Western societies such as our own over value the idea of the individual, as if we live apart from each other. The consequence of this isolation is felt on a daily basis. Many of us lead lives feeling undervalued and unnoticed; we struggle to empathise with the plight of fellow humans fleeing poverty and war, wishing to make better lives for themselves; and as a species we are in danger from disastrous climate change because we have a mind set that conceives of nature as apart from ourselves. As a species we are not, it would seem, human-kind.
Carl Jung understood individuation as an achievement of making the most of oneself to make real ones connection to others. ‘A person is a person because of persons’, as the African sensibility of Ubuntu has it.
Kindness recovers this important reality, that we exist in common. It is part of the weave of all relating in a world that we can be part of, but from which, if we are not attentive, we can all too easily become alienated.
This is not a sentimental perspective. The idea of our innate mutual recognition and connectivity finds good ground in science, the arts, and in indigenous wisdom.
Wendy Wheeler’s The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and Evolution of Culture roots human culture in nature through recent developments in molecular and developmental biology. She challenges the otherwise gene-centred competitive view of evolution with the idea that human sociality and kinship are based in co-operative communication, from the cells all the way up.
For feminist psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin, writing in the 1980s, new infancy research provided further evidence of primary human connectivity. Benjamin noted what mothers had long known, that in the womb, at the moment of birth and onwards, mother and infant are in perpetual states of connection and mutual recognition; these are, in the ordinary on-going course of living, subject to breakdown and repair, renewal of recognition.
In a supermarket with his mother, a seven year old boy kicks off: “I want that toy and that toy, and that toy and, (at the top of his voice) I want THAT toy”! His mother, who had in the past tried to reason with him, on this occasion carefully, with a smile on her face, mirrored his exact words and intonation. “Yes”, he said, calming right down. And they were able then to resume their conversation. Recognition of his reality restored the connection.
We come in to the world not as isolated beings that have to be brought into relationship, for connections are already present. It is when relationships breakdown and go unrepaired that gaps and isolation occur. This observation led Benjamin to formulate a psychological and political theory of relationship, as two people asserting themselves and managing the difference.
When I hear the phrase, I blanked him (this is Coventry vernacular, in Birmingham the phrase is, I deafed him) the recognition of the extra-ordinariness of behaving as if some one does not exist actually affirms the presence of connection in which we all live, and the violence of denying it. When a homeless person in the street asks me for money, whether I give it or not, I am always mindful to meet their eyes and greet them.
Between ourselves, effective kindness can be spontaneous - such as dropping in unannounced to see a friend - or it may be the result of effort. I am struck that in a rush, Anna at first overlooks a man fallen to the pavement (Act 170). And it takes her to stop and notice her experience and so consider the needs of an other before she turns around to help. A pause is often crucial to kindness.
Kindness is being able to think. We use ‘minding’ to express something similar. In kindness we literally mind the gap!
We often fail to pause and think about our experience in our relations with the natural world. The psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe wrote a story of two carrots reflecting on her behaviour in preparing lunch one day. Sally had one organic carrot muddy from her allotment, the other clean from the supermarket. She was in a rush, used the clean, non-organic carrot and afterwards reflected on a sense of entitlement implicit in her choice: she was too important to take the time to wash the muddy carrot.
It takes effort and humility to scrub the carrot; as it can to assert, recognise and meet needs in others.
Perhaps, where we have to work the hardest to pause and reflect on personal experience - to make the connections of kindness - is in our love relations.
In the rush of romantic love, according to relationship therapists Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, we are likely to make assumptions that the loved one and oneself are of one mind, extensions of each other. The immense force of romantic love is a profound intuitive experience of personal wholeness, but the work needed to enable each to grow into their unique wholeness demands recognition of the other as different, in order to make connections.
Hendrix and LaKelly Hunt’s form of therapy teaches couples a process of dialogue in which each can be safely listened to, each can safely speak and have room to explore their experience. It is tough but do-able. After considerable practice and work, each partner is encouraged to form requests of the other to change a particular behaviour. Both partners are helped to receive the request and give thought as to whether he or she can give what is asked for. If each is willing, change is to be given as a gift, not conditional on reciprocal exchange.
This process generates what we might think of as a benign circuit in which ‘I’ (the person making the requested change) experiences the effect on their partner; in turn, she/he experiences themselves as held in mind, which in turn nourishes ‘Me’.
As the practice evolves, it becomes apparent that the stretch to give what is asked for is the stretch needed to realise one’s own growth. Here, the spirited energy of romantic love finds its realisation in the achievement of kindness, which closes gaps.
When we participate in kindness - by giving, receiving or witnessing it - there is relief in being able to think about someone or something beyond ourselves; there is a recovery of kinship. The gap that is there to be bridged is personal and cultural. In his book Orientalism, the Palestinian-American literary theoretician Edward Said describes this gap as ‘othering’; ‘disregarding, essentialising, denuding the humanity of another culture, people or geographical region’.
For most of us, we have constantly to rediscover the work and perseverance needed to really think about those we live with, those living out of sight, or about climate change.
It’s as if we live in a fog of our own immediate needs and confusions. But there is much to be grateful for. How easy it is to deprecate and turn aside what may be offered. Gratitude is hugely important in the positive cycle in which we see we exist in another person’s mind, in which we feel felt. Being able to receive as well as offer kindness can be something we all have to work at.
James Barrett is a Jungian Analytical Psychotherapist. He works with individuals and couples in private practice in Leamington Spa, UK.
His act of kindness in writing this Think Piece was to donate £100 to the Ibba Girls school in South Sudan http://www.ibbagirlsschool.org
To contact James: [email protected]
For more information: http://leamingtonspapsychotherapy.co.uk/james-barrett/