We see the idea of kindness packaged these days in every way commerce can cook up. You can buy kindness cards, sweatshirts, stickers, books, mugs, plaques, pillows, and calendars. But which came first, the heart’s longing or the marketing opportunity? Memes about kindness grace social media posts galore, and our children see the word poster-hung to ponder on many a classroom wall. Kindness is my superpower. Kindness is our strength.
This grassroots albeit co-opted focus has to be more than group-mind wishful thinking, some kind of desperate, collective plea. Maybe it’s a great prayer we refuse to give up on. Could it be that because conditions are so hateful in current human interactions, personal and political, any display of the word itself is a revolutionary act?
Aldous Huxley, author of the iconic Brave New World, said “It’s a little embarrassing that after 45 years of research & study, the best advice I can give people is to be a little kinder to each other.”
A few years ago, I was a substitute teacher in the public schools. My first gig was supporting a highly intelligent fourth-grade boy who could not contain his anger, disdain for others, and tendency to roam the halls or sulk under tables. Hence, he was kept from the general population. We had many awesome times, and I felt privileged to get to know the real him. One day I invoked kindness not even directly urging him to practice it, but as a general vote for its power. I will never forget what he said, with a disgust that stung but was unanswerable:
“Why are adults always talking about kindness?”
I probably replied with the obvious pluses for treating people kindly, but the implication that adults wield the concept for their own use was unsettling. Are we, the extollers, realistic when we uphold kindness as a paradise of relating? Are we ready and able to step up to its rigor? The children can see right through us when we’re off the mark.
What the heck is kindness, anyway? How do we get there?
I’ve no step-by-step plan. The best I can do is to talk about personal experiences that come to me with a hunch they might be universal ah ha! moments. This is one reason memoirists write, and it’s a big one: not to say look at me, gawk at my weirdness or my burdens—but to ask and you too? Have you been there?
Lately, I’ve had some run-ins with anger that have thrown me off a boat I didn’t know I’d chosen to sail. Kindness looms as a dream that’s easy to stand by but freaking hard to embody. The new thought, though, is to look below the frothing storms of emotion at what is hidden on our way to kindness.
From being habitually ticked off at slow drivers. to brewing a hissy fit because my lover didn’t say “Good night”—I was unaware just how many habitual angers could flare in one day. Then it finally hit me. I had little idea of what was being asked of me when I leaned into the idea of kindness.
How I revere the Dalai Lama for saying that his religion is kindness! How I believe with equal fervor in the freedom of emotional expression. That telling one’s truth shall set one free. I used to be a therapist, so it’s not like what I’m about to say was new to me. It was the unexpected way it rolled in that was so powerful.
But first, see how I was operating with some messed-up assumptions.
Beware the edicts entrenched
Anger can be vented as long as you don’t get physical, but the line is fuzzy within an intimate relationship: what about throwing things that don’t break? or slamming doors? Foaming at the mouth with anger if it’s about someone else, and not directed at your listener? If your close peeps love you, they should let you vent.
A long time ago the answer seemed to be screaming it out and pounding pillows. I once purchased a wiffle bat and tried it on my poor pillows, during the Primal Scream therapy days when my hero, Beatle John Lennon, showed the world he clearly benefitted from the practice, screaming his anguish about his mother’s death on a poignant album track.
But anger’s too volatile a drug to court so greedily: you will want more. Plus, it’s scary to others when you indulge like that; people in droves are walking around with PTSD from the big people losing it loudly in their childhoods. I quit the primal-pillow-smacking when I found that I ended up in tears anyway, tears I had no idea what to do with. That should have been a harbinger of things to come.
Stupid people abound and they are going to be a problem for me and others of my (superior) kind.
Ack, I hated that in my heart, but there it lurked. Parents modeled it openly, and modern life does indeed put people in your way.
Oppression is rife, and it must be met with tough resolve. Cruelty exists and there’s such a thing as justifiable rage that leads us to stand for justice, especially when innocents are the target. Protestors chant in angry voices because their moving wave is considered a safe vessel in which to do so.
I can control it, and I’m hardly a rage-aholic. Plus, I’m so much better than I used to be.
Nope, it controlled me, riding on the sense of entitlement to BE OPEN AND EXPRESS! Over the years I learned to be selective and less public. To somehow go numb or into fix-it mode when others got angry, while secretly harboring points for me because others were losing it. Later, my mind, my sleep, or my tense body suffered—or my close relationships did because I was on fire to “vent.”
What about mistreatment of someone you love?
Then a year ago came “ES.” ES a made-up set of initials for the company where my daughter with profound autism resides. Their treatment of her is problematic. My clashes with them create unrelenting stress, and I wondered if I was going to manifest health problems due to the strain.
Before them, she lived in different residence with different abuses: the staff would try to intimidate her to do their bidding by blowing a hair dryer in her face (she has a strong phobia of heat) or producing a tourniquet to brandish at her (she is also frightened of medical settings and screams during blood draws).
I knew nothing of this until a new worker’s conscience was bothered and he filed a complaint of abuse to the State about it. At the last minute he would not name names, probably for fear of reprisal from the others. But the state’s Adult Protective Services substantiated the abuse, although due to the whistleblower’s reluctance they were unable to get particular staffers fired for it.
This was during the height of the pandemic. Our state is not one of the best for persons with disabilities. There’s not enough staff, because the wages are horrible. It took me eight months to get her out of there, to ES. I considered ES her savior, and mine. At this time not only was I dealing with her move, but my mother was dying, and I was packing to move my residence to the next county. More balls-to-the-wall stress.
I truly don’t know how things with ES slid so far downhill after our glorious start. I know that my anger flared when they pushed psychiatric drugging as a solution to my daughter’s “behaviors.” In my first book I detail how and why this option is heinous to me—it was tried on my teenaged self and later, psych meds killed my older brother. Helplessly I watched relatives instigate the drugging of their kids in preschool for ADHD.
I’m tempted to list ES’s abuses and injustices. Oh yes, I want you to see my anger as justified. This is a fine line: I want to vent, and to you, dear reader, for what’s the harm when the facts are clear? Ah, the sense of self-righteousness is heady.
But guess what: in the real world, there’s still a staffing shortage. Every day my daughter beseeches me to move her and I can’t. The powers that be, who I talk to an awful lot, won’t call out ES for fear they’ll shut down and with the shortage of residences for the disabled in this area, people will be made homeless.
Did I mention that ES also sports a blatant anger problem, and won’t come to the table to negotiate? Their dysfunction is legendary, as I found out later from others who were once co-workers. And I had heard faint rumblings of it in the past. But when I needed to get my daughter away from blow dryers and tourniquets and there were no other choices, I chose to hope that different flavor of trouble with ES was history.
My daughter is profoundly autistic and needs 24-hour care. The non-residential professionals involved in her team realize and verbalize that she needs to get out of ES, now. To this date, there are no other spots in the community that are open.
The stress sits like smog over my life. When you can’t rescue your own child, you need to dress those wounds daily with self-care so that the sense of failure doesn’t become debilitating. At least I know there are good people working to curtail ES’s transgressions and to find my daughter another home.
Give me that bat and some pillows?
I vented about all of this one day to someone close to me, when I was in a heightened state of anger over ES’s latest saber stab. I knew I’d reach the other shore somehow, but I did trawl pretty far into darkness. My assumption about my friend was: I’m not mad at you, so what gives? Why can’t you let me vent in the privacy of my own living room?
But it turns out I traumatized someone I care about, who grew up in a home where the norm was unpredictable anger-bursts with no thought for the children’s protection.
That was it. I couldn’t square my excesses anymore with the person I wanted to be. I asked myself, what would the Buddha have done? His response would look nothing like my berserker rage fit. How much longer could I go on not reconciling my behavior with my values? I had to get to the bottom of this!
Many years ago, I used hypnotherapy in my practice, and I have a favorite online site now that helps with a wide range of issues. The one I chose to listen to the next morning was about letting go of that which no longer serves you, and rage was that thing for me. In the most accommodating way, the speaker invites you to bring in a God presence, however you do or do not define God. I felt in good hands.
But I was still pissed! Why was I cast as the bad guy by my friend when it’s obvious that ES’s obstacle-making is egregious! I wanted to get up and hash this out.
With great effort, I stayed and listened, and decided to endure with openness even the worst outcome of mind. What went down was pretty hard to breathe through.
You think it will kill you
Rationally, I knew and ascribed to the supposition that underneath great anger there is a world of hurt, very hurt feelings. But in that guided meditation, tears began to precede understanding and I decided to go with them. Jumping off a cliff, skydiving without a parachute. . . I began to sink in earnest. None of this was in the actual recorded script I was listening to, supportive affirmations of a general nature.
The ocean was vast that I plunged into; alternately it felt like a deep and ample well that just went on and on. Water was the medium for this overwhelming feeling: sorrow. A sorrow as big as an ocean with no island in sight, a well so deep that it never bottoms out. Long did I cry, thinking tears would never stop.
At last, a tiny boat came by that offered to rescue me but ended up clarifying the nature of the sorrow. The objects of anger—my friend and ES—suddenly blipped off the radar. Because this was the heart of the matter:
The ocean/well was so vast I saw that even if I took off my headphones, jumped up and “had it out” with certain people, it wouldn’t heal me. There was too much history, too much feeling quashed over time, too much the sense of being rejected, oppressed, and wronged. Hurt.
In fact, I saw how I put energy into addressing conflicts as a diversion from the vastness of the ocean/deep well. As if bringing someone to justice or asserting my right to speak my rage, could hold a finger in the dam for a moment longer before it breaks and I never stop crying or feel anything but sorrow again.
This is not to say that in the trance, thinking I’m drowning, I reveled in victimhood. Nor that I had a pity party that was grandly orchestrated. Those concepts were inapplicable in this watery place. I touched sorrow—sank, bobbed, floated, wept. It was perceived as huge but after the initial shock, strangely, not deadly.
Though informed in part by grief, this was different. Grief usually has an object, a person or situation lost. This well or ocean didn’t throw up specifics to distract me. It simply existed.
A part of me was relieved to get beneath the anger, to see how the anger, though addictive in its adrenalin and a validation of my family’s scourge, was trying to protect me from something deemed much harsher than its familiar whip.
But it wasn’t harsh, that big-water place where I went to drown then didn’t. Where I lost my anger like a jacket loosened by the force of the the current; anger, much bluster with no real game plan though it functioned as my number one havoc-wreaker. Then anger lost its moorings, dislodged, and covered up nothing anymore.
I climbed out of the trance at last, put the headphones aside and rose to find this poem I’d always loved but hadn’t lived until now:
BEFORE YOU KNOW WHAT KINDNESS REALLY IS
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
–Naomi Shihab Nye, from The Words Under the Words
What comes next? I don’t know because this is fairly recent reporting and I’m still mulling. One thing I learned is that anger and fear are bit players: they stand between you and the Great Sorrow because they’re trying to save you from what they assume will be a fatal blow to your strength. Yet both anger and fear are separation-addicts, and only in unity within and without do we grow.
Fear will always be a formidable counter-force. Research tells us that trauma is retained in the body, and the body keeps the score. Fight, flight, or freeze—these moves may hamper the falling into the ocean. To that I invoke the old saying, feel the fear and do it anyway: be thrown into the water and find a surprising buoyancy.
Who knew? That if you learn to know sorrow—really know it as “the other deepest thing (inside)” you reach a real-deal relationship with kindness.
The take home to keep us connected is that image of planet Earth, a ball immersed in water: it’s not just you who suffers, but we are all swimming here. And thankfully, sorrow is not the only deepest thing.
We can find what’s covering up, obscuring, the urge to be kind, like a tarp over a creaking dam, and let it be shredded by something larger that may look like a tsunami when you first meet its face.
But have courage, because yes, you will surf the waves in your tiny boat that slices anger and fear.
Then, if what poets and contemplatives say is true, you will carry kindness with you like the shape of your shadow, or a friend who knows every deepest thing you have been through.