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The illustration on the dust jacket of On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor is an open hand reaching through a hole punched in a wall as though receiving a desperately needed random act of kindness.  A better illustration would have been a fist punching out the hole in the wall.  It seems to take force and forethought for kindness to ever occur.  This is what one calls a “little book,” only 7 1/2 x 5″ in size and 114 pages, but packed with a distilled history of the seriously confusing human experience of kindness.  It is not uplifting.  It is not devotional.  It is not a garden walk.  It is introspective.  It is challenging.  It is refreshing.

Early on the authors write, “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. . . . Kindness is a way of knowing people beyond our understanding of them. . . . By involving us with strangers . . . as well as with intimates, it is potentially far more promiscuous than sexuality.”  Once the authors bring Rousseau and Freud into the picture, they write that, “in love we are likely to be fighting a losing battle . . . love never seems to deliver exactly what we want it to.  Love never works as magic, but it can work as kindness.”

With Winnicott’s help, the authors conclude that, “if there is a kindness instinct, it is going to have to take onboard ambivalence in human relations.  It is kind to be able to bear conflict, in oneself and others; it is kind, to oneself and others, to forgo magic and sentimentality for reality.  It is kind to see individuals as they are, rather than how we might want them to be; it is kind to care for people just as we find them.”  A life lesson to keep does not get any better than that one.

And finally in the last chapter the authors write, “people think that they envy other people for their success, money, fame, when in fact it is kindness that is most envied, because it is the strongest indicator of people’s well-being, their pleasure in existence.”  Here is finally a false note.  They did not take into account my envy of those who write so well.  Charles Marlin

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