February 8, 2010

Sentimentality is cruelty by other means.


In Winnicott’s preferred developmental story it is only through hatred that relations between people move out of fantasy and into reality, into the possibility of actual exchange. And this is for a simple reason: hatred is what the child feels when he can let himself acknowledge that the parent (inevitably) frustrates him; that the parent is a real person (it is not the real mother who has limitations, it is the idealized mother who cannot actually nourish the child). It is only when we compare real people with the men and women of our dreams that they disappoint. In Winnicott’s view, once the child has felt and lived out his frustration with the real mother and father, and they have survived it – which might involve hating the child back, but without in any way abandoning him – he can resume his relationship with them more realistically; he has added to the stock of available reality. If he had turned away from them at this point – retreated from real engagement, stopped making demands – or they had turned away from him, they would have all gone on living a fantasy life together (ideal relations as an enraged retreat from real life). Real kindness, real fellow feeling, entails hating and being hated – that is, really feeling available frustrations – and through this coming to a more realistic relationship. This, one might say, is a more robust version of kindness, a kindness made possible through frustration and hatred rather than a kindness organized to repudiate (or to disown) such feelings. Kindness of this variety allows for ambivalence and conflict while false, or magical, kindness distorts our perceptions of other people, often by sentimentalizing them, to avoid conflict. Sentimentality is cruelty by other means.

- Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor, On Kindness


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