Last year I made a simple New Year’s resolution. To be kinder.
Maybe this seems like a cop-out? I’ll admit when I made it twelve months ago it was pretty amorphous. I thought being kind was only outward facing. That it meant not saying mean things and not talking behind people’s backs. That it meant giving people chance. It does mean all of those things. But in this year of kindness I’ve discovered it means far more than I ever realized. While most of us aren’t cruel, truly being kind requires an intentionality few of us are familiar with. Or, at least, I was unfamiliar with it.
Sometimes when I can’t sleep, when I am down on myself, when things aren’t going well, I wonder if every cruel thing I’ve said or done or thought has found it’s way back to me. If my carelessness was sowing seeds everywhere I went. This fear is part of why I made my resolution. But fear is not a reason to be kind. Being kind because you want something back is no kindness. I didn’t know that kindness is not about just doing nice things, but rather it is something that has to be built. It means slowly letting those acts become pieces of a larger shift in attitude. I discovered that if I truly wanted to be kind I had to change not just how I saw other people and the world, but how I saw myself among them. Kindness is a habit, and though I’ve always considered myself a nice person, it was not a habit I was in.
It was easy, in those first weeks, to be kind. I tried to be empathetic, something that comes naturally to me. I mostly did what I have always done. Helped people when they asked, swallowed means comments, tried to see things from other people’s perspective. I probably did these things more often. But that is not true change. I didn’t feel any different and my resolution started to fade away, as so many of them do. It is easy, most of the time, to empathize with the people we love. Harder to do it with strangers. Harder to do it with acquaintances and friends, even. But empathy is a requirement of kindness and kindness cannot exist only between people who already love each other.
As winter dragged on…
The monotony of daily tasks, of work, of driving, of cooking and all of the other small things eclipsed any desire I felt for change. For turning over new leaves. Then, one cold day in March I was in line at the bookstore. Three people were in front of me. As I looked at them I found myself judging them in my head, listing all the ways I was prettier or more stylish or more interesting. The three of them were smiling, laughing together. And for some reason this made me angry. I felt jealous and my jealously made me make a list of reasons why they shouldn’t be smiling. I left the bookstore feeling sad, though new books usually make me happy. I carried that heaviness with me for days. When I explained this to a friend she gave me a simple piece of advice, but one that has changed so much for me. She told me that every time I think something mean about someone, friend, stranger, whoever, I should try complimenting them instead. Think a kind thought. It sounds a little silly. But it was hard at first. Bitterness, jealously, these things seep into our blood. They turn everything to rust.
When I was young and complaining about a friend who’d gotten something I wanted my dad said, “Meredith, resentment is a poison that you drink and expect to hurt the other person.” And he is right. Thinking cruel things about strangers didn’t make me happy. But letting that jealously go, looking for the beauty in every one I see, well, I don’t know if I am happy, but I certainly feel better. I feel lighter. And that feels like a big step. Small habits like this one helped me develop bigger habits. When someone hurts me I no longer assume the worst about them. I try to take my time, and think through what they might be feeling before I respond. When someone asks me for a favor I am more apt to say yes. I give my students more chances, and I’ve seen their work improve as a result. I don’t wish ill on other people like I once did. I’ve realized it is better to hope everyone finds what they are looking for. That someone else’s misery will never bring about an end to my own. Kindness is made up of these small things. It is knowing that even when someone else is cruel, matching their meanness is never the way forward. And it means knowing that sometimes, maybe even often, your kindness will be overlooked, but doing it anyway. Being kind is a habit that can be developed, like waking up early or giving up coffee, if it something you want to do. That was the hardest part for me, wanting to do it. It is easier to hide behind bad feelings than to let them go. It is easier to live in your wounds than it is to move forward. It is easier to be passive than to be kind.
2018 was a rough year.
Each new day feels like it brings another heart wrenching or infuriating news story. And on a personal level this year has been difficult for me. I’ve spent much of it feeling lonely or sad or heartbroken for one reason or another. But you know what? I made jeans. I wrote poems. I helped organize protests. I kept working on my novel in whatever tiny ways possible. I made chocolate soufflé and macarons and so much bread. I knit sweaters and I baked new things and in 2018 I learned more about myself than in any other year of my life. I am almost thirty. Sometimes that’s still scary to me. Sometimes I dread it. But I want to go into this new decade with bravery and kindness. After all of it, lovers in Norway and heartache in Greensboro, sexual predators on the supreme court, terrible job interviews, friends moving away, after laughter and tears and all the rest I started to wonder what good being kind and loving was if I didn’t seem to be able to save anyone, even myself. I wondered if I was special, and to who, and why. But I’ve realized that I have to be the one to decide. I have to know I am special without anyone telling me. I know what it means now, to be beautiful for myself. To make something because I want to. To bake meringues at 11pm because I want to eat them. I know this but I am still learning how to practice it. How to believe it. And it is easier to believe when I don’t see myself as one person against the world, but as a part of it.