and other rightwingers still worship, explained how he (and therefore everyone else) acquired the necessities of life. He did not survive by going around appealing to the kindness of his grocer, butcher, tailor etc, but rather to their self-interest. Waved money under their noses. If everyone simply followed their self-interest, the market would aggregate and transform all this selfish greed into welfare and happiness for all. It’s the most influential utopia ever devised.

When such ideas took hold with a vengeance, kindness fell under suspicion, where it remains today. It is unnatural, and it threatens to clog market mechanisms and make it worse for everyone. People who act kindly were either weak-minded or (more likely) up to no good: they were big-noting themselves, they wanted a knighthood, or some other quid pro quo, thus making kindness into a protection racket.

Needless to say, all this throws even more suspicion on kindness. Naturally there was dissent, and kindness attracted its defenders. They had little influence on the culture, though. Kindness came to live in the shadows, and confined to the family. It became feminised and sentimentalised; it was something women do because they’re weak and can’t help themselves. Women (‘the angels in the house’) were not viable in the big bad world, and needed to stay at home. Angels had no business running countries or companies or leading armies. Certainly kindness was incompatible with masculine authority, manly gravitas.

This was so not least as the culture of individualism intensified in the 19th century, and as the culture of narcissism prospered from the 1970s – the combination of which gave us the slogan ‘Greed is good’ in the 1980s. As a society we now follow the actions and sayings of our new priesthood, the rich and famous, those named in the BRW richest 100 list – the sagest of all in our celeb-worshipping culture.

Another strike against kindness was that philanthropy often did have a ruthlessly manipulative agenda. Missionaries offered third-world populations medicine and schools in exchange for their souls. Sometimes they also stole children (‘for their own good’, of course) as in Australia and Canada. And charitable organisations engaged in moralistic bullying by separating out the deserving and undeserving poor. The deserving poor were those who tugged their forelocks for their betters, brushed their hair and went to church, did what their betters told them to, and didn’t make trouble. They alone got the handouts.

In our own time people have come to miss a spot of kindness in their lives, and the market has seen an opportunity to sell fake kindness – a gooey gloss that could be painted onto otherwise unchanged (or deteriorating) services and businesses. The cant around ‘service culture’ is another giant leap backwards for kindness. People and computers who deal with the public don’t have real conversations with you any more, they speak from scripts while supervisors breathe down their necks.

‘Your call is important to us,’ a machine lies in my face almost every time I ring an organisation, and a 20-minute wait in the phone queue follows. ‘Have a great day,’ nearly every shop assistant parrots. ‘Enjoy your workout,’ mutters the frazzled creature at the front desk of my understaffed gym as s/he scans my card. They’re insulting their own intelligence and mine, but if they don’t say it, they’ll be sacked. The computerised message on the phone – ‘Your call may be monitored for quality’ – means some corporate care enforcer is listening in with an axe in his hand.

Fake kindness has become an industry and a management strategy. ‘Care’ is the buzzword du jour, and the world is suddenly filled with care providers and care packages (which means care can now be packaged, commodified) and care assessors. In Britain nurses have been told to smile a lot, and their smileyness is measured and recorded on a ‘compassion index’. (One nurse blogged: ‘If some jumped up bean-counter comes near me with a “compassion index” he’ll get it administered rectally’ [Phillips & Taylor, 104-5].) ‘Sincerity is a big thing for us,’ honked an exec from a leading management consultancy. So naturally, ‘empathy audits’ are all the go, together with the regular scientific measurement of managers’ ‘empathic capabilities’.

Real kindness is in deep trouble in such a world of mocking foes and shonky imitators. As a culture we’ve become phobic around kindness. What has gone wrong, and how do we rescue this central spiritual and human value?


Getting real

Here’s an old joke. An Englishman on a visit to Dublin goes for a long ramble in the countryside outside the city, and can’t find his way back. He asks a farmer for directions. The farmer scratches his head, ponders, and then says: ‘Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.’

This joke has profound spiritual significance. There’s nowhere else to start from than here. ‘A journey of 1,000 km starts under your feet,’ goes an old Chinese proverb. It can’t start anywhere else.

Our journey has to start with our own conflicted hearts and minds, and at time vicious propensities. The more authority figures tell us about pure saints – St Francis, St Benedict, the Virgin Mary – the more we see how these holy beings live on another planet where they obviously do things very differently, and have nothing to do with us earthlings.

We have to acknowledge that Augustine, Luther and Hobbes were onto a half-truth. That’s where we start.

The 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau challenged original sin (according to which children are little demons) and recognised the whole truth: kindness and cruelty both come naturally to us. Children are born with an inbuilt capacity for great kindness and great cruelty, and it is their parents’ and educators’ job to calmly acknowledge this, and gently and skilfully encourage the kindness while defusing the cruelty. Above all in being kind themselves.

In this endeavour, Rousseau wrote, we must recognise two vital mechanisms: (a) love of others must rest on the firm foundation of self-love; and (b) kindness and responsiveness depend on being able to actively imagine oneself into the shoes of the other. (On this basis he provides us with the best profile of the narcissist – the shrunken, unkind person: ‘They don’t know how to love themselves; they only know how to hate what is not themselves.’)

It is this picture that psychoanalytic thinkers have fleshed out over the last 100 years. The Buddha talked about our struggle with craving and aversion. Well, it starts just minutes after birth, the psychoanalysts report, as the infant desperately ingests what s/he needs to survive, and excretes what holds her back. Sometimes the breast gratifies, sometimes it frustrates; s/he experiences ecstatic love and blind rage towards one and the same object. And these passions succeed each other as night follows day. The parents’ reaction to the small child also swings between love and irritation, sometimes even hatred.

A little further down the track the small child becomes aware of her utter dependence on her parents, who have distractions and problems (including ambivalence towards her and towards each other, tensions, maybe open conflict). Out of fear for her own survival s/he has her first experience of being kind herself. S/he deploys her imagined omnipotence to fix all her parents’ problems so they’ll stick around and be there for her. Inevitably her magical kindness fails, and this is her first formative trauma. A vital developmental reality check. Next time around, her kindness can be real.

What we bring from childhood, above all, is ambivalence. And we will take it to the grave. We know real love always comes with a shadow side – hate. Behind real kindness lurks cruelty. It has to. Donald Winnicott and his colleagues studied children evacuated from London during the Blitz and placed in up-country foster homes. Their behaviour towards their foster carers was often spiteful, because they were testing whether their new carers loved them reliably. If they could inspire hate in their carers, and the love came back after that, then that love was real and reliable. The sentimental, namby-pamby stuff only made them feel even more insecure. Sentimentality is cruelty by other means.

A study of mourning [Darian Leader, The new black: mourning, melancholia and depression (London: Penguin, 2008)] confirms this picture of the inescapable ambivalence in our emotional and inner lives.

When a loved one dies, we come up against our ambivalent feelings towards them with a jolt, and unless we can acknowledge them, we can’t process our grief properly. In traditional societies the dead are often feared because of this: now they know what we really think about them, and they’ll come back seeking revenge. Legends about vampires, zombies and ghosts all attest to this.


Real spirituality, real kindness

Our spiritual lives need to be spacious containers. They need to welcome and contain all of our being, all our instincts and drives, love and hate, the whole catastrophe, and above all our ambivalence. This is what we’re working with. The spirituality of saints and angels will only discombobulate us; that container is far too small, it dismembers us.

The ancient thinkers were right: kindness is the mark of a flourishing human being. So let’s go for it. Let’s go for it in an ordinary, unsentimental, unmagical, realistic way. Knowing it’s going to be tough, but richly rewarding. We’ve got our culture working against us, so we’ll look silly. And when we’re kind we’ll touch that part of ourselves that most disturbs us – our love/hate ambivalence.

Finally, when we imagine ourselves into the shoes of others, we’ll come up against our own shocking vulnerability as well. In this way kindness will – as Rousseau said – enlarge us. Being kind involves an open-ended inquiry into human vulnerability, and we don’t know where that will take us. One thing’s for sure, though: the journey of a thousand kilometers will have begun.


• This talk was given to Beaches Sangha, Sydney, in 13 July 2009 and updated in July 2015. Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.


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