“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.
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-acting, love as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.