Have you ever met a self-professed mean person? Have I witnessed this phenomenon in a vacuum, or do most people, at least upon meeting them, hold the opinion that they are, at the very least, good?
Given the state of things as of late, I have got to call “cognitive dissonance” here. Excuse my Freud, er I mean French. I’m calling bullshit: plain and simple.
I have always thought of myself as a kind person. I grew up in the South, drenched in the infamous smiling-at-strangers Southern Hospitality. The logic behind this sharing of perpetual happiness allegedly derives from the concept of loving one’s neighbor. Smiles begat conversations spontaneously erupting only to end in an invitation to lunch or dinner (whichever meal was closest). This was presented to me as kindness. Perhaps, in many ways, it can be.
Moving to Los Angeles in my teens meant journeying to a land where an errant smile is construed as either stupidity or selling something. It was jarring to learn that smiling does not necessarily constitute a measure of one’s kindness, especially when some smilers in LA will begin hurling obscenities your way seconds later.
Back to my initial query: what person trying to develop any sort of rapport with another human doesn’t use at least one of these terms as a self-descriptor? It is almost as if, societally, there is an importance in being at least perceived as a good-hearted person, veracity be damned. Anyone who has met a human before can easily say not all humans are nice or kind. Yet in English, there is the term “humankind” to refer to the lot of us on this spinning wet rock…but I digress.
Thanks to COVID, I definitely spent a good deal of time waking up to just how unkind humans can be, how niceties are either manufactured or non-existent “these days.” Emails “hope to find me well” when I sincerely doubt anyone is really doing “well” by any previous metric. Everyone else having time to think gives us space to see how unkind we, as a populace, are to our environment, to our fellow beings (be them animal or human), and to ourselves.
This leads to an exact counterpoint that kindness and vulnerability are seen as weaknesses in modern American culture. If you’re kind while working in an office, that’s the surest way to end up working late or through the weekend for people who left at 3pm on a Friday because they felt like it. If you’re kind in the stock market or big business, that’s the surest way to piss off investors since your dividends aren’t competitive with other sharks in the water. If you’re nice to a salesperson, that’s the surest way to walk away too-many-dollars poorer for something you still don’t understand even hours after the initial exchange took place.
Perhaps this is where the distinction comes in. Why, in such a selfishly “independent” nation as America, are there so many who are willing to smile wide in the midst of outright meanness? Why is there a subset of the populace placating these people with the smile of “perseverance”? Kindness is key. I can’t be nice to everyone; believe me, I have tried. All that gets you is fatigue that sleep can’t cure and disease-causing repressed anger. After a good wrestle with denial, I took a look at how either of those adjectives might apply to me specifically.
Predictably, what I found within was as ugly as what I found in the world. I found an inner critic so harsh, it’s no wonder I hadn’t lived up to all of the potential heaped on me from a young age. That monologue on loop in my mind had an answer for every question of failure and confirmed why future choices would be wrong with what felt like searing accuracy. Upon deeper questioning however, the Critic sputtered and defended itself, talking in circles until I would relent just to get some mental quiet. The judgements I would make on the smallest of ideas made me second-guess if my creativity existed at all. Friends and acquaintances would laud my zaniness at happy hours and remark about off-the-wall thinking that came naturally to me, yet I couldn’t convince the cassette tape in my head that I had any value.
Beneath that cacophony of negativity beat a heart overflowing with concern and care for others. When you’re cruel to yourself yet want to be kind to others, what ends up happening is saccharine-sweetness oozes out instead of genuine care. Why would I stay in wretchedly awful situations until tears would spring to my eyes so I could confidently yell “I DON’T CARE ANYMORE!” when, in fact, I cared a great deal.
Since when did trying one’s hardest to be a kind person become so problematic? In my case, it had to be due to my complete erasing of myself in favor of others. When I was a kid, my father would take me to school every morning. Without fail, before I was allowed to hop out of his truck and rush into class, my father would make a point to tell me to “be a helper.” For 6 years, 5 days a week, I would hear that phrase and do my utmost to live up to it. When other kids were angry that I ruined the curve of a test and told me to fail to make it easier, I seriously considered getting questions wrong. I learned that not having to study for tests got me A’s, but I made a point to never try much harder so as not to upset the other uniform-clad kids around me. I was told to sing quieter in choirs because the others “couldn’t be heard.” Rather than quit the choir and start my own band, I allowed that criticism to inform my hobby of singing until it became the quiet, self-deprecating thing I can’t help but do in the shower, car, or rarely in public when my itch to perform leads me to signing up for an open mic. All of these efforts were to at least seem like I was kind. The older I’ve become, the more one question has begun to nag at me with ever-increasing volume:
By becoming less-than, who was I helping?
I have stepped into every single situation with which I was entrusted and poured an obscene amount of care and attention into it, hoping to high heavens I would get a shred of said care back. I now hope to serve as a cautionary tale to say no, that’s not how it works. That’s not kindness. The peculiar thing about kindness (and my theory on why customer service is work that is vastly undervalued) is its anti-transactional nature. When you consider computer coding or making a sale, there is a transactional if-then element to the motions required to execute an action. Kindness, sure, can beget more kindness in the way that if you smile at someone and they smile back, both of your days are made. But as sure as you take the risk to smile, the other person could easily respond in various other negative ways.
In the same way that people say you must love yourself before you can love others, the same caveat applies to kindness. You must be kind to yourself, which means forgiving yourself when the most you can do effectively that day is wake up, and allow yourself to forgive your human frailty. This is the only way to garner enough empathy for that jerk who cuts you off or what have you, and that isn’t even, necessarily, a failsafe.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that there is no failsafe to much of anything. I also know that being kind is vital to surviving this life. It’s the only hope we’ve got, and, happy to get this song stuck in your head after such a heavy thought, “We’re All In This Together.” That simple thought is the ticket to a kindness that won’t kill you. Knowing that others are in the same boat is oddly reassuring. I’m not the only person who has cried on the planet, nor am I the only one prone to a fit of giggles over something mundane or innocuous. If someone cuts me off while I’m driving, I try to remind myself of the times I’ve been running late and cut in front of someone else (hold your gasps of horror; of course, I’ve done it, and you know you’ve done it, too). If I am ever down, someone out there can help pick me up. The frustrating thing about this anti-transaction of kindness that many can call the Golden Rule or Karma is yes, you “get what you give,” but it is never how you expect. Putting yourself out there and being vulnerable means risking getting yelled at by strangers. But haven’t you had the kind of day where all you want to do is swear at anyone who crosses your path? Because I definitely have. Should you be yelled at like that? No. But can that little edge of empathy make hearing it a little less of a drag? Perhaps.