Alain de Botton’s Case for Politeness

polite society

For most of human history, politeness was an admirable trait.  Belonging to polite society not only meant you were upper class— it meant you conducted yourself with refinement and taste.  The polite woman had exquisite manners: she knew how to maneuver her fork and knife, how to taste the caviar, how to elegantly sip her champagne.  And because she was worldly and well-traveled, she could effortlessly entertain.

However, our attitude toward politeness changed with the Romantic movement.  Because the romantics valued individual expression above all else, they viewed strict 19th century social customs as unhealthy constraints.  In the prim, prudish Victorian age, formal etiquette dictated every aspect of life from how you greeted your guests to how long you could acceptably chat with an acquaintance at a busy intersection.  A “lady” should only wear white gloves to dinner and never, never use both hands to raise her dress while crossing the street.  Perhaps most ironically, repressed Victorians believed “no topic of absorbing interest may be admitted to polite conversation” because “it might lead to discussion and debate.”

Rather than regard politeness as an indication of a kind and civilized person, the romantics saw it as a sign of superficiality.  Those courteous dignitaries and chic debutantes who knew the proper etiquette at parties were not well-bred— they were phony.  What society termed “politeness” was really just the Machiavellian ability to manipulate others for your own gain: those at society’s highest rungs only wrote darling thank you cards and threw extravagant soirees to increase their social standing.

In romantic thought, candor was a much more admirable trait.  According to the romantics, the individual was an instrument of God while society fettered the soul in chains.  Rather than restrain ourselves, they believed we should cast off the shackles of so-called social niceties: after all, why should we have to hold our tongue when our great uncle says something insensitive/borderline racist at Thanksgiving?  why should we refrain from discussing politics or religion for fear of offending?  and why, exactly, should we allow other people’s hypersensitivity limit our God-given right to self-expression and our democratically-protected right to free speech?

Today we continue to prefer candor to restraint.  In their revolt against political correctness, conservatives have pitted freedom of expression against civility and basic good taste.  While those on the right distrust politicians who equivocate in Washington’s too tactful doublespeak, they rally behind straight-shooters like Donald Trump because— not it spite of— his willingness to break the “countless unspoken rules regarding what public figures can or cannot say.”  The president’s disgusting comments about women and discriminatory proposal to ban Muslims don’t prove he’s a racist or misogynist or overall horrible human being— they prove he’s trustworthy.  “Look what he openly says about women and minorities!” Trump supporters must think, “he’ll tell it to us straight!”  Today “politically correct” has become a pejorative term associated with overly sensitive liberals and cowardly politicians who are too terrified to say what they mean.

victorian era manners

Though good old-fashioned politeness might be a relic of another age, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues respect is a tradition worth resurrecting.  In his latest volume The School of Life: An Emotional Education, the same seminar that taught us how to master the four criteria of emotional health, how books can be a balm for loneliness, how the sublime can give us greater perspective, how to be kind, and how to be charming, de Botton maintains it’s better to be too polite than too frank.  Unlike the frank person, who believes no occasion should call for self-censorship, the polite person recognizes many situations require they edit themselves.  The fact that they conceal parts of their character doesn’t make them deceptive or dishonest: it simply makes them considerate.  The polite person is all too aware there are many things about them that could disgust or otherwise offend:

“The polite person proceeds under grave suspicion of themselves and their impulses.  They sense that a great deal of what they feel and want really isn’t very nice.  They are indelibly in touch with their darker desires and can sense their fleeting wishes to hurt or humiliate certain people.  They know they are sometimes a bit revolting and cannot forget the extent to which they may come across as offensive and frightening to others.  They therefore set out on a deliberate strategy to protect others from what they know is within them.  It isn’t lying as such; they merely understand that being ‘themselves’ is a treat that they must take enormous pains to spare everyone else from experiencing— especially anyone they claim to care about.”

What separates the polite from the rest of us?  Rather than presume everyone is just like them, polite people realize others have their own opinions and preferences.  Though the polite host might prefer a refreshing pinot grigio to a buttery chardonnay, they are perfectly aware their guests might have different taste.  So what do they do?  They ask what their guests like better and accommodate:

“For their part, the polite person starts from the assumption that others are highly likely to be in quite different places internally, whatever the outward signs.  Their behavior is therefore tentative, wary and filled with enquiries.  They will explicitly check with others to take a measure of their experiences and outlook: if they feel cold, they are very alive to the possibility that you may be feeling perfectly warm and so will take the trouble to ask if you’d mind if they went over and closed the window.  They are aware that you might be annoyed by a joke that they find funny or that you might very sincerely hold political opinions quite at odds with their own.  They don’t take what is going on for them as a guide to what is probably going on for you.  Their manners are grounded in an acute sense of the gulf that can separate humans from one another.”

More than anything, polite people are sensitive people.  Though we live in a callous age where “sensitive” has become a derogatory word hurled at the easily offended, no quality is more important to human relationships.  The polite person exercises tact— not because they’re a phony people pleaser or cunning social climber— but because they know even the most self-possessed among us are insecure: an unreturned phone call, a dismissive grunt or mean-spirited joke, a cutting remark or harsh word has the profound capacity to hurt.  Lesson?  We should be sensitive because others are always teetering on the edge of a cliff— one small wind and they can descend into despair. 

Alain de Botton on How to Be Charming

What is charm?  Oscar Wilde— one of the most charismatic men in all of English letters— believed charm was the opposite of dullness; it’s “absurd to divide people between good and bad,” he wrote, “people are either charming or tedious.”  In his 1883 journal, philosopher and poet Henri-Frederic Amiel described it as the “quality in others that makes us more satisfied with ourselves” while statesmen Adlai Stevenson proposed “a beauty is a woman you notice; a charmer is one who notices you.”

Most of us imagine a charmer possesses an almost magical magnetism: they captivate crowds and their ravishing good looks attract many admirers.  The word itself evokes a certain picture: a dapperly-dressed man who regales whole cocktail parties with stories of his exciting adventures; a fashionable woman in a chic black dress and leather gloves whose dazzling wit and irresistible smile instantly make men fall in love with her.

As affable Americans, there’s nothing we admire more than charisma.  The movie stars we watch most devotedly, the politicians we most passionately campaign all share this seductive trait.  One reason we think so highly of charm is because we think it’s a gift granted to a select few; like those blessed with the ability to sing, the charming have a talent denied the rest of us.  Charisma is something you’re born with as innate as the color of your hair or the straightness of your teeth.

But despite what we may believe, charm is not encoded in our DNA— it’s a skill that can be refined and improved like a kindergartner’s ability to recite his ABCs.  In his crash course on emotional intelligence The School of Life: An Emotional Education, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues charm is a core competency essential to our functioning as human beings, whether we want to climb the corporate ladder or simply seduce our crush on the first date.  Below are his three steps to developing this delightful— if somewhat mysterious— trait:

how to be charming

1. be unafraid to be yourself

Courtship always involves some level of convivial but trifling chatter.  Rather than have a thoughtful philosophical discussion or meaningful heart-to-heart, first dates most often consist of a superficial getting-to-know each other.  As we sip chardonnay in the romantic haze of a candlelit dinner, conversation is limited to a few uncontroversial topics like what we do for work and where we’ve traveled.

Sadly, dating in the digital world is even more surface-level.  No longer do charming Romeos woo us in beauteous iambic pentameter; in our shallow swipe-right culture, dull-witted men bombard us with either tasteless sexual invitations or unimaginative “hey gorgeous, how are you?’s”.  As a newfound bachelorette trying to maintain my sanity amid such mind-boggling boredom, I got to thinking: what makes one suitor interesting and another a bore?

Though we think some people are just plain tiresome, de Botton would argue a truly boring person has never walked the earth; those we call “boring” are simply too afraid to be themselves.  Most of the men who open with a timid “hi, what’s up?” aren’t yawn-worthy bores— they’re just deeply terrified of making idiots of themselves.  But the most charming among us are willing to be weird.  After all, who do we find more interesting: the guy who resorts to the same lame questions and cliched compliments or the one who is honest about his quirks and his less-than-flattering characteristics?  Charm is strangeness, or as de Botton so elegantly phrases:

“At the heart of the shy person’s self-doubt is a certainty that they must be boring.  But, in reality, no one is ever truly boring.  We are only in danger of coming across as such when we don’t dare or know how to communicate our deeper selves to others.  The human animal witnessed in its essence, with honesty and without artifice, with all its longings, crazed desires and despair, is always gripping.  When we dismiss a person as boring, we are merely pointing to someone who has not had the courage or concentration to tell us what it is like to be them.  But we invariably prove compelling when we succeed in detailing some of what we crave, envy, regret, mourn and dream.  The interesting person isn’t someone to whom obviously and outwardly interesting things have happened, someone who has traveled the world, met important dignitaries or been present at critical geo-political events.  Nor is it someone who speaks in learned terms about the great themes of culture, history, or science.  They are someone who has grown into an attentive, self-aware listener and a reliable correspondent of their own mind and heart, who can thereby give us faithful accounts of the pathos, drama and strangeness of being them.”

vintage couple flirting

2. be vulnerable 

In many ways, to be human is to believe we’ll never be good enough.  How, we wonder, could anyone ever like, let alone love us?  Our nose is too large, our face isn’t entirely symmetrical, our abs aren’t perfectly chiseled.  And though we can at times be engaging and thoughtful, we have an equal capacity to be rude and inconsiderate, dull and insufferable.

Because we’re convinced we have to be perfect in order for other people to like us, we conceal these frailties and foibles.  No where is this more true than the romantic arena.  A first date is a masquerade ball where we conceal our real self: rather than display our melancholy and self-doubt, we try our best to appear confident and cheerful, emphasizing our accomplishments and avoiding anything too objectionable.  If we stick to safe conversation topics, if we refuse to divulge anything too loathsome about ourselves (that we sometimes suffer from depression, that we’re thirty and still not entirely sure what we want to do with ourselves), maybe, just maybe, our potential paramour will like us.

But what actually makes someone likable?  For Mr. de Botton, what distinguishes a disarming person from a disagreeable one is their ability to be imperfect, to be vulnerable.  After all, who do we adore more: the date who is wonderfully self-assured, who completely and utterly loves his life and his job or the one who openly shares the more tender, potentially shameful parts of his heart, his regrets and his fears, his insecurities and his self-doubts?  As de Botton writes:

“We get close by revealing things that would, in the wrong hands, be capable of inflicting humiliation on us.  Friendship is the dividend of gratitude that flows from an acknowledgement that one has offered something very valuable by talking: the key to one’s self-esteem and dignity.  It’s deeply poignant that we should expend so much effort on trying to look strong before the world when, all the while, it’s really only ever the revelation of the somewhat embarrassing, sad, melancholy and anxious bits of us that renders us endearing to others and transforms strangers into friends.”

vintage couple flirting #2

3. be a good listener

What do all disastrous dating experiences have in common?  A shortage of physical attraction?  An absence of chemistry?  Too many awkward silences and fumbling attempts at conversation?  At the bottom of every disappointing date is a lack of connection.  But how, exactly, do we establish a bond with someone, especially someone we don’t know very well?

De Botton maintains listening is essential to success not only in dating but in life in general.  We tend to think charmers are natural-born entertainers, those rare men and women who can spin a riveting tale or deliver an impeccably-timed joke, but the most charming people are actually better listeners than speakers.  Despite what many motormouth men may think, it’s deeply unattractive to dominate a conversation.  I know I find nothing more obnoxious than a man who talks exclusively about himself.  What woman wants to endure a dinner where her date barely pauses to sip a glass of wine or ask anything— and I mean anything— about her?

Sadly, many men miss out on the fundamental lesson of charm school: to be interesting, you have to be interestednot completely self-absorbed.  If you want to charm your crush, don’t boast about your salary or what kind of car you drive or blather on about your dreams or goals: ask about hers.  People love nothing more than talking about themselves.

Not only do charming people ask questions, they actually listen and care about our answers.  When they inquire why our last relationship ended, they don’t simply hear what we have to say and move on to the next unrelated question; they ask questions that build off each other.  If we reveal we broke up with our last boyfriend because he didn’t share our values, they’ll encourage us to elaborate: what values are important to us?  The result?  The conversation feels more natural and doesn’t take on the nerve-wracking, palm sweat-inducing quality of a job interview. 

In the end, the good listener understands the goal of a first date conversation, indeed, any conversation, is clarification: we exchange words not to impress or entertain but hopefully to shed some light on a potential partner.  Do they share our morals?  Do they have similar passions and interests?  Are they looking for the same things we are? 

Alain de Botton on How the Sublime Can Remind Us of Our Infinitesimal Place in the Grand Scheme of Things

storm-tossed sea

Since the Enlightenment era, we’ve sought to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos: how to harness nuclear power to obliterate entire nations of people, how to eradicate disease, how to defeat death itself.  In the last few hundred years, we’ve in many ways succeeded in this ambitious goal: we’ve discovered penicillin, we’ve built airplanes and railroads.

But though science gives us the illusion that we have command over the cosmos, we’re not sovereigns of the world.  Men are but one species of millions on Earth; our miraculous, mysteriously oxygenated marble of a planet is but one speck in an ever-expanding universe.  Each star in our sky is potentially another sun to another solar system.  No matter how invincible we imagine ourselves, a single catastrophe— a terrible earthquake, a devastating forest fire, a worldwide pandemic, a bloody war— reminds us what fragile creatures we are.  Humans are small sailboats in a storm-tossed sea: one strong gust of wind and we drown.

So how do we go on when faced with something so much mightier than we are, so beyond our control and so rife with uncertainty, be it the chance-governed universe or an international health emergency?  In his crash course on emotional intelligence The School of Life: An Emotional Education, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues the mighty— what sages and saints throughout time termed the “sublime”— can offer calm in a chaotic world.  The magnificence of a giant sequoia grove, the epic scale of the Grand Canyon, the scorched beauty of a burnt red-orange sunset in a southwest desert, the striking cliffs along the central California coast: each rid us of the arrogant belief that we’re the most all-powerful things in the cosmos.

We imagine the trivial dramas of our lives— the offhand comment our mother made about our disarray of dirty clothes, the quarrel we had with our lover over ravioli and red wine, the nerve-wracking choice between classic cream and deep beige for the dining room— are of serious consequence when in the grand scheme of things, they don’t much matter.  Our names will most likely not be found in textbooks (unless— that is— we manage to do something truly history-making like discover a cure for cancer or formulate an elegant mathematical theorem).  Schoolchildren will not study the stories of our lives or be captivated by the drama of our dating misadventures.  Chances are in a few centuries we’ll be forgotten— our entire existence reduced to a tombstone.

the sublime

While the idea that all will be buried beneath the sands of time is enough to bring on an existential crisis (after all, if nothing we do is of any consequence, isn’t life meaningless?  why live at all?), it can also be a profound relief.  If our mother makes snide comments about the cleanliness of our house, if we make the “wrong” choice and paint the dining room classic cream instead of deep beige— even if we make a more serious error and choose the wrong city or the wrong husband or the wrong career— the world will go on: the sun will set in the west and rise in the east, seeds will sprout and blossom, Earth will continue to spin on its axis at a thousand miles per hour through our wondrous, improbable universe.  When we gaze at the glorious spectacle of stars in the night sky (or any other marvel of nature), we can transcend our petty problems.  As de Botton writes:

“But there’s another way an encounter with the large-scale can affect us— and calm us down—that philosophers have called the “sublime.”  Heading back to the airport after a series of frustrating meetings, we notice the sun setting behind the mountains.  Tiers of clouds are bathed in gold and purple, while huge slanting beams of light cut across the urban landscape.  To record the feeling without implying anything mystical, it seems as if one’s attention is being drawn up into the radiant gap between the clouds and the summits, and that one is for a moment merging with the cosmos.  Normally the sky isn’t a major focus of attention, but now it’s mesmerizing.  For a while it doesn’t seem to matter much what happened in the office or that the contract will— maddeningly— have to be renegotiated by the legal team.

At this moment, nature seems to be sending us a humbling message: the incidents of our lives are not terribly important.”  

For more symposiums from the school of life, study culture as a cure for loneliness, the importance of kindness and the four criteria of emotional health.  If you want to chart the mysterious topography of the human heart, revisit de Botton on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, dating as a sort of performative play-actinglove as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.

Alain de Botton on Culture as a Cure for Loneliness

young alain de bottonNo matter how much we repress or deny it, a large portion of the human experience is disagreeable.  Heartbreak and sorrow, despair and melancholy are as much part of life as love and joy, happiness and hope.  For some part of our lives, the sky will be a somber shade of gray— not just a cloudless cheerful blue.  Though difficult emotions are universal, we’re often ashamed to admit when we’re suffering a dark season of the soul and finding it impossible to do something as simple as get out of bed and put on regular clothes.  Our society requires we keep chit chat superficial.  “How are you?” our next door neighbor asks when we pass each other in the hall.  “I’m fine,” we mutter forcing a smile, “How are you?”  It would be a breach of proper decorum (not to mention make our neighbor profoundly uncomfortable) to tell the truth.  “Oh me?  I’m horrible!  The love of my life just left me so most nights I’ve been taking Xanax and drinking an entire bottle of champagne to myself.  Fingers crossed I overdose!”

No, we must “prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet” as T.S. Eliot so sharply observed in his masterpiece of modernism “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  Instead of indulge our depression— retreat under the covers or collapse into sobs— we (for the most part) go about our lives business as usual.  We brush our hair and put on mascara; we take care of the mundane errands of living; we engage in surface-level small talk at happy hour and make obligatory appearances at friends’ birthday parties.  We don’t let others see the depths of our suffering.

But because everyone else is also hiding their suffering, we end up feeling alone.  “We therefore end up not only sad, but sad that we are sad— without much public confirmation of the essential normality of our melancholy,” British philosopher Alain de Botton writes in The School of Life: An Emotional Education, his instruction manual for emotional fulfillment that is both deeply philosophical and practically useful.  For him, this loneliness isn’t a common cold— it’s a chronic condition as potentially life-threatening as cancer.  Lucky for us, consolation can be found in one thing: culture.  If our world is suffering an epidemic of loneliness, art is the antidote.  Why?  Because art reminds us that—despite how things may seem— we are never alone with our sorrows:

Culture is a “record of the tears of humanity, lending legitimacy to despair and replaying our miseries back to us with dignity…art is a tool that can help release us from our numbness and can provide for catharsis in areas where we have for too long been wrong-headedly brave.”

In the same way “The Star Spangled Banner” unites us in our shared national values and gives us a sense of identity, art affirms we share a common humanity: we’re are all citizens in a country of suffering.  Terror and anxiety, depression and despondency: they belong to the whole of the human racenot us alone.  The beauty of art is it momentarily relieves us of the dreadful sense that we’re somehow abnormal.  No, it’s normal to occasionally misjudge others as the otherwise intelligent Elizabeth Bennet misjudges Mr. Darcy.  It’s even normal— like Hamlet— to occasionally contemplate suicide.  When we encounter ourselves in a work of art, we realize everyone— even those with six-figure salaries and important-sounding job titles and gorgeous Instagram photos— is neurotic, maladjusted, and fucked up.  As de Botton writes: 

“It is like the way a national anthem works: by singing it the individual feels part of a greater community and is strengthened, given confidence, even feeling strangely heroic, irrespective of their circumstances.  [Art] is like an…anthem for sorrow, one that invites us to see ourselves as part of a nation of sufferers which includes, in fact, everyone who has ever lived.

[…]

Other people have had the same sorrows and troubles that we have; it isn’t that these don’t matter or that we shouldn’t have them or that they aren’t worth bothering about.  What counts is how we perceive them.  We encounter the spirit or the voice of someone who profoundly sympathizes with suffering but who allows us to sense that through it we’re connecting with something universal and unashamed.  We are not robbed of our dignity; we are discovering the deepest truths about being human— and therefore we are not only not degraded by sorrow but also, strangely, elevated.”  

cezanne apples

Sadly, rather than seek solace in art, we try (and fail) to find solace in other people, particularly a significant other.  Beginning in the late 18th century, romanticism popularized the notion that one human being, our Platonic soul mate, would be able to completely understand us.  According to romantic thought, “true lovers could see deep into each other’s souls”; in other words, once we found our ideal lover, we’d no longer have to say how we felt– our partner would just know; once we found our “other half,” we’d never again feel alone.  

However lovely the romantic conception of love, it’s ultimately the stuff of fairytales.  No matter how wonderful our partner is, no matter how compatible we are, they’ll never know every region of our heart— nor can we know theirs.  Those we love will always— to some extent— be as strange as strangers in a subway car:

“What replaced religion in our imaginations, as we have seen, is the cult of human-to-human love we now know as Romanticism, which bequeathed to us the beautiful but reckless idea that loneliness might be capable of being vanquished, if we are fortunate and determined enough to meet the one exalted being known as our soulmate, someone who will understand everything deep and strange about us, who will see us completely and be enchanted by our totality.  But the legacy of Romanticism has been an epidemic of loneliness, as we are repeatedly brought up against the truth: the radical inability of any one other person to wholly grasp who we truly are.”

Human interaction almost always disappoints us.  Though there’s nothing we crave more than connection, most day-to-day conversation revolves around a series of uninteresting topics (the unusually nice weather, the most recent drama at the office) and obligatory questions (“so, how are you?”/”do anything fun this weekend?”).  Even our closest relationships lack real intimacy.  After all, what do we discuss during a night out with the girls?  our innermost thoughts?  our deepest convictions?  No, chatter over brie and chardonnay usually centers around last Saturday’s sexcapades or the latest TikTok. 

Fortunately, books can supply us with the connection we so long forA novel is a window into another’s consciousness, another’s interior world.  When we read Mrs. Dalloway, for example, we are allowed to see beyond Clarissa the socialite and see her most intimate secrets, her most haunting regrets and most private hopes.  A fictional character won’t shrug off “how are you?” with a polite but insincere “I’m fine” like most of us do— they’ll tell the truth.

“What a great treasure can be hidden in a small, selected library!  A company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote.  What’s wonderful about books— and films and paintings and poems— is they connect us with the finest minds from centuries and civilizations ago.  With the turn of a page, a lonesome 21st century reader can find a friend in Tolstoy or Kafka, Hemingway or Fitzgerald:

“The arts provide a miraculous mechanism whereby a total stranger can offer us many of the things that lie at the core of friendship.  And when we find these art friends, we are unpicking the experience of loneliness.  We’re finding intimacy at a distance.

[…]

Confronted by the many failings of our real-life communities, culture gives us the option of assembling a tribe for ourselves, drawing their members across the widest ranges of time and space, blending some living friends with some dead authors, architects, musicians and composers, painters and poets.”

tobias & the angel

Though humankind has always suffered from loneliness, through the ages, we’ve found different ways to cope.  When religion played a more prominent role in day to day life, the belief in God was our coping mechanism.  No longer were we doomed to wander the planet alone— we had an all-forgiving, all-loving presence with us.  Even if we were by ourselves— lost at sea, stranded on a deserted island, quarantined in our homes— we had God to guide us.

Today religion has fallen from its central place in culture: the majority of us don’t say grace before meals or attend church except for special occasions like Christmas and Easter.  So if God is dead, where can we turn for counsel?  how can we not feel completely and utterly on our own?  De Botton believes we can assemble our own tribe of guardian angels, only our angels aren’t winged creatures with harps and golden halos— they’re novelists and artists, poets and painters.  For us in the modern era, a museum is a cathedral and a book is secular scripture:

“You might feel physically isolated in the car, hanging around at the airport, going into a difficult meeting, having supper alone yet again or going through a tricky phase of a relationship, but you are not psychologically alone.  Key figures from your imaginary tribe (the modern version of angels and saints) are with you: their perspective, their habits, their way of looking at things in your mind, just as if they were really by your side whispering in your ear.  And so we can confront the difficult stretches of existence not simply on the basis of our own small resources but accompanied by the accumulated wisdom of the kindest, most intelligent voices of all ages.”

All in all, de Botton argues culture offers the companionship that is so difficult to find in the real world.  For more symposiums from the school of life, study the importance of kindness and the four criteria of emotional health.  If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on love, revisit him on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, dating as a sort of performative play-actinglove as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.

Alain de Botton on the Importance of Kindness

 

young alain de botton“Nothing makes our lives, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness,” Leo Tolstoy once wrote.  Many hundreds of years before, Plato advised us to be kind because “everyone you know is fighting a hard battle.”  Rumi perhaps put it most poetically: “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder.  Help someone’s soul.”  Though random acts of kindness— letting someone merge into your lane at the height of rush hour, holding open a door, buying the next person in line a cappuccino— can lighten an overburdened heart and cheer a dispirited soul, we don’t often consider whether we’re kind enough to people.  We are, however, acutely aware when people are less than pleasant to us.  When someone is inconsiderate, we don’t consider the motives that underlie their bad behavior— we either rage at their stupidity or nostalgically mourn the loss of good manners.  Humanity, we insist, is made of fools and monsters.

Yet the world would be a much lovelier place if we were more generous in our assessments of other people.  In his endlessly erudite The School of Life: An Emotional Education, disarmingly witty British philosopher Alain de Botton uses the folktale of Androcles and the lion to illustrate how kindness can build bridges instead of walls.  First told by the Roman philosopher Aulus Gellius, the tale has been told time and time again both orally and in Aesop’s Fables.  In the story, a lion lives alone in the forests of the Atlas mountains.  One day he starts terrorizing a nearby village.  The more the lion roars, the more the women weep and the men toss and turn.  Afraid for their lives, the villagers assign guards to stand watch and send out heavily armed hunting parties to find— and kill— the monster.

It’s at this time that a shepherd boy named Androcles follows his sheep high into the mountains.  One evening as the sun falls below the horizon, he finds a cave and decides to seek shelter.  Inside, the darkness is impenetrable.  It’s only when he lights a candle that he sees he isn’t alone: there, not a few feet in front of him, is the bloodthirsty monster!

At first, Androcles is horrified.  Certainly the savage beast would tear him to shreds.  But then he notices something: the lion has a thorn in his paw.  The animal doesn’t want to hurt him— he’s in pain, that’s all.  Suddenly, Androcles only feels pity for the poor creature.  Rather than slay him, he strokes his mane and tenderly removes the thorn.  Grateful for the boy’s help, the lion licks his hand.  With one small gesture of kindness, the ferocious lion becomes as docile as a house cat.  Not only that, but two mortal enemies become lifelong friends.

androcles

What can the modern reader take away from this age-old folktale?  For de Botton, the story of Androcles and the lion is a poignant reminder that “hurt people hurt people.”  Too often in life we’re unforgiving when people grieve us.  If a friend says something insensitive, if our boyfriend, who is usually so attentive and affectionate, becomes cold and distant, if a cashier exhales exasperated when we take too long rummaging through our purse at the grocery store, we chalk up their behavior to their irredeemable character.  And then what do we do?  We squander the rest of our afternoon ranting and raving about what assholes they are.  How dare our “friend” be such an inconsiderate jerk!  How dare that cashier treat us as if we were the rude ones!

But rather than condemn our friend or the young girl at the cash register, we should act as psychologists and ponder the origins of their behavior.  Why did our friend make that nasty off-hand remark about our latest fling “not lasting” very long?  Was she simply a bitch?  Was she maliciously trying to hurt us?  Most likely not.  Perhaps she has her own insecurities because she once slept with the “fling” in question and— on some level— is jealous of us.  Perhaps she never liked that we were seeing each other and—instead of express her feelings or even admit them to herself— she acts out her bitterness and discomfort by subtly taking stabs at us.  Or perhaps she’s just oblivious to how passive aggressive she sounds.  And what of the ill-mannered girl at the grocery store checkout?  Perhaps she exhaled so loudly— not because we were taking too long to find change— but because she was tired from a double shift or she had just dealt with a disgruntled costumer before us.

Lesson?  When our fellow humans are petty or ungracious or just plain mean, they usually don’t mean to be.  Their back-handed compliments, their judgmental comments about our living rooms being in disarray: all spring from their own self-loathing and insecurity.  Like the lion, they are just in terrible pain.  As de Botton so astutely observes:

“The lion…has no capacity to understand what is hurting him and what he might need from others.  The lion is all of us when we lack insight into our own distress.  The thorn is a troubling, maddening element of our inner lives— a fear, a biting worry, a regret, a sense of guilt, a feeling of humiliation, a strained hope or an agonized disappointment that rumbles away powerfully but just out of range of our standard view of ourselves.  The art of living is to a large measure dependent on an ability to understand our thorns and explain them with a modicum of grace to others— and, when we are on the other side of the equation, to imagine the thorns of others, even those whose precise locations or dimensions we will never know for certain.”

No other thinker has educated us in the subject of emotional acuity more than Alain de Botton.  For more seminars from the school of life, study his four criteria of emotional health.  If you’re more interested in his philosophical musings on love in all its madness and mystery, revisit him on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, dating as a sort of performative play-actinglove as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.