Early last month, my seventeen-year-old son and I got into a heated argument in the waiting room of our dermatologist. The doctor was running late, and I was having a stressful day, and despite the mask on my face, he could see the rage simmering in my eyes. “You shouldn’t get angry, Mom,” he said, watching me like a soldier watches a minefield, “it’s not very nice.”
Poor kid. He had no idea that ‘nice’ has become a trigger word for me in recent years, that ‘nice’ has so little to do with what I want for both of us. But let me back up just a bit.
I’ve always been a passionate reader, but when I began to make my first, tentative steps toward writing a novel, I began to look at books in a different way. I’d been reading for almost thirty years at the time, but I’d rarely stopped to think about what it was that I loved most about the books and authors I returned to, time and time again. When I tried categorizing them as I’d been taught to as a scholar, I failed to isolate a common genre, time period, movement, subject matter, or storyline. It took me many moons to realize that, in seeking an external classification, I was missing the point. As it turns out, it was the heartbeat of these books that I was responding to, the way almost all of them tussled with kindness, in the deepest sense of the word.
This type of kindness is not about yielding to niceties, or doing favors, or otherwise compromising yourself in an effort to calm the waters. It’s not, in other words, about being nice. Things that are nice prioritize the agreeable, the amenable, the unspoken word. Kindness, on the other hand, is about showing others who we are, in the hopes that they will show us who they are. And kindness is what I hunger for, whether it be in books or in the dermatologist’s waiting room.
He was right to chastise me, not because I wasn’t being nice, because I could give a flying you know what about being nice. I do, however, want to be kind. Because kindness isn’t about compromising your own feelings, it’s about taking a deep breath at the end of a long day and asking yourself if a beloved doctor really needs to see daggers shooting out of your eyes because she kept you waiting. It’s about asking yourself if your anger really belongs in someone else’s chest, whether it be at the end of a long day or the end of a long couple of years. It’s about stretching our definitions of what kinship might be, to peek beyond the bruising materials that seem to get lodged between us, even if we have to stand on tiptoes in a stiff wind. It’s not about dropping our eyes and folding our hands in our laps. It’s about having the courage to look in someone else’s eyes, and opening your arms. It’s about expanding our capacity for paradox, for knowing that while we have an infinite capacity for difference on the individual level, we also all hold lifetime memberships to the collective whole. This, for me, is why literature is so vital, why story is so essential, why a conversation that involves more listening than speaking can save lives.
And yes, kindness is also about being soft when others are telling you to be hard. Giving even when you fear something irrecoverable might be taken from you. Giving because something irrecoverable might be taken from you. Like hate, or hardness. Isn’t it funny how the steeliest parts of us are the first to rust? How our softest words are the ones that bear repeating, the ones that carry, the ones that last?
Art: Sakai Hoitsu, Poppy from Primrose