Read an Excerpt
Introduction to the 10th Anniversary Edition
Of Time, Beauty, and Kindness
I want you to meet Roberto. He is the parking attendant in the little historical town of Fiesole where I go to work every day. You know the routine: After you park, you put coins in a machine, print a piece of paper, and leave it on the dashboard; from that moment, time ticks away in the back of your mind. Roberto walks around and checks. In theory, it’s not a likable role. But Roberto is the most popular guy in town. He is everybody’s friend. When he sees me he tells me about how he went to the top of the church tower, and how beautiful the landscape is from there, or he lets me know my car’s left front tire is a bit low, or describes Fiesole as it used to be when he was a kid—and he does this with everybody. If you transgress, he will give you a friendly warning, because he knows everybody’s car and where everyone is, and often—believe it or not—he has come to ring the doorbell at my studio to remind me it’s time to pay. He will let you cheat a bit on time—but not too much. He hates taking out the green notebook and writing a fine. But usually there is no need, because everybody feels treated well, and everyone pays. In these days of rising impersonality, when a computer voice will say hello and thank you at the supermarket, and people look at their smartphones and not at you, and eat in front of a screen, and die alone, warmth and human contact are a dangerously dwindling resource, and a man like Roberto is almost a miracle.
So this is what the book is about: the kindness that can fill your days; the kindness which is abundant in the human spirit, yet paradoxically at risk of extinction. It is the warmth, the attention, the care, the contact we all yearn for. The key point is: If you are kind to others you are kind to yourself, and if you are kind to yourself you are also kind to others.
I will start from an angle that you may find unexpected: time, the most mysterious of all subjects. You will soon see how it ties in with kindness. So let me ask you right away: How are you doing for time? Do you feel that you have tons of it and there is no rush, that you inhabit your existence with a plentiful and happy feeling of time affluence? Or, on the contrary, does it seem to you that time is never enough, and do you feel dismay when you have to waste even a few minutes? Do you experience time a s inexorably running out and disappearing like sand in the last seconds of an hourglass?
Whatever your orientation is, chances are you wouldn’t mind some extra time. After all, time is the stuff your life is made of. Now, suppose you have a busy schedule and feel your time is not enough. Let’s imagine that, instead of reducing engagements, you add one more and become a volunteer—you read books to children in the hospital, for instance, or walk orphaned dogs, or clean up a beach. Then you ask yourself again how you feel about your time. Would your time shortage have reached red alert? The answer should be obvious: Subtract the time for an extra commitment, and you end up having less time. Right? Well, no. At the end of the day you would likely feel you have more time. At least this is what recent research on time affluence suggests. The heart follows a different kind of math: Acts of kindness and generosity increase our feeling of time affluence.
However exact our measurements of time may be, we cannot ignore one crucial point: Time is subjective. Our own inner time may stretch or shrink; and the same amount of time ahead of us (say, a holiday or a tax audit) may look to us as painfully short or threateningly large. In our best moments time disappears—at least for a few instants: We are absorbed in love or beauty or wonder, and the ticking of seconds seems to be suspended and forgotten. Those are the moments we treasure most.
We are looking at the mind’s deep structure here: Time defines our whole existence. What brain circuit is activated, what mental space is opened that makes us feel we are rich in hours and days, and makes time a friend rather than a gremlin? Enter kindness. Among the many inner changes it can trigger, one is to make us feel we have more freedom and breathing space. Kindness is not just an add-on. As we shall see again and again in this book, it is a state of being.
Interest in the health benefits of kindness has burgeoned during the past few years. That is, of course, a wonderful and reassuring trend. I see a danger, though: to think of kindness as we think of broccoli or exercise—just one other device for better health. That is still a good thing: Exercising your body and eating healthy foods are good habits. In the case of kindness, however, the risk is that an overly exterior attitude (“I will do an act of kindness because it releases more serotonin”) would make us overlook the essence. And that may slow us down in exploring the vast and wondrous territories of love.
So before we all eagerly line up to earn the rewards of kindness, let us try a thought experiment: Paradoxically imagine that kindness gives none of the benefits science has been claiming; pretend that scientists were just kidding. Then, if you are kind, you gain no time affluence, life satisfaction, immune function, longevity, business success, popularity, self-esteem, or sense of belonging. Would you still be interested? I hope so, because the greatest reward of being kind is precisely being kind: All the rest is simply extra. Kindness is its own reward, and if we look at further advantages we may miss the main one.
Now let me add another factor to the equation: beauty. Suppose you decide to give some time to enjoying beauty—in whatever way you choose: being in a natural landscape, listening to music, reading a novel, seeing a play or a movie, or simply looking at a face. By definition, beauty is enjoyable. My experience as a psychotherapist tells me that many of us have a deficit of beauty—because we are too busy, or we feel we do not deserve it, or we believe other things are more important. But suppose you find the time to enjoy beauty fully in the way that is best for you. Again, a research finding: One of the results is that you will have become a kinder person.
Yes, beauty helps you become a better person. I remember once when, coming out of a concert by Angela Hewitt in Florence, I saw an elderly lady begging for money at the exit. People, inspired and in good spirits after hearing Bach, were streaming out at the end of the concert. The lady looked quite happy, so I could not resist asking her how was business. She was very satisfied with her earnings: great timing, and great location! Somehow the concert made people feel more charitable.
And if you consider this observation a bit too anecdotal, there is plenty of research to corroborate it. For instance, people who engage in the arts are more eager to help, form stronger bonds, and feel a greater sense of community. Individuals who are immersed in nature, or just recall being in it, or see slides of beautiful natural landscapes, will be less interested in their own everyday concerns and more connected to other people. The sense of awe evoked by a mountain landscape or by a walk in the woods has the capacity to weaken social pressures and everyday anxieties, and thus empathy and social bonds come to the foreground. And yes, time affluence also increases. “Captivation”—the rapt, continuous attention to beauty—allows us to be more in touch with intimate feelings such as love and tenderness. To sum up: Enjoying beauty is the easiest way to be kind.
In my own experience as a psychotherapist, kindness is central. When I see a person in therapy, I first ask myself, has she been treated with care, listened to with attention, valued as she deserves to be, encouraged in her projects, comforted in her pain? In other words, how much has this person been in touch, one way or another, with the living reality of kindness? This basic experience is at times absent—alas too often—and the lack has alarming consequences. What shape has this deficit taken: the wound of neglect, the poison of resentment, the prison of loneliness? Finally, I ask myself, where is the heart? How much is this person capable of caring, how much is she ready for gratitude, how open is she to love? (True, some people are just too yielding and soft, if not pathologically kind—they need instead to cultivate grit, self-affirmation, and courage. So I wrote a companion book to this one: Your Inner Will—Finding Personal Strength in Critical Times).
What is true in therapy is true in all paths of life. Kindness is a precious guide, and it can become part of anybody’s work on himself. It can be easily learned and activated. Its qualities, such as warmth, gratitude, or trust, are urgently needed in our society. It makes much more sense than the folly of violence in all its forms. Kindness is the simplest way of coping with so many hurdles, of feeling better, of enjoying life. It is problem solver #1.
Yet kindness may not be immediately visible or available. Often it is only a potential, or a fading memory, or a dream, or a desperate longing. However, it is there, because it is a basic yearning, and the original blueprint of what we are, as I hope to show in this book. In Tolstoy’s story “What Men Live By,” a very poor shoemaker is going back home at the end of the day, his mind full of worry about how to support his family. On his way, in the middle of a snowstorm, he finds a naked man, alone in the night, and dying of cold. At first the shoemaker does not want to know, and moves on. Then he changes his mind, comes back, offers him his coat, and takes him to his home. His wife is hostile at first; then she, too, takes care of the man, whose name is Mikhail, and gives him hot soup. He stays on, always mysterious, always shy, and works for the shoemaker. Years go by, and one day, husband and wife hear his full story. Mikhail is a fallen angel, who was sent to earth by God to learn what men live by. He tells of how at first humans looked ugly and frightful to him. But everything changed the moment they did something kind: Then they became radiant and beautiful. At the end he has learned the lesson and is ready to go back: Love and solidarity are what humans live by, what we are best and happiest at.
What inspired Tolstoy is now discovered increasingly in many fields of science. In the past ten years, since the first edition of this book, research on kindness and related subjects has greatly expanded. Without even trying to be exhaustive, let me just give a few notable examples:
Chimpanzees that support each other: As the work of Frans de Waal has shown, chimpanzees share food, help when a companion is in need, protect the weak, and assist the sick (for instance, by bringing them a mouthful of water), at their own risk defend a weaker member from aggression, console the victims of assault, and reconcile after a fight. Seeing that altruistic attitudes do not belong to our species alone sheds new light on altruism, and gives kindness greater scope and deeper roots.
Toddlers who help: According to Michael Tomasello, children as young as eighteen months are capable of spontaneous and disinterested altruism. When they see an experimenter trying to pick up a dropped peg, they will fetch it for him without being asked; if the “clumsy” experimenter does not succeed in piling up blocks, the toddler will do it for him, and will open a cabinet when he sees the experimenter struggling to put some books in it. According to Tomasello, this uniquely human capacity to understand another’s intention and to cooperate with him (“shared intentionality”) is a prime factor of our evolution.
“Primitives” who assist their neighbors in need: In the surprising new science of bio-archaeology increasing evidence shows that people with grave and incapacitating diseases were able to reach mature age: This was possible only through the assistance of others. For instance, as Lorna Tilley and Marc Oxenham have documented, a young adolescent in Vietnam four thousand years ago became paralyzed from the waist down, had fused vertebrae and weak bones, and he could not have survived by himself. He was assisted over several years, with no material benefits for his community. There are at least thirty such known cases. Caring for the sick and disabled, even though it does not offer any apparent benefit, is as old as humanity.
Brains hardwired for altruism: Many neuroscience studies show that our brain has inbuilt capabilities for resonating with other people’s pains and joys. Cooperation is intrinsically rewarding. Giving a gift will make the brain happy just as much as receiving it. According to Jaak Panksepp, the innate brain system of CARE is specifically devoted to nurturing and affection.
Parents who feed one another’s children: We share “cooperative breeding” with some other mammal and bird species: I will feed your kids and you will feed mine. When our ancestors moved from life in the trees to a savanna habitat a few million years ago, food became more scarce, existence more precarious. So mothers invented a more practical way of feeding their offspring. According to anthropologists Carel van Schaik and Judith Burkart, this was a major impulse in our evolution for developing language, intelligence, and altruism.
Economists who include kindness: A growing number of economists are moving away from the conception of “rational economy”—that is, the idea that the economy is based solely on rational selfishness, that each one of us is vehemently and consistently acting for his or her own well-being only. According to Amartya Sen the purely rational human being is a “social moron.” The factors that motivate us are also solidarity, mutual aid, donations and gifts, unpaid work, the cooperative spirit, and belongingness.
I could go on and on. Suffice it to say that how we see ourselves as a species, how we perceive what it is to be human, shapes our view of who we are. The dog-eat-dog paradigm, which has for a long time dominated much of our scientific tradition, the media, and the common view, is fading, while a fuller understanding is on the rise: Yes, we are selfish and competitive, but that is not the whole story.
The scenario is not always so clear-cut. Years ago, after I had written the first three chapters of this book, I decided to send them to my agent in New York. I wanted to give her an idea of my new enterprise. I sent the e-mail on the morning of September 11, 2001, Italian time, the night before in New York. My agent would find it first thing in the morning. But that day a tragedy shook the world. My e-mail was the last thing my agent, working a few miles from the Twin Towers, would attend to. As I heard the news, after the first reactions of horror and dismay, I also thought about the chapters I had sent. Now they seemed so puny, so lightweight. Violence had triumphed. Not only was I horrified; I was discouraged.
But soon something happened that made me change my mind.
I managed to get in touch with my agent by phone a few days later. Of course, she, as everyone else, had felt dread and dismay. However, when I was able to talk with her, I found she was deeply moved by all the e-mails and phone calls she had received from friends and clients all over the world: e-mails and calls giving support, asking for news about her well-being, expressing concern. She understood how cared for she was by many people in many places. I realized once again: There may be murder, there may be violence, and there may be selfishness, but most human beings at heart are helpful and supportive. Cruelty makes the headlines precisely because it is the exception. But the world goes on because we care for one another.