An Implacable Call for Kindness

“Find out what makes you kinder, what opens you up and brings you out the most loving, generous, and unafraid version of you, and go after those things as if nothing else matters.”
George Saunders

Kindness, as an action, is the fluid that makes society work. Keeps things as a cohesive whole. It’s like water to organisms. A simple, transparent, and odorless thing without which we burn and in which we live and thrive.

"Simple Acts of Kindness, I" by Marilyn Yee - Featured in "An Implacable Call for Kindness. But How?"
“Simple Acts of Kindness, I” by Marilyn Yee, a Singapore-born illustrator and bright observer of humans and interactions.

Kindness, as a word, is one of those rarefied, monumental terms that grows and changes with culture, usage, and need:

Kindness’s original meaning of kinship or sameness has stretched over time to encompass sentiments that today go by a wide variety of names—sympathy, generosity, altruism, benevolence, humanity, compassion, pity, empathy—and that in the past were known by other names as well, notably philanthropia (love of mankind) and caritas (neighborly or brotherly love).

The above lines are from On Kindness, a meaningful collaboration between psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor. The pair ask why “mutual belonging” and the connected nature of things are an anathema to contemporary society1.

For most of western history the dominant tradition of kindness has been Christianity, which sacralizes people’s generous instincts and makes them the basis of a universalist faith. For centuries, Christian caritas functioned as a cultural cement, binding individuals into society. But from the sixteenth century, the Christian rule ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ came under increasing attack from competitive individualism. Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan […] dismissed Christian kindness as a psychological absurdity.

Though many like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume fought against the mythology of the individual, the growth of individualism hasn’t ceased. One could even say we’re riding its crest at the moment, Christians et al. Through this philosophical monocle, we see each other not as one of a whole but as separate, even disparate.

Phillips and Taylor argue that our natural inclinations to be social and extend ourselves outward come at the cost of making ourselves vulnerable and even weak.

When I met my now-husband, he never used a turn signal when driving. Never. I asked why (implored, actually). He said, “Then, no one can cut me off.” This simple gesture—akin to asking permission— would make his intentions clear and, thus, make him vulnerable.

It sounds daft, but I’m sure most of us are guilty of a similar thing—hiding vulnerabilities behind walls we erect to protect ourselves, meanness or, worse, indifference.

I keep a sticky note of “Hanlon’s Razor” on my desk: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” I thought it might help me remember kindness.

Or at least battle indifference.

Indifference is the opposite of empathy, which is deeply connected to kindness. Especially when we regard others. Susan Sontag’s study of visual-related empathy suggests our concern is triggered when suffering is disproportional, the “product of wrath.”2

The iconography of suffering has a long pedigree. The sufferings most often deemed worthy of representation are those understood to be the product of wrath, divine or human. (Suffering from natural causes, such as illness or childbirth, is scantily represented in the history of art; that caused by accident, virtually not at all—as if there were no such thing as suffering by the inadvertence of misadventure.)

Elsewhere, Sontag elegantly uses the word “pity,” which—although another monumental term of much meaning—is familiar from the lines of war poet Wilfred Owen. Owen, who fought in World War I in order to document the suffering, wrote famously, “The Poetry is in the pity.” He elevated poetry to a status of witness and urged us that our humanity is lost if we don’t feel sorrow (pity) at needless death.3

(Empathy has also taken a hit lately, but I do not intend to argue that it is good or bad. That is all a bit academic, isn’t it? I’ll assume you wouldn’t be on this blog—which purports to value our individual and collective humanity—if you didn’t have some interest in being kind.)

I believe in kindness above almost everything. A full measure of a person can be taken accurately when she gives kindness to those from whom she has nothing to gain.

In a single word: care.

"Simple Acts of Kindness, II" by Marilyn Yee - Featured in "An Implacable Call for Kindness. But How?"
“Simple Acts of Kindness, II” by Marilyn Yee. With soft lines and subdued colors, Yee depicts mood and atmosphere of social settings.

I am not always kind. That we should be kind and being kind are two completely distinct things.

If we talk about why kindness we must talk about how kindness.

It takes extraordinary self-confidence—rooted in self-love—to extend our selves, to open and trust, being at peace with our own vulnerabilities in order to embrace others. The aphoristic Razor never did much to influence my kind nature. It only made me think people might be stupid.

Almost two thousand years ago, Stoics like Marcus Aurelius believed kindness was rooted in our connection to each other and offered this advice on how to be kind4:

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. […] and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own—not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them […]. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him.

The idea of unity doesn’t carry much weight in our age of individualism. Fortunately, novelist George Saunders’ reframed the “how” in an individualistic argument with modern appeal: kindness or failures of kindness, is a legacy we leave behind.

In a 2013 speech to graduates Syracuse University, Saunders told this tale5:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentially, her Convocation Speech name will be ‘Ellen.’ Ellen was small, shy. […] When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it. So she came to our school and our neighborhood and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased. (‘Your hair taste good?’—That sort of thing.) I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult.

[…]

At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: ‘How was your day, sweetie?’ and she’d say ‘Oh, fine.’ […] Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it. And then—they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing. One day she was there, next day she wasn’t. End of story.

Saunders’ “Ellen” moved away, and he, decades later, regrets he wasn’t nicer. So much so that it became the subject matter and sole focus of his graduation speech to thousands of graduates, who looked to him for advice and worthiness. The breath of expectation hot on his neck, Saunders humbled himself, dug into vulnerability, and gently showed the way.

The speech is a great, great kindness.

"Simple Acts of Kindness, III" by Marilyn Yee - Featured in "An Implacable Call for Kindness. But How?"
“Simple Acts of Kindness, III” by Marilyn Yee. Common themes in Yee’s digital paintings include buildings, interiors, botanicals, women and, delightfully, the occasional cat. Her work is highly observant and subtly harmonizing.

A third method of summoning kindness when needed comes from Christie Watson, a British nurse for more than twenty years who delivered massive amounts of daily kindness.

In her 2018 memoir, The Language of Kindness, Watson writes she found kindness simply by imagining others’ needs were her own6:

For all that I’ve seen and touched and smelled, and as difficult as it is at the time, there is a patient at the center of it, afraid and embarrassed. […] We have all been nursed. We are all nurses.

I have a new sticky note on my desk, wonderful heuristic: “Do unto others…”

When I was applying to graduate school, one of the admissions essays was “What matters to you most?” Simple: Do unto others. I didn’t have to think about it. It mattered to me most, apparently, it mattered to Stanford, it is how I met my husband who now uses turn signals and it is how I return to kindness when it is all but impossible.

Kindness. It is implacably necessary. It is difficult. It is transferable. It is compounding. It is contagious. It is easier with practice. It is a microbial action that gives life to our social ecosystem.

Whether you pull meaning from our interconnectivity or a feeling of legacy, or simply because you wish it were given to you, find kindness. Show kindness. As Saunders told us from the height of experience, “Nothing else matters.”

Cruelty and Falsity of Spring

“In those days spring always came finally but it was frightening because it almost failed.”
Ernest Hemingway

The crocus springs into its new world with fertile cheer, and daffodils beam spherical radiance seducing muscles to smiles.

Spring has come in joy and sadness. I can’t help but think of sadness. Is that true?

Ernest Hemingway captured it, as Hemingway does. Writing in his 20s from Paris, he notes, “In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.” There is failed promise, immediate hope dashed by reality.

He continues in his essay “The False Spring”1:

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.

Full of youthful step, a spongy head, and brooding shoulders, Hemingway passes a day of false spring by going through routine. Shortly, despite effort to avoid engagements, he is slowed by obligations, limitations, and dependencies—the likes of which proclaim our adult status.

Hemingway feels it too, a loss, an ache: “Life had seemed so simple that morning when I had wakened and found the false spring.”

For Hemingway, spring was something promised and unfulfilled.

Falsity of Spring
Blue Hyacinths. One of the first flowers of spring, One hundred years ago they were used as a Christmas flower, brought indoors to bloom next to evergreens and holly. Blue variety means “Constancy.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a writer with a deep love for nature, paints spring in similar strokes. Like Hemingway, he enjoyed meaningful company but preferred solitude.

In 1909, Rilke writes of solitude’s greatness, our fear of it, our need for it, and our quickened temptation to forgo it if only to be in any company, be it “ever trivial or banal.”2

Perhaps those are precisely the hours when solitude grows, for its growth is painful like the growth of boys and sad like the beginning of spring. But that must not put you off. What is needed is this, and this alone: solitude, great inner loneliness.

The painful growth of spring?

Surely the warmth, the light, the presence of flowers, the joy and comfort of these wonderful, faithful human companions would render us happy, joyful.

Maybe it’s not their presence but their fickleness that stings.

The metaphor expands in the hands of British novelist and essayist Laurie Lee. In his essay “The English Spring,” Lee reflects on a slow, easing spring, early to appear and quick to fade. He is more open about his bitterness, his sword at the ready, facing spring like a foe3:

Almost overnight comes gusty March and the first real rousing of spring—a time of blustering alarms and nudging elbows, of frantic and scrambling awakenings. It is a bare world still, but a world of preparation and display against the naked face of the countryside. The cold east wind puts an edge to activity.

Although March is the first of “hot certainties,” it continues to claw and rage, furious and wild.

But spring’s cruelest trick, Lee continues, is yet to come: “[April] is the month of the spring’s sweetest pain—the pain of awakening and having to live once more after the anaesthetic of winter, the agony of sap returning to the limbs, of numb hands held to the fire.”

Falsity of Spring
Daffodils, early to rise, early to fade. Their name means “New Beginnings” and is the beloved flower of Wales used to celebrate St. George’s Day on March 1. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

No wonder T. S. Eliot called it the cruelest month in his monumental poem, “The Waste Land”.4

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Rimbaud wrote something similar 50 years earlier. He called winter his worst season. “I dread winter because it is the season of comfort.” As we are settled in our warmth and our layers and comfort, spring comes and shakes it up. Stirring memory and desire.

There is life and birth and death in spring. There are lambs and rains and feasts and withdrawals, resurrections and divination. Time is compressed and expanded. It contains all of our joy and slows down so we notice minutia.

Like falling in love. Heartbreak. Falling in love. Heartbreak. The seasons of which we all know only too well.

I’m forced (happily) to turn to David Whyte, a masterful American poet and chef of words who has written a miscellany of common terms and their complex meanings. Of “heartbreak,” he writes this5:

Heartbreak is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control, of holding in our affections those who inevitably move beyond our line of sight.

Is spring as a cruel temptress luring us out of our winterized selves?

One would think so, reading all these individuals I mentioned.

Falsity of Spring
Purple hyacinths. In Classical legend, Hyacinthus was a beautiful youth whom Apollo adored and accidentally killed. Purple variety means “Please Forgive Me.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

After I left home for college, my parents introduced each early March phone call with news on the fruit crop of Western Michigan.

If there was a late frost, I knew immediately: pain and sadness from Mom, anger and disbelief from Dad. For the vulnerable blossoms, for the vulnerable trees, for the vulnerable farmers.

They all ran towards spring, helpless and hopeful, and spring let them down.

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot. […] Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is just as much an essence and emblem of care as the spiritual athlete’s quick but abstract ability to let go.

Who doesn’t run towards spring with open arms and wide, receptive hearts? The longer days, the broken ground, the flow of life. Gathered flowers in our arms.

The guilt lies in us, too. Not just spring. We are numbed from winter, anxious for warmth and light, we run towards spring expecting it to be summer and it’s not. It’s spring.

Spring isn’t cruel or heartless. It’s spring.

Will we never understand that nature seeks less of us as a partner than we do of her?

I’ve taken many early spring walks in forests, marveling at plants and blooms only to get nasty sunburns on the tips of my ears because the leafs had yet to form. My need for love has always outpaced nature’s readiness to give.

Spring keeps us young. Youthful hope and love. Run towards the forces that open the soil and expand the afternoon. Gleam in spherical daffodil splendor. Run towards spring and embrace it fully.

Though, it may hurt. All the best lovers do.

Losing the Thing Unimaginable

“This was never supposed to happen to her.”
Joan Didion

We take for granted that certain things are weighted in granite, anchored in epoxy, and will always just be. How to exist otherwise? What does it mean to lose the thing unimaginable?

It’s presumptive to define “the thing” so I won’t. Pain is incomparable, yet connective. This is a look at pain and the fear of pain. Pain that drips upon the heart, has us fumbling in abstraction, and forever reshapes our existence.

"The Sick Child" by Edvard Munch, in post "Losing the Thing Unimaginable"
“The Sick Child” by Edvard Munch, 1885. The first of six canvasses Munch painted over forty years. Each depicts his sister who died from tuberculosis when she was fourteen. Munch fell ill as well but survived. Photo: Børre Høstland – Nasjonalmuseet.

Lydia Davis’s short short story “The Child” captures a true moment of routine in the fog of unspeakable grief.1

She is bending over her child. She can’t leave her. The child is laid out in state on a table. She wants to take one more photograph of the child, probably the last. In life, the child would never sit still for a photograph. She says to herself, ‘I’m going to get the camera,’ as if saying to the child, ‘Don’t move.’

The mother rolls forward on tracks that no longer exist. The movement of emotional gravity.

“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children,” writes Joan Didion in her stunning memoir about the death of her daughter at the age of thirty-nine.2

I imagine she means that the loss of a child is as close as we come to experience our own death. “Once she was born,” writes Didion, “I was never not afraid.” My own daughter’s possible death affects me so deeply if I look at it too closely that I cannot breathe. The loss of this thing unimaginable is real before it exists.

Because we’re not meant to live in an emotional coma, we diminish the object in an attempt to care less. Didion regrets she never gave her daughter appropriate personhood: “She was already a person. I could never afford to see that.”

Didion wrote Blue Nights to make sense of the completely nonsensical.

[T]he way in which you wake one summer morning less resilient than you were and by Christmas find your ability to mobilize gone, atrophied, no longer extant? […] The way in which your awareness of this passing time—this permanent slowing, this vanishing resilience—multiplies, metastasizes, becomes your very life?

"The Sick Child," etching, by Edvard Munch, in post "Losing the Thing Unimaginable"
“The Sick Child” etching by Edvard Munch in 1894. Munch’s guilt of survival while his sister died inspired his reworking of the piece many times. Each capturing that moment before death. Photo: Børre Høstland – Nasjonalmuseet.

There is a bespoke intimacy in losing a child, but losing the thing unimaginable need not be so personal. The loss of anything infinite—how does that affect us? How does the fear of it affect us?

Last Chance to See is an emotionally insightful odyssey between Douglas Adams—the inquisitive, creative, and often playful mind behind The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — and Mark Carwardine—a dedicated zoologist and conservationist. They travel to specific and remote spots like Komodo Island and the Zaire mountains to introduce us to critically endangered species.3

Adams’s account is superb, yet tragedy vibrates beneath. Losing one of our brilliant species, one that you “know” from childhood (from the zoo, books, stuffed animals) and love and imagine, fills me with shimmering pain. Adams asks why we care. Empathy, certainly. (Like Emerson, I believe man is not apart from nature, when we care for it we care for ourselves.) And because, Adams argues, “the world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them.”

In the home of my heart, New Zealand, my husband and I visited a bird sanctuary where they protect, track, and nurture deeply vulnerable kiwis. With the help of an expert, we tracked Kami, unearthed her from her grassy daybed, and checked her weight and other vitals as she burrowed into our sweaters for darkness. I was overcome with visceral pain at the vulnerability of her species, emotion broken only when Kami relieved herself in my husband’s lap, and we laughed.

Once again, the immediate real superseded the immediate imagined.

Empathy is limited by a focus on the immediate. When we look to the bigger reality of things, especially an eternal to which we are all part and must return, it is overwhelming. So, we hunker down and laugh, take photos.

I worry about the loss of humanity. Yours. Mine even more. Under the right conditions, what prevents me from becoming inhuman? It’s happened to others. Perhaps that’s why I have this site: atonement.

I think of the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who wrote during WWI and chose to see murder not as morale-boosting but as horror. From his “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo”:4

I, too, saw God through the mud,–
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.

Merry it was to laugh there–
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.

I think of Elie Wiesel, who wrote one of the most important books of the 20th century, Night, an unblinking look into what happens when a body is reduced by hunger and deprivation. Wiesel becomes—in a small and insignificant way— numb. Uncaring.5

I stood petrified. What had happened to me? My father had just been struck, in front of me, and I had not even blinked. I had watched and kept silent. Only yesterday I would have dug my nails into this criminal’s flesh. Had I changed that much? So fast?

Most people don’t fret over their own humanity. It is always someone else who concerns us. Someone else we must stop, not us. But as Owen and Wiesel show us so brightly, that isn’t enough.

"The Sick Child" by Edvard Munch, in post "Losing the Thing Unimaginable"
“The Sick Child” by Edvard Munch, 1907. The painting was created from memory and have slight variations but depict eerily similar scenes. Of this 1907 version, Munch wrote ‘it was a breakthrough in my art.” and that all subsequent works were affected by what he created here. © Tate Collection

And then, of course, there is the most internal loss: our minds. Something exacerbated by an attentive focus on the immediate and something we often don’t realize is happening.

When the unexpurgated diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky were published for the first time in 1979, they showed extant psychosis. Nijinsky’s relevance to ballet, dance, and choreography, his unquestioned virtuosity, and his long life spent in a mental institution for schizophrenia are the stuff of dark legend. To read his words is to see soul without mind.6

I went out for a walk, once, toward evening. I was walking quickly uphill. I stopped on a mountain. It was not Sinai. I had gone far. I felt cold. I was suffering from cold. I felt that I had to kneel down. I knelt quickly. After that, I felt I had to put my hand on the snow. I was holding my hand down, and suddenly I felt pain. I screamed with pain and snatched away my hand. I gazed at a star that did not say ‘Hello’ to me.

He goes on and on and on. Rhythm without meaning. I am not psychotic, but I certainly have moments of distress and instability.

During a particularly difficult period in my life without purpose or direction, I spent hours drawing lines. Straight, long, short. Lines that folded back in on themselves, connected. Delineated a path I could not. Pen, paper, line—I contained myself in those items. They were all that existed.

When life whisked me out of the circumstance, I put down the pen and folded the paper into boxes an effort to keep the episode contained, apart. I existed elsewhere.

Humans are wonderfully adaptive. We manage pain. We manage joy.

What strikes me, as I read through these works and write these words and sink into my heart, is we are less adept at managing both simultaneously. Carrying both joy and sorrow in our hearts, to love fully our children and fear their death. Is that possible?