BETWEEN THE REGIONS OF KINDNESS

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.

Shields, Frederick James; Man Repels the Appeal of Conscience; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/man-repels-the-appeal-of-conscience-57014

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.

Pacquette, Elise J. M.; Protecting the Heart; Bethlem Museum of the Mind; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/protecting-the-heart-192960

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.

Sims, Charles; Crowds of Small Souls in Flame; Bethlem Museum of the Mind

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.

Kindness of strangers, abstract by Blenda

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.

Banksy, Kindness

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.

Ernest-Pignon-Ernest-Untitled
Ernest Pignon-Ernest, Untitled

 

 

CARRYING YOUR CHILDHOOD WITH YOU

Alexander Milov’s “Love”

“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.” 

Abraham Sutzkever

 

I came across this quote one morning.  Scanned it in a flash. It felt so familiar. Almost toss away. A well-worn reference to being young at heart, or to the importance of cherishing my inner child. Trite.

 

And then I read it a second time, and noticed that where my eyes had registered child, they should have read childhood.

It was early and I sat staring at the screen, bothered by the way that word altered Sutzkever’s message.

What did he intend? What does it mean to “become older” ?

I looked him up, and learned that he was a great Yiddish poet and survivor of the Holocaust. Born in Belarus in 1913, he later lived in Lithuania and was sent to the Vilna Ghetto during World War II.

And I thought: well of course, he was 26 when the war began. Memories of his childhood would have sustained him; he would have drawn deeply from that well of familial love, protection and relative innocence—and then the words “you never become older” : those foundational memories acting as a talisman of sorts, warding off the damaging effects of disillusionment, cruelty, suffering and despair in a world made by adults.

Alexander Milov’s “Love”

I’m not sure of any of this. I don’t even know whether he wrote this or spoke it. And so, what I have is what his words mean to me and might mean to anyone else.

I’m puzzled by the phrase.

“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.” 

IF ?

There’s no if. We all carry our childhood with us. What matters, then, is only whether its weight supports and grounds us or instead burdens us—and if so, how heavy the burden is.

If I polled a bunch of people asking them to list the distinctive elements of childhood, what would they come up with? Maybe something like:

 

It’s precious because it’s over so quickly;

It’s the most carefree period of a human being’s life;

It’s usually the healthiest period, too;

It’s when humans change the most rapidly;

It’s when we’re most curious and able to learn;

When our minds are most plastic;

It’s the only age of innocence;

It’s when everything seems possible.

 

A positive list. But few of those elements can be carried forward into the future because time runs out on them.

I’m bothered by statements like Sutzkever’s that are predicated on the notion that childhood is the space-time of optimistic possibility from which we slowly but surely lose our way.

I’m bothered by the unintended pessimism of it.

Władysław Wankie. Alone in the Park. ca. 1900

Childhood is frequently the place of our deepest wounds and traumas, and when this is so—especially when this is so— it  becomes either the crushing burden that stunts us for life, or else a powerful agent of resilience; of growth through experience.

I resist the implications of Sutzkever’s message and others like it because I don’t believe that a happy childhood is a sine qua non for a happy life.

I think it’s probably true that:

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

― Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

The wryness of this makes me smile.

I see childhood as a crucial period of growth on a lifelong transformative continuum.

Penelope and Graeme, photo by Anne Hildebrand

We speak of childhood as an idyll, but I think that our vulnerability in childhood is one of its most poignant dimensions.

Watching my grandchildren Penelope (four), and Graeme (two), grow up is a daily reminder of this. While I feel all kinds of strong impulses to protect and shelter them, I believe that this same vulnerability  is childhood’s precious bridge to adulthood. From our places of shelter and support, we learn to go out into the world and live fully.

Why wish to never become older?

Just a few months ago, as her father—my son Jeremy—was putting her to bed, Penelope had a moment. Lying above the blankets, her lovely eyes welled up and she turned to her father and said:

“I miss myself when I was a baby.

Oh papa, I’m so tired.”

Imagine that.

Maybe she felt old that day.

Maybe she has already begun to understand that she’s leaving her childhood behind a little bit every day.

The next morning, she woke up rested, happy and looking forward to what the day might bring. Four years old and fresh as a daisy.

She and her brother do this every time they go out into the world and gather experience, as they, like their parents, constantly reinvent themselves and grow older together.

Penelope and Graeme looking for the squirrel, fall 2015, photo by Anne Hildebrand

 

Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along―the same person that I am today.”

― Orson Scott CardEnder’s Game

A note about the photos of Alexander Milov’s gorgeous sculptures:

Gripping Sculpture At Burning Man Reveals The Harsh Truth About Adulthood

Published sept. 2015

“This year, the “Burning Man” festival in Nevada featured its first artistic piece from Ukraine. Alexander Milov’s “Love” was the first Ukrainian piece to receive a festival grant in 30 years. The sculpture consists of two hollow, metal frame human silhouettes, one man, one female, sitting back to back. Sculptures of children touch inside of them (and light up at night).

“It demonstrates a conflict between a man and a woman as well as the outer and inner expression of human nature,” Milnov explains. “Their inner selves are executed in the form of transparent children, who are holding out their hands through the grating. As it’s getting dark (night falls) the children start to shine. This shining is a symbol of purity and sincerity that brings people together and gives a chance of making up when the dark time arrives.”  “