Kindness in Strange Times
We live in the strangest times imaginable. So strange that it seems odd to talk about things like beauty and kindness. It seems frivolous or lightweight. Years ago, the following was being shared all over the place:
“Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.
- Roger Ebert
Is kindness enough? Maybe not, but kindness is a pretty decent political stance, if you ask me. Kindness is a good place to begin. We are worried about our neighbours, our friends. We're worried about how they might be treated. Our actions, our resistance, must come out of kindness. Perhaps that all sounds too Canadian. But before sitting down to write this post, I read this from On Being: Love in Action. And I want to continue to think about kindness, and love in action.
Maybe Jack Kerouac, Beat poet, author of the iconic, On the Road, isn’t the first person you think about when trying to learn more about kindness. But in his The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, Kerouac reveals his deep and poetic engagement with Buddhism. The word ‘kindness’ comes up quite often. “Rest and be kind,” he says. And also, “Even in dreams be kind, because anyway there is no time, no space, no mind.” And later, “Kindness and sympathy, understanding and encouragement, these give: they are better than just presents and gifts: no reason in the world why not. Anyhow, be nice. Remember the golden eternity is yourself.”
No reason in the world why not to be nice, he says, and we know it’s true, and we know how difficult it is at times. It’s difficult to be nice when you’re exhausted, and it’s difficult to be nice to those who aren’t nice to you. It’s difficult to keep your mind in that state of openness and freshness required to be kind. It’s easy to be kind and generous when everything is going your way, but the fact is that it’s not always going to be going your way.
There is a long passage by Anaïs Nin that begins: “I am the most tired woman in the world. I am tired when I get up. Life requires an effort I cannot make.” She goes on to say that she doesn’t want understanding, that she does want understanding, but she wants to remain queen of this realm. I’m paraphrasing. But I know the feeling, wanting to at least keep this one thing I have – where I’m the lonely ruler of my tired realm. Please don’t join me here, you know? Because at least I’m the best at being tired, so don’t try and take that, thank you very much. I know all too well what Nin speaks of - that insanely tired feeling. And it’s not just because of the bouts of insomnia, it’s a weariness with how things happen to be, how they are, how life is, how difficult it is to make any sort of art all the while worrying constantly. It’s about the utter loneliness, but also about fearing yet desperately needing isolation. All of the crazy contradictions and angst.
So after feeling all that exhaustion and agony, which I’m not even going to call glorious, because you know better, I come across that video of Patti Smith, rock star, poet, being interviewed by Christian Lund at the Louisiana Literature festival in August of 2012. I keep thinking, as I play it over and over – what a gift of kindness she’s giving with her words, spoken so freely and openly. She talks about the fact that life is a struggle, it’s a rollercoaster, but she also reminds that things can be beautiful too, but repeats that life is struggle. The artist/writer path particularly. That’s just the way it is. We’re going to struggle. And she tells us, “it’s all worth it.” In the interview she talks about keeping your name clean, and to “be concerned with doing good work.” (I have to keep bringing things back to doing the work, good work, because I think it’s the biggest thing I’ve learned in this writing life, too). The part of the interview that moved me the most, and is the reason I keep returning to it, is that she says: “To be an artist, actually, to be a human being in these times, it’s all difficult. You have to go through life hopefully trying to stay healthy, being as happy as you can.”
So she’s saying, be kind to yourself, even though you’re going to struggle, especially because we’re all in this together, and try to be as happy as you can, so that in turn you can be kind to those beside you also struggling. Well, it's been said more succinctly, right? “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Which all sounds pretty straightforward and doable, but the struggle is difficult and being kind is often simple, but not always. Mary Oliver gets at this in her poem beloved by many, titled “Dogfish.” In it she says:
“Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
for a simple reason.”
When we find it difficult to offer a kindness, is when we need to sit down and examine what the reasons are, and decide if we can offer it anyway. Sometimes it’s difficult to offer words of comfort or the kindness of being interested, of being encouraging, when you yourself are feeling unfulfilled, neglected, forgotten. In her seventies, May Sarton, author of Journal of a Solitude said: “If you are a writer or an artist, it is work that fulfills and makes you come into wholeness, and that goes on through a lifetime. Whatever the wounds that have to heal, the moment of creation assures that all is well, that one is still in tune with the universe, that the inner chaos can be probed and distilled into order and beauty.”
It’s a struggle, but if we come into wholeness through our work – that beauty – and then send that back out into the world, even if only twenty people read it or view it, even if it only speaks to those twenty people, then you have done a kindness both to yourself, and those who experience your wholeness.