Mixed blessings, serious artists and how kindness develops

19 April 2020

A recession is certain and a depression is likely.  People are still dying, especially in America, our government is still jitterbugging in a jam jar while the lockdown spreads its tendrils and we realise how many more people are going to die, and how deep-rooted the pandemic’s effects are.

Consider, for example, just the consequences of the huge reduction in road traffic:  how our cars are now doing far fewer miles and how this cleans the air, and how this will affect your local garage which relies on cars needing fuel and breaking down, and how many people won’t be needing NHS treatment after accidents and pollution-related breathing problems, and how this will affect oil prices and the economy, and the reduction in public sector income from speed cameras, and how much less we’ll spend on our cars, and the increased longevity of hedgehogs and toads, and … (how long have you got?).

When all this is over, all our friends and relations will have much longer hair than we remember, some of it a rather different colour at the roots.  We’ll also look back and realise what kept us sane and what made us laugh.  Like Banksy.

What would we do without people like Banksy?  He’s not only a highly talented artist but he has a joyfully iconoclastic sense of humour.

Some artists sadly seem to take themselves and their work terribly seriously.  As a complete philistine where art’s concerned, I was shocked to discover that Antony Gormley’s ’Field’ series – lots of tiny clay figures crowded together, all gazing hopefully upwards – wasn’t meant to be funny and I was just exhibiting my total lack of aesthetic sensibility when the first field I saw made me laugh.  Unfortunately, they still make me smile, which just goes to show how lucky the world is that I’ve never sketched or pickled a minnow.

As Banksy is, like so many of us, under house arrest at the moment, he’s had to work at home and he’s recently posted pictures of his bathroom on Instagram.  Have a look – they’re brilliant!  Banksy, I love you.

I’m also hoping the announcement that BlackRock, one of the world’s largest investors in banks and fossil fuel companies, had been hired to advise the EU on the development of new environmental rules for banks is a joke.  If not, expect turkeys to contribute to America’s forthcoming report on the importance of Thanksgiving dinners.

And so the world divides into those who think this is a wonderful time to make profits from the gullible and those who are giving money to others.  Jeff Bezos and the Duke of Westminster have both given large sums to help fight the pandemic but, without wishing to sound ungrateful, both gifts represent only a tiny fraction of their total wealth.  In the former’s case, the gift is just a tiny fraction even of the $24bn increase in his wealth since the pandemic started.  Come on chaps, you can do better than that.  Even the Twitter guy, Jack Dorsey, is giving $1bn to fund coronavirus research.

And a 99-year old former army captain, Tom Moore has raised £23m for the NHS by walking round his garden.  As a letter in Friday’s Guardian suggested, a fit reward would surely be for Captain Tom to be promoted to Major.

This also started me thinking about why some people are kind and some aren’t.  My pet theory, based on a complete lack of evidence and research, is that we’re born with no innate empathy or kindness but most of us learn to move some way along the spectrum.

As babies, we’re entirely self-centred and our main interests are keeping warm and fed and then, as we grow, we learn we’re part of a group, a family or a tribe, and we start thinking about other people in our group and what they might need, or what make them happy;  and we discover if that we offer to do something for somebody else in our group, they like us and this makes us feel good about ourselves.  This positive feedback can then encourage us to recognise that we and our group are part of society as a whole and, if we’re kind to a stranger, they’ll maybe think more kindly of us and our group.

I’m not sure how and when this extended awareness develops but the journalist and author Lucy Mangan has linked it to her discovery as a child that some people were afraid of the dark while she wasn’t and has written

“… if we were able some day to trace back a person’s development of kindness, toleration or compassion, or their willingness to entertain an alternative point of view or lifestyle or decision – how much of it all wouldn’t come back to a myriad such tiny moments as learning that others can be afraid of the dark?”

In practice, of course, my theory is hugely over-simplified but it perhaps gives an idea of the distance between being entirely self-centred and entirely self-sacrificing, neither of which extreme is a good place to be at:  entirely self-centred = sociopathic, entirely self-sacrificing = no time for yourself and, unless you’re kind to yourself first, you can’t be kind to others.

People are at all points on the spectrum at different times in their lives and some people, such as those with Asperger’s, find it very difficult to empathise with others, not because they don’t want to or don’t try, but they just don’t have the ability, just like some of us have food intolerances.

So let’s be as kind as we can, anonymously when possible, but keep some kindness for ourselves so we can be kind to others again tomorrow.

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