Adam Phillips, our favorite British pop-Freudian, writes books that name society's big issues (infidelity, for example) and prescribe broad-spectrum antidotes (accept that monogamy is an aberration and behave accordingly). His latest, On Kindness, cowritten with Barbara Taylor, makes the case for being nicer to our fellow man. Feeling hostile and skeptical, we probed further.
Q: You say that kindness terrifies us. How so?
A: We fear it will make us look weak or silly.
Q: I guess kindness isn't sexy.
A: But it matters as much as sex. We've been bribed to think glamour is paramount. And yet, isn't it better to be kind than successful? Isn't it better to be friendly than to be a genius?
Q: Does this mean I have to give up my seat on the subway?
A: It's not about some moral prescription, like, "I have to try harder to do good deeds today." We have to realize that kindness is a genuine pleasure, and that every time I rush for a seat and knock an old man aside, at first I feel better because I get to sit down, but then the guilt of treating someone badly takes all the pleasure out. Our society has an accumulation of that guilt, and we need to do something about it.
Q: That seems to be what our new president is shooting for with his calls to service.
A: Yes, Obama may get us on the path toward a new ethos of "fellow feeling."
Q: Will kindness help us through this recession?
A: It could. The economic crash has grounded us, made us more dispirited about capitalism, more aware of the false ideals of fame and wealth.
Q: Is it time for a real change, then?
A: Yes, we need to evolve. Instead of putting tennis stars on television and asking them what they think, we should ask teachers and mothers. And let's stop the grandiose claims for kindness and instead make simple claims as eloquently as we can: If you're kinder, more generous, then you're happier and more imaginative. And the world is better for having you in it.