What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
~ George Saunders ~
George Saunders’ 2013 commencement address at Syracuse University preceded his book, Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. A transcript of his commencement address, posted to the New York Times website three months after he delivered it, was viewed more than a million times within three days after it was posted. Saunders, for those readers here who might not know of him, is a writer—of fiction, essays, and children’s books—who was born in Texas (Amarillo) and grew up in Illinois (Oak Forest). I think he still teaches at Syracuse University. His background does not matter, I suppose; it’s his message. When I read a bit about him this morning (following a rather circuitous route from this morning’s edition of The Marginalian), the quotation (above) about his greatest regret being failures of kindness struck me in the head like a two-by-four. Those failures are at the roots of my most unpleasant, shameful memories. Circumstances which called for kindness from me but, instead, drew from me meanness or indifference or outright cruelty. Those are the failures for which self-forgiveness is very nearly impossible. Despite the fact that those events or episodes…whatever the proper term…are far outnumbered by instances of kindness, they are the ones that contribute more heavily to my self-image. My memories of those unhappy recollections are not necessarily crisp and clear, but their presence is sufficient to sully the image when I look in the metaphorical mirror.
As I ponder the character traits I value in people, it occurs to me that kindness has always been one of those I value most. Until I thought about those traits in light of my appreciation of Sauders’ comments, I might have said compassion or empathy were the ones I find most admirable. But kindness gets to the core; it encompasses both compassion and empathy, as well as genuine caring. Kindness embraces tenderness and humanity and a trait that is hard to define but easy to see: decency.
It is easy to be kind when the objects of my assessments share my philosophies and behaviors. Even then, though, I can (and too often do) fail at being kind. But when the objects of my judgment think or act in ways anathema to my view on righteousness, kindness frequently is left to languish in the recesses of my hidden human decency. I justify my lack of mercy by arguing that reciprocal treatment is “deserved.” I judge people all the time; but only when my judgments are positive do I tend to be kind. And that is a failure of kindness. When I say “I,” I probably should say “we.” I am not necessarily any more guilty of the crime of unkindness than most of us. The world would be a better place if we all practiced kindness more expansively.
The close-up image was taken from the master bathroom window, looking down. The smaller, head-on shot, was taken about forty feet in front of the fawn. Both of them were taken in our side yard. We went in search of our missing hose “pot” (for storing the watering hose), when my sister-in-law spied what looked like a mushroom in the middle of the side lawn.
We left the lonely fawn to loll about in the morning sun, only to find it was gone when we returned for a look a short while later. I learned that does often leave their offspring resting alone during the day to avoid predators. The doe apparently rounded up the fawn after we saw it and led it away to a more safe setting, with fewer inquisitive humans.
Today’s church service will formally welcome several people as new members. Most of them have been friends of the church for a while and decided to join when the time was right for them. A celebratory salad and dessert lunch will be held afterward. Then, I will come home and nurse my chigger bites.
Behind my knees. Below both hips. Both butt cheeks. The top of my left left, beneath the butt. The tops of both feet. The right side of my right ankle. Those are a few of the locations of the current round of itchy, itchy chigger bites. Every year, during the long, long, long chigger season (AKA late spring, all summer, and early fall), I question my sanity for staying in Hot Springs Village. I loathe chigger bites. I scratch them mercilessly, despite using anti-itch ointment especially formulated for chigger bites, leaving raw, red spots where the beasts have feasted on my flesh. The idea of living someplace where chiggers do not thrive (and, preferably, cannot survive) appeals to me more and more with each passing year. Why in the name of all that’s holy have I just purchased another house in the Village, when I could have relocated to a near-paradise, where chiggers are treated as never seen mythic pests, not as an unfortunate reality of daily life. Bastards! I hate chiggers. I would be willing to risk thermonuclear war if it meant the end-times for chiggers.
The coming week includes appointments that, I hope, will change me. First, I have an appointment to get a haircut at a barber shop where I’ve never been. I may take a photo of me, taken about ten years ago, in which what little of my hair is visible is exactly how I want it cut but have not had done in ten years or so. Or I may not. Another appointment is for “stretch therapy with cupping,” which I take to mean “massage.” I have not had a professional massage in a very, very long time. I hope it will be as relaxing as I remember a massage to be. Relief of the stress that, over time, builds up in one’s neck, back, and shoulders is a magical sensation. When that tightness disappears, the world becomes a happier, brighter, more appealing place.
Time to begin the process of making myself presentable, which is a considerable effort. Shower. Shave. Get dressed. It is SO. DAMN. DEMANDING. I prefer being slothful, staying dressed in über-casual morning clothes all day. Oh, well. One does what one must to be welcomed, or at least tolerated, on the fringes of civilized life. If my being clean and dressed makes other people feel better, then I should practice kindness. I must be kinder.