The child’s first, formative trauma is his growing acknowledgement of his need for others (in actuality the mother is as vulnerable to her need for her baby as the baby is to his need for her; parents need their children not to worry about them too much). The needy child experiences a trauma of concern (‘How can I take care of my mother to ensure that she takes care of me?’) which calls up his natural kindness; but this concern – and the later forms of kindness that emerge from it – is too easily turned away from. This turning away we call ‘self-sufficiency’, and when we want to pathologize it we call it ‘narcissism’. The pleasure of kindness is that it connects us with others; but the terror of kindness is that it makes us too immediately aware of our own and other people’s vulnerabilities (vulnerabilities that we are prone to call ‘failings’ when we are at our most frightened.) And vulnerability – and particularly the vulnerability we call ‘desire’ – is our shared biological inheritance. Kindness, in other words, opens us up to the world (and worlds) of other people in ways that we long for and dread. How can people, from childhood onwards, feel confident enough to take such risks?
People want safety, whatever the cost. Perhaps it is one of the perils of secularization that if we no longer believe in God – in a Being who is himself invulnerable, and so capable of protecting us – we cannot avoid confronting our own relative helplessness and need for each other. If there is no invulnerability anywhere, suddenly there is too much vulnerability everywhere. How do we deal with this? In his novel Raw Youth (1875), Dostoyevsky describes a morning when people wake to find themselves alone in a godless universe. Instead of bewailing their loss, they turn to each other, substituting their own tenderness and concern for divine protection. Acknowledging human vulnerability, they respond to it positively. Kindness, for them, becomes a way of experiencing their vulnerability that tests the strengths and limits of their resources to deal with it. When God is dead, kindness is permitted. When God is dead, kindness is all people have.
So it is not that real kindness requires people to be selfless, it is rather that real kindness changes people in the doing of it, often in unpredictable ways. Real kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can. (The notion of ‘self-interest’ implies that we always know what we want, by knowing what the self is, and what its interests are. It forecloses discovery.) Kindness is a way of knowing people beyond our understanding of them. By involving us with strangers (even with ‘foreigners’ thousands of miles away), as well as with intimates, it is potentially far more promiscuous than sexuality. But as we shall see, the child needs the adult – and his wider society – to help him keep faith with his kindness, that is, to help him discover and enjoy the pleasures of caring for others. The child who is failed in this regard is robbed of one of the greatest sources of human happiness.
- Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor, On Kindness