On Kindness, 1

It finally hit me today: the thing about kindness – what it is, what it is not.

For weeks, I’ve been running old conversations and scenes through my mind, playing and replying them like old, grainy, homemade films – or worse, depressing romantic dramas starring the likes of Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan. I’ve been weighing the characters of all the men I know (not very many), and wondering what it is about the few I love or have loved, and about the rest for which I cared little. It must be said that my father, with whom my relationship is best described thick with cliche as “love/hate,” made the short list for both.  

Let me say this – I am nowhere near having as whole an answer as I’d always hoped, but if this was all the “eureka” I could squeeze out of this one nagging question, then I’m happy to hang it up as my North Star.

This afternoon, for the third time in a month, my boss lectured me about paying attention to detail. I made yet another mistake on his calender, blundered verbally – he was talking about one thing, I responded about another, and then laughed when he said he had gout. Yes. I can be quite insensitive at quite the wrong time – but my boss let it slide, chuckling at my candid insensitivity, and I warmed towards him, thinking, “Oh, what a kind man. He lets me laugh at his ailments.”

Then rather abruptly, he turned back to his computer screen and said, “Nothing else? Let me get back to work. If I need anything else I’ll let you know.”

What more could I want from that moment? He had pointed out what I had done wrong in a calm, even tone – no tantrums from him unless I really push him over the edge; overlooked the fact that I had joked about his gout (“You eat too well,” I said. He nodded in agreement), and as it was the end of the day, was more or less giving me the okay to call it a day. 

Yet something bothered me about his last words: “If I need anything else, I’ll let you know.” And here, at the risk of sounding too whiny, I admit I thought, “What if I need something else? Some more guidance? Some more information on how to do things right?” I bade him good evening and walked out of the office, then turned briefly around through the glass wall that separated my desk from his and saw him slumped low in his expensive ergonomic chair with adjustable armrests, clicking through his thousands of unread emails. I had walked out of his office, out of his mind, and the thought of me would never cross his mind again unless something, or someone called it to his attention.

Of all the exchanges with people I have had, why was this the trigger? Because then, loudly, a thought resounded, echoing something my friend Elena had tried to explain to me:

“Do not mistake duty for kindness.”
“Do not mistake indifference for kindness.”
“Do not mistake common decency or manners or all the other stuff you’re supposed to do because you’re living in civilized society and because you’re a social animal, for kindness.”
And most importantly, again, “Do not mistake indifference for kindness.” 

My handful of lunches with Ben flashed in my memory: the tour he gave, but also which I asked for, of Stanford; the lunch he paid for, the time he took to drive me around searching for the gym where my cousins twirled and whirled during their ballroom practice while I, deluded with my warped definitions of kindness, danced alone outside. And then a few months later, there was his willingness to meet me again for lunch, even though had I not called him, we would never have met up again. I mistook his delay in informing me of his engagement for kindness – and perhaps partly, it was, but he was mostly just being polite, not wanting to steal the thunder of my 25th birthday. And what thunder.

Excursion into Philosophy, 1959 Edward Hopper Oil on Canvas

I was on the road home from Vegas when Ben emailed me about his engagement – I read it and smiled a tired smile to no one in particular, wondering why he had waited to tell me then and not on my birthday a week earlier, when he had emailed to say, “Happy Birthday. I’ll write you a longer message later in the week.” But at that moment, it didn’t matter – my mind still lingered on the night before, on the memory of a first kiss traded in part for a glimpse of a tattoo, in part for a slim black tie that lay in the folds of tired shoes and short dresses in my suitcase. Leaving Las Vegas in the state that I was in, It was a strangely appropriate souvenir.

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