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August 2, 2009

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Scared by the milk of human kindness

WHAT'S the thing that most scares us human beings? What is the monster hiding under the bed? The unexpected answer is kindness, according to the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and the historian Barbara Taylor.

Kindness - "not sexuality, not violence, not money - has become our forbidden pleasure," they write in "On Kindness," asserting that more than 300 years after Thomas Hobbes, we still walk around convinced that deep down we are "lacking in natural generosity." The only people we admit might be truly kind are the glowing, outsize saints of kindness like Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela, foreign as space aliens to our miserly existence.

The punch line of the book is that we are, each of us, battling back against our innate kindness, with which we are fairly bursting, at every turn. Why? Because "real kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can."

Taylor, a professor of modern history at the University of East London, has written several books and Phillips has spent much of his career dodging the label of "celebrity psychoanalyst."

The authors bushwack through the history of kindness, noting heroes and villains, tracking how kindness was "steadily downgraded from a universal imperative to the prerogative of specific social constituencies: romantic poets, clergymen, charity workers, and - above all - women."

Where does kindness fit into the chilly Freudian moonscape in which, Phillips and Taylor write, "the pleasures of cruelty and the cruelty of pleasures" are "touchstones of modern life?"

There is a happy ending: the magical kindness of childhood can evolve into a "robust" genuine kindness if child and parent allow their relationship to endure hatred - the kind every child feels when he realizes his parent will not always be able to meet his needs.

Phillips and Taylor suggest it's not an easy journey.


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