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Lions Roar : March 2010
SHAMBHALA SUN MArcH 2010 81 I lOvE STOrIES. I am far from alone in this. As a species, we human beings delight in narrative—one of the fundamental ways, cognitive psychologists now tell us, we make sense of our world. I remember as a child eagerly looking forward to evenings when my grandmother would tell and retell all my old favor- ites: the Tortoise and the Hare, goldilocks and the Three Bears, little red riding Hood and the Wolf. later, when I could read for myself of the rumpus of wild things, of ancient greek heroes making the long journey home, and of brave women warriors in China, I learned that stories not only delight, they instruct. Our everyday actions are crucially informed by the stories we believe about ourselves and about each other. Stories are one way we seek to answer the most fundamental questions of life: Who are we really, and what are we really like? These three books challenge us to rethink some of the dominant cultural narratives of our time, the stories we inherit and then retell ourselves and our children about our basic nature as human be- ings. As psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor ask in On Kindness, “Why do the pleasures of kindness astonish us? And why are stories about kindness often so corny or silly, so trivi- alizing of the things that matter most to most people?” Their book explains why and how we have come to think and speak this way about that fundamental human virtue: kindness. Turns out it was not always this way. The roman philosopher– emperor Marcus Aurelius called kindness humanity’s “greatest delight.” We inherit from the ancient greeks words for the love of humanity (philanthropia, agape) and from early Christians a key term for universal loving-kindness—caritas. In a lively and learned early chapter, Phillips and Taylor retrace the fateful steps whereby classical ideas of altruism and benevolence have come to seem, in modern times, as merely sentimental, soft-minded, and unrealistic. One busy urban physician, for instance, worried out loud during a group meditation retreat I attended: “Won’t I be taken advantage of if I think too much of the well-being of others? If I don’t seem as tough as nails in my field, people will walk all over me!” Taylor and Phillips chart the effects of our ingrained cultural training: “Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers.” Here is the question all three books at hand address: Are we kind primarily out of fear, weakness, and coercion, or is there a natural inclination toward sympathy, literally a “feeling with” others? The images projected in far too many talk shows, movies, and Tv series depict an inherent selfishness in human beings. The implicit cultural worldview is: it’s a mean-spirited world out there, in which everyone is primarily—and often exclusively—looking out for No. 1. Taylor and Phillips question this chorus of modern voices raised against kindness. “An image of the self has been created that is utterly lacking in natural generosity,” they assert. “Most people appear to believe that deep down they (and other people) are mad, bad, and dangerous to know; that as a species—apparently unlike other species of animal—we are deeply and fundamentally antag- onistic to each other, that our motives are utterly self-seeking and that our sympathies are forms of self-protection.” In interviews, these two writers have clarified what they are not saying. Barbara Taylor explains: “Since antiquity people have argued IlluSTrATIONBYAlANgOrDONANDCHrISTIEgOrDON On Kindness By Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009; 114 pp., $20 (cloth) BOrn tO Be GOOd the science of a Meaningful Life By Dacher keltner W.W. Norton and Company, 2009; 336 pp., $25.95 (cloth) A PArAdise BuiLt in HeLL the extraordinary Communities that Arise in disaster By rebecca Solnit Viking Press, 2009; 353 pp., $27.95 (cloth) REViEWEd by GaylON FERGuSON Born to Be Kind? Reviews GaylON FERGuSON is the author of Natural Wakefulness: Discov- ering the Wisdom We Were Born With. He teaches interdisciplinary stud- ies at Naropa university.