I write at the urging of the voice inside my head, the Great Narrator of my small life, the one that seems to never shut up but which I trust doesn’t indicate mental illness.
I don’t know that it ever stops to rest, but I don’t mind because I know myself well enough to recognize that without it, I’ve lost a powerful way of functioning in the world, of processing my experiences and understanding my life. Of understanding LIFE. I’m no longer sure that I could find my way without it.
It’s crowded here, in my head, because there’s a second voice. It’s a smaller, primal, timorous voice that I imagine living in the dark, and that I know for sure dates back to the beginnings of me, because it’s embedded with some of my first memories. Its utterings are uncomfortable and seem to always come at a cost— to be the result of an inner struggle.
It’s the voice of my conscience.
When I was a child, it felt like my conscience spoke from a pulpit.
I eventually figured out that it was being egged on by the voices of my parents, my teachers, most adults in fact, and my peers. It felt like its principle aim was shaming. Which is why it penetrated me so deeply.
I carry inside me a list of memories of my worst childhood moments. It’s the doing of my conscience, which still spits back up, more often than I’d like, mini-documentary remembrances of me being mean, petty, ugly.
Some of these go back to when I was barely five or six years old, but most evoke minor events that marked my passage through grade school and high school. Moments when I betrayed a friend; a moment when I tormented a classmate who was already marginalized and insecure; moments when I spoke against another for no other reason but malice and competitiveness; multiple episodes of schadenfreude.
(It’s hard not to write shameful here)
As I grew up, I often replayed these mini docs in my mind and then imagined myself atoning for them. In my daydreams, I still sometimes conjure up the person I harmed and try to express my regret. What’s interesting is that over time, the reactions of the victims in my dreams have shifted and now, they don’t seem to remember any of it very clearly: like it’s just water under the bridge. Does this mean that I’m beginning to forgive myself? If so, I still have a long way to go. If I met any of these people in the street today, I feel sure that I would still want to dredge up the memory and apologize.
My conscience has kept a precise ledger of my UNKINDNESS. When I was a young child, my failures of kindness were more often lashing-out impulses than anything premeditated. As those moments unfolded, it felt like nothing could override them.
I was powerless before my unkindness. And then less so, and then less so still, as I grew up.
Kindness is a beautiful word that’s strangely hard to pin down. In French, it’s said to mean a mixture of goodness—bonté—plus a blend of gentleness-kindliness-warmth-sweetness- generosity referred to as gentillesse.
Perhaps it’s simply goodness and benevolence in action.
I aspire to be a kind person. A kinder person. But I’m not at all sure that I am. What I feel certain of is that the wellspring of both unkindness and kindness is pain.
That explains its grip over me in childhood. Kids absorb pain without any of the filters life experience provides. They can only take so much of it, raw, into their small bodies, before it starts to splash back out in ways we and they don’t always recognize and can’t always control.
In adulthood, more is expected of us.
“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is a wonderfully mnemonic line that resonates, whether or not we know its origin. It’s a beautiful, terrible statement about our worst fears—abandonment, loneliness and dependency—and the starker truth that it’s those we love who hurt us most.
Raising my children, working in schools and now in companies, it almost seems as though the last two decades of my life have been an immersion in the lives of strangers who first are “others”, then become acquaintances, and then, often, friends.
Mostly, what this process has done is helped me to realize how quickly a stranger can become someone to discover, to know and to care about. More often than not, someone to love.
With each new class, with each new room full of strangers, I’m reminded that my openness to others is as simple as a smile (well, many, many smiles, whenever possible), grounded in my empirically supported faith that there are few human beings on this planet with whom I cannot find points of connection and kinship.
In this context, kindness comes easily.
Where I find myself failing is where most of the pain is: among the people I love most, if not always best. I’ve discovered that I have limits that are real and firm, and that I’m capable of a coldness that I didn’t think possible.
My coldness is a pain response that I’ve watched gain strength over time. It’s taken me years to figure it out, but I think it kicks in when I feel unsafe in the company of someone close to me. That can happen when being with a person feels like being invaded; when everything about an interaction with this person shuts me down and makes me feel like I want to hide inside myself. It can also happen during periods when being with a person infects me with negativity, anxiety, or a sense of being controlled or pushed around. Sometimes, it’s simply that someone else’s pain is overwhelming my ability to cope.
In those instances, I can be so remote. I’ve cut people off for weeks and months at a time. It’s unkind, and it comes from pain and causes pain. But it feels like self-preservation, and I think that’s probably why I don’t feel as remorseful. The wellspring of my unkindness is my own pain.
And then, unexpectedly, the very real, stripped down pain of someone I love, or someone I don’t yet know, can pull me close once again. That’s the gravity of kindness.
* * *
These are unkind times, when under the guise of self-preservation, many of us now ignore the pain of others and reject kindness, condemning millions to a place Naomi Shihab Nye calls the desolate landscape between the regions of kindness.
It’s a place where none of us are meant to live.