Failures of Kindness

George Saunders put it best when he said:

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”

It’s something that springs to mind often for me — all the times I let my reticence or my unwillingness to get involved get in the way of the warmth and connection I know that lies within me, just a little further down. I could name all of the seemingly insignificant moments that still stick with me, and when I remember, they niggle at me. They itch and tighten my insides. All of those moments when I could have expanded but contracted into myself instead.

It happened just the other day. A man sat next to me in a coffee shop. I, as always, was busy trying to finish some assignment or another, absorbed into the reality of my computer screen. I’m not sure how he even began, but he turned to me with a fuzzy film photo in his hand. The 4×6 glossy rectangle showed what looked like a sky of grainy static punctuated by a few colored smears. An interesting disposable capture to be sure. He asked if it was mine. No, I said, it wasn’t. He said, “Oh, it’s really nice.” His mannerisms were gentle and kind, and I could tell there was no ulterior motive in his asking. I could see him wanting to say more in the way he lingered, in the tone of his voice, perhaps wanting to spark a conversation around it, perhaps wanting to share a simple moment of found curiosity and shared admiration with a stranger, perhaps it could have been the perfect jumping off point to a deeper encounter.

And yet, all I mustered was “Yeah, it is”.

I hope the warmth came through in my reply at least, but I cringe now. Why didn’t I throw away my stifling reservedness for a moment? Why didn’t I extend a leaf, give a bit of myself and maybe even lay the foundations of a new friendship? Was it fear holding me back? Was it out of a sense of habit, too used to being in my own bubble? Was it laziness, wanting to stick to what I was doing, not feeling like giving my attention over to something else? I think it was some mixture of all of the above. But almost immediately after the encounter came to a close and I went back to the waiting Word doc on my computer, I regretted it. I wished I had said more. I thought of ways that I could maybe reignite the conversation, redeem myself and still make something out of it. But it felt too late, the opportunity felt lost. It felt like another moment buried away, only to come up later as regret, as a glaring failure of kindness.

When I think of these moments, what gets at me is how I must have made the other person feel. I think of that Maya Angelou quote;

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

And that’s just it. Because when I think of all the times I tried to be friendly to a stranger, to spark a conversation, to perhaps feel a simple kinship with the person sitting next to me on the bus and they failed to return the gesture or recognize my intentions, I felt deflated. As if someone popped a balloon in my chest, feelings of resentment and bitterness swelling to fill the void. And it’s this that kills me. Imagining how the other person may have interpreted my failure of kindness. Now I know that in the grand scheme of things, these examples are small and that there are other bigger moments that matter more, when my kindness or unwillingness to act has failed me in much larger ways. And in all likelihood, maybe the other person in these small interactions couldn’t have cared less, maybe they didn’t even notice, but I still think; what if they did? I imagine how they may have internalized what was simply my own shortcomings and insecurities. And it’s when pondering this, that I feel a pressing urge to be better, to break free of the shackles I’ve clasped on myself.  When I think of these moments, I want to push at the elastic bands around my heart. I want to stretch them a little further, maybe break them completely and extend my arms out wide. Emanate all that has been given to me, all that I’ve absorbed and benefitted from. It sounds a little pollyannaish, I know. A little naive, maybe a little pretentious even. Changing the world, one small act of kind interaction at a time. How novel. How cute. How revolutionary. And I’m not saying that it is. But when I think of these moments and how they stir up regret inside me, all I want is to avoid them in the future. I hope that they can at least serve as a reminder to myself the next time such a moment occurs. A reminder that if I can just get over my own feeble fears, egotistical hangups or simple laziness for a moment and offer some of my energy and spirit, then maybe something beautiful can arise. A buoyancy that lifts two strangers, and in a sense, all of us.

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1 Comment

  1. Eric Sensky February 23, 2017 at 7:10 pm

    Beware of strangers!


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