The place was rammed.
Friday night, late November, a gallery on Duke Street in St James, central London. Inside home counties couples and groups of W11 women shuffled through the small space, straining to see every drawing covering the walls of both rooms. The objects of their gaze were anthropomorphic sketches of a horse, a mole and a fox, plus a young boy and girl, in the breezy ink-on-paper style of artist E H Shepard’s Winnie the Pooh.
One of them portrayed the boy and the mole on the bough of a tree. “What’s your favourite thing about the horse?” asks the mole. “His power? His wisdom? His beauty?”
“He is kind,” said the boy.
In another, the mole tells the boy: “We often wait for kindness, but being kind to yourself can start now”.
The artist Charlie Mackesy, better known for his sculptures and lithographs, stood behind the counter looking bemused at both the volume of people and sales. He later posted on Instagram – 115k followers and rapidly rising – that he wasn’t ready “for so many tears. Particularly men’s tears.”
These were men dressed like barristers and bankers and who could drop £3,000 for an original drawing with an accompanying truism about life beyond capitalism, Trump and Brexit. For £100, I chose a print that said: “What do you think success is?” asked the boy. “To love,” said the mole. For one of the teens, I thought. If only someone had gifted that to every young baby boomer, perhaps we wouldn’t be in this global holy mess.
Luckily, the call to kindness seems to be gathering pace. The Mackesy exhibition (which has since led to a book deal) had come just a few weeks after fashion company The Vampire’s Wife posted a poem entitled Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye. Only true sociopaths (quite a few out there, mind) won’t feel moved by its introductory verse:
“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.”
Losing things and finding ourselves in a desolate landscape – who hasn’t been there? It’s where crumbs of kindness are devoured. Which is probably why last year’s bestseller The Language of Kindness by Chrissie Watson, the memoir of an NHS nurse, sparked a 14-way bidding war between publishers and is being turned into TV drama.
I reviewed it for the Sunday Times when it came out, writing:
“Who knew nurses prepared the bodies of those who died on their wards, massaging the grey skin of a drowned six year old with baby lotion in readiness for the grieving family. Watson’s final duty? To brush the little girl’s teeth with her dinosaur toothbrush and toothpaste ‘until I smell nothing but bubble gum’.”
In her acknowledgements, the saintly Watson thanks her patients: “What an extraordinary privilege it was to be your nurse”, and yet the privilege was surely theirs too. God knows the world needs more Nurse Watsons.
Actually we are genetically wired to be kind. In The Little Book of Kindness, out last month, David R. Hamilton lays out the scientific evidence in favour of popping round to see that elderly neighbour or surprising your partner by picking him/her up from the station in the pouring rain. Page 17 is divided into two parts: What Stress Does and What Kindness Does. He has zero good things to say, obvs, about stress.
But kindness? It reduces blood pressure, protects the heart (perfect synergy), boosts the immune system, relaxes the nervous system, reduces inflammation and can be an antidote to depression. Beats all those drugs. Apparently it even slows the ageing process.
So physically this kindness shtick is a no-brainer. But how exactly does it benefit our personal relationships, always a thorny work-in-progress? It was the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius who said kindness is mankind’s “greatest delight,” and many a scientist has set out to prove just that, most notably American psychologist John Gottman. In 1986, he co-founded The Love Lab (I mean, fab name) and for the past four decades has studied thousands of couples in a quest to figure out what makes relationships work. As the guru of divorce prediction and marital stability, Gottman divides us all up into Masters and Disasters.
Exactly what I was thinking – which are you?
The Masters scan their social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They purposefully build this culture of respect and appreciation. Disasters scan for partners’ mistakes. Even if talking about mundane events, their bodies are in fight or flight mode, preparing to attack and be attacked. Disasters deliberately ignore, or continually criticise their partner’s style or choices and kill the love in the relationship by making the other person feel invisible.
Gottman’s extensive research concluded that kindness glues couples together, making them feel cared for, understood and validated. By the way this is a man who at 76 is on his third wife Julie, whom he has been with for more than 30 years, so you can only presume that he’s become of Master of what he preaches.
This June another psychology professor – Jamil Zaki from Stanford University – launches his scientific take on empathy with the release of The War for Kindness. In an age of rampant tribalism and a divided Britain, Zaki argues that empathy is like a muscle – a skill we can all strengthen with a daily workout. I totally agree with this – when I found myself cast into a desolate landscape a few years ago, I got the kindest message from a former colleague not exactly known for her empathy. It was so unexpected I still think about it, and her, most weeks. Life changes people, often for the better. In his forthcoming book, Zaki tells the story of a former neo-Nazi who is now helping extract people from hate groups, as well as US police officers who are changing their culture to decrease violence among their ranks. “An inspiring call to action” says the publicity blurb.
Shoot me if I sound straight out of Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner but my favourite message of all comes in the final line of Naomi Shihab Nye poem. It is, she writes, only kindness that makes any sense amid all this madness.
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”
The boy, the girl, the mole, the horse and the fox would surely agree.