Kindness and Regrets

Be excellent to each other.” – Bill and Ted (20th century philosophers)


From a commencement speech by George Saunders: 

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindnessThose moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.”

Saunders then describes a memory from the seventh grade, when he did not defend the new girl in school who was teased for being different. Forty-two years later, he still thinks of her occasionally, and even though he was not personally cruel toward her, he regrets not going out of his way to extend her kindness. He then questions why kindness is often lacking, and he looks for prescriptions to make it more common.

The speech is a good one, and it stirred up some personal memories of instances when I could have used some kindness from someone. Sometimes it came; others it didn’t. There were also situations that called for me to be the one to extend kindness to someone else who needed it. Sometimes I stepped up, although probably not as consistently as I should have. Fear can be a powerful deterrent. Like Saunders, I regret those missed opportunities.

Of course, the opposite of kindness is cruelty, and I’m often distressed by the latest story of human callousness, where someone is belittled for not conforming to another’s standards. For those of us who are not Rhodes Scholar Olympians (which is to say, nearly everyone), we all fall short of socially constructed ideals in some way. Either we’re not attractive enough, or not stylish, athletic, or smart enough (or too smart). Too red. Too blue. Too promiscuous or too chaste. Too tall. Too short. Too neurally atypical. Or, we’re the ‘wrong’ weight, gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, social class, or speak the wrong dialect. We can be incredibly creative at finding the holes in the armor to bring someone down.

For such an intensely social species, we often seem to go out of our way to make each other want to leave the group.

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Part 9. Humans are (Blank)-ogamous: Love Is an Evolutionary Compromise

This is part 9 of a series on the evolution of human mating behavior, comparing evidence for promiscuity and pair-bonding in our species. Please see the introduction here.


I want love to roll me over slowly,
Stick a knife inside me, and twist it all around.
I want love to grab my fingers gently,
Slam them in a doorway, put my face into the ground. – Jack White (Love Interruption[1]  

“Everything is a double-edged sword… Even single-edged swords are a double-edged sword. Because you can cut something with it, but the other edge is kind of flat and it doesn’t cut very well.” – Louis CK (comedian)



Yesterday’s post looked at the neurobiology of romantic love, asking whether evolutionary perspectives are sufficient to explain this highly significant part of what it means to be human. It also raised the question as to why love seems to be a painful experience for so many people.

Before going further, it’s important to remember that while humans are undoubtedly evolved, biological organisms, we are also animals with complex behavior, language, and culture. Others have said this better than I can. To Jon Marks (2010), we are “biocultural ex-apes,” while Agustin Fuentes wrote that “human behavior is almost always ‘naturenurtural’ ” (2012:16). Just as human modification of the environment can affect natural selection (Hawks et al 2007; Laland et al. 2010), so can culture profoundly influence the way we interpret powerful emotional impulses, including those related to desire and love.

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Part 8. Humans are (Blank)-ogamous: Evolution, Love, & Suffering

This is part 8 of a series on the evolution of human mating behavior, comparing evidence for promiscuity and pair-bonding in our species. Please see the introduction here.



we are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or our love.” – Sigmund Freud (Civilization and Its Discontents)


One of my more vivid memories from early childhood is of Tammy and her two friends. I was about 6 years old, and in the first grade. They were third graders, a couple of years older. By coincidence, our two classes had arrived simultaneously at the hallway outside the girls’ lavatory. In those days, teachers took their entire class to ‘the lav’ for efficiency’s sake, and every day the boys finished our business promptly then lined up in front of the teacher as we waited for the girls to finish theirs. On that day, our schedule happened to align with grade three.

1st grade

1st grade

I can still remember Tammy looking at the note I had written her, passed along by a friend earlier in the day, with her friends on either side. Exactly what I wrote is lost to time, but I recall the romantic sentiment behind it and drawing a picture of a boy and a girl kissing. Today, such behavior (or going even further) could actually get a young child suspended from school.

What compelled me to write the note, I don’t know. I do remember that Tammy seemed kind and pleasant to look at, and that it felt right – even at that age – to try to express it. However, that feeling quickly turned to embarrassment, when she and her friends waved, laughed in unison, and –in sing-song fashion – said “Hi, Patrick.” We were all just kids and no harm was intended, but at that point, I wanted to hide. And, though I can’t remember this part very well, I probably wondered why the third grade teacher was so slow in taking her students back to class.

It wasn’t clear where I went wrong, but my interpretation of Tammy’s behavior was that my private feelings of attraction, which came pretty easily, somehow violated the rules. Early experiences carry a lot of weight, and that incident taught me that revealing private emotions was a risky endeavor. It’s tempting to want to hide them away[1]

With Valentine’s Day just behind us, I wanted to develop on some of the elements in this innocent story in a couple of posts (update: part 9 here), such as where attraction and its hypertrophic cousin, romantic love, originate, and even why they might show up in early childhood.

The other element is the more negative aspects of romantic pursuits, which extend well beyond the embarrassment of childhood puppy love and into profound despair and suffering. Perhaps the cynics have good reasons to feel that it is somewhat myopic to give love its own day to be celebrated while glossing over the countless people it has wounded over the millennia. Homer Simpson, in his toast to inebriation, once referred to alcohol as “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” I don’t think too many people would object if we replaced the word ‘alcohol’ with love.

So, what is this thing that nature has given us?

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