The media lament our selfish tendencies with every chance they get and still seem to be humbled or surprised when people choose time and time again to give their last penny to charity or give up their precious time to help others. What is it about our modern age that makes us feel estranged to kindness like it’s some kind of guilty pleasure? Scientists keep testing and keep finding that people find greater delight from giving than from fun. So why are we all so afraid to do it more often?
For centuries philosophers and scientists have debated the topic and found that the life lived in acknowledgment of each other’s needs, desires and weaknesses is the life we are more inclined to live and actually seem to be doing without realising it.
But in these modern times we believe that living in accordance to our sympathies and vulnerabilities will overwhelm us. As if you must choose a life of kindness or success. However, the good life consists of us knowing that we mutually belong to one another and that sacrificing the best parts of ourselves will often result in happier lives.
Money, power, sexuality and violence have always been our guilty pleasures but it seems these days, ironically, that kindness itself is the most forbidden and dangerous pleasure. Kindness is always perilous because it is based on the susceptibility to others. The ability to relate to their desires and inadequacies can be uncomfortable. But with every great human pleasure being somehow hazardous, they are also the most satisfying that we have.
“A sign of health in the mind is the ability of one individual to enter imaginatively and accurately into the thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears of another person; also to allow the other person to do the same to us.” (Donal Winnicott) Meaning that unkindness is like a glitch in one’s imagination which can affect their happiness and sanity.
Modern Western societies are formed and operate in a way which contradicts this fundamental truth, valuing independence above all. The need for others is deemed as weakness. We all say we yearn for intimidate relationships to be magical like Romeo and Juliette or Twilight where each counterpart appears to be completely infatuated and dependent on each other. Yet in reality we see dependence in this way as being incompatible with self-reliance and somebody who is actually that devoted is mentally unhealthy or unreliable. And yet, we are indeed all innately dependent beings, living in highly competitive societies.
Capitalism is not a system for the kind at heart. It undermines the very things that it once relied upon; family, career and communities. Competitive societies instigate indifference and people become estranged from each other. Cynicism from a pressured culture develops and only grows as those strive to achieve the lives of the rich and famous. Enterprise culture means a life of overwork, anxiety and isolation, so we are being forced to try to survive in a world where competition reigns supreme.
So if kindness is praiseworthy yet only for mugs, but fellow feeling is what people really crave, what can we do? Well religion has made us hate each other enough already, not to mention the depressing debates between them as they casually and verbally attack one another… that’s a disheartening sight for anyone. But the theories of the ‘selfish gene’ don’t seem to work either, as the idea of a universal law being that humans are innately selfish doesn’t seem to be a very pleasant civilisation to exist in if this were true. We can argue over our morals and beliefs of what we are and why we do things but one thing is for sure; acts of kindness demonstrate that we are empathetic and dependable animals with no better remedy than each other.
Richard Dawkins – “If you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish… Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs”