Ordinary kindness is not a manipulative bribe or a magical cure, but a simple exchange. In a parent-child relationship where no one is looking to the other to rescue him, each can enjoy the other without needing to transform him. The modern child is perceived as someone who is always running the risk of having to become a parent to her parents; someone whose concern for her parents’ well-being can be the very thing that waylays her developmental needs. In other words, modern stories about child development are like cries for help from the grown-ups, who sound strangely oppressed if not actually enslaved by their children. It is as if now parents are more dependant on their children than children are on their parents; that what we are left with after two hundred years of intensive study of children is a world in which parents are frightened of their children, of their vulnerability, their neediness, their frustration and their rage, and in which parents look to their children for so-called self-esteem, to give their lives point and purpose. In which, to put it as simply as possible, parents and children are unable to collaborate with each other in the ordinary business of growing up. Committed to an image of the child as a bundle of rapacious, fundamentally insatiable desires, growing up becomes little more than a type of profiteering. It is this predicament that psychoanalysis seeks to address: what happens to kindness and fellow feeling in the hothouse of the family? What, if anything, can be done to prevent kindness becoming the first casualty of family life?
Whatever else it is, psychoanalysis is an account of how and why modern people are so frightened of each other. What Freud called defenses are the ways we protect ourselves from our desires, which are also our relations with others. Indeed, the history of psychoanalysis after Freud reflects many of the dilemmas we have about kindness (it would be an interesting exercise to read ‘sexuality’ as Freud’s word for ‘fellow feeling’). Are we, Freud’s followers wondered, committed to our desires and their gratification, or to other people? And what, if anything, could such a distinction mean? Do we crave (sensuous) satisfaction as so-called drive theorists say, or do we crave intimacy and relationships? Do we want good company or good sex, if we have to choose? If kindness, in its anti-sentimental sense, is at the heart of human desiring, then these become merely false choices, the wrong way of talking about what goes on between people. Sex becomes one of the more complicated forms of fellow feeling (there is no sex without kindness or its refusal); and aggression becomes one of its more obscure, least articulated forms (there is not kindness without aggression or its refusal). It is kind not to overprotect other people from oneself, especially from one’s sexuality.
- Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor, On Kindness