hello babies. welcome to earth. it’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. it’s round and wet and crowded. on the outside babies, you’ve got 100 years here. there’s only one rule that i know of babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.
– kurt vonnegut
There is a lot of complication these days in the pursuit of self-improvement. If you go into any mainstream bookstore and find your way to the self-help section, you will likely become quickly overwhelmed with the vast selection of tomes to help you be more you, or a better you, or a healed and forgiven you, or whatever kind of you, you really want to be. There is probably even a book for feeling overwhelmed in the bookstore and how to set your self-help priorities.
It’s a lot to take in and it can start to become an obsession. Like a first year medical student reading about different diseases and coming up with a 3-page list of self-diagnosed maladies, we can enter into the world of self-help and come out mildly unhinged.
I am not saying that there are no helpful books, podcasts or stories hidden in those shelves. There are and I have benefited immensely from many of them. But there is a problem when we are always looking for a problem. Self-diagnosing ourselves with the latest psychological thought wave and purchasing yet another book to tell us what it’s all about and why we have it.
I will be the first to tell you that my head is a jungle and entering into it alone, is on most days, a substantial risk. I have engrained patterns of behaviour that are entirely maladaptive, I struggle with trust and vulnerability, I have a bit of an anger problem, especially when I am deep in shame and self-protection. I don’t claim to have it all figured out or to have no need of self-help, but I do think that self-help has come to mirror the diet industry – always something new, always some new approach to take and it’s getting old.
I’ve been married for a little over a year and half now and there have been days that have been harder than anything I’ve ever done. Days when I just could not figure out why I chose this, days when I couldn’t see the way forward. We have struggled, there is no need to deny it. But when we’re good, we’re great, so I hang on.
And I got to thinking recently, after a particularly ugly blowout, God damn it, you’ve got to be kind. I saw the Kurt Vonnegut quote above in a cute little notebook a friend gave me years ago, full of wisdom and good words. But that’s it isn’t? Just be kind, stop being such an ass, even if you are scared or feeling the need to self-protect, or struggling to trust someone. Assume that they have good intentions before concluding they don’t. Assume misunderstanding before deciding you know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they meant to hurt you. Leave some space, for God’s sake, for curiosity, for uncertainty, and for a hell of a lot of kindness.
The thing is that we walk around with these wounds from what we’ve passed through. People are kidding you if they say they have none. We’ve all bumped up too hard against someone else, got our knees grazed, our hearts bruised or worse. But some of us have learned to put salve on the wounds, to choose trust, to assume the best, to leave space before jumping to conclusions. It’s a salve because the more we do this, the more we trust, the more we see the good intentions of others, the more that space allows us to respond out of our values and not out of our fear.
It’s a tricky bitch, trust me I know well how hard it is to let down that guard that has served me for so long. But when the guard has become maladaptive, when I am hurting people to protect myself from being hurt, it is no longer an effective way of managing fear and struggle.
I am choosing instead to try to be kind. Kind to myself to recognize and acknowledge the hurdles in my way, gracious with my screw-ups and when I slip back into old habits. But also kind with those I love. Careful with my words to protect them and our relationship; cautious with my criticism to decide if what I want to say needs to be said or is just to make me feel vindicated. Generous with my care, without counting how much I have given and how much I have received, putting away the count and choosing instead to believe that the balance of give and take will never be perfectly even.
Leave a space my friends and damn it, try to be kind. We are all hurting more than we let on and we all need a safe place to land. If we can learn to be that safe place for ourselves first, to practice bathing in grace and letting self-compassion be our rule, we can then do the same for those we love. We can protect them and protect what we have with them. We can use kindness to keep that space between us safe, to dance within a kind of miracle that will heal these seeping wounds, one generous act at a time. Kindness is not weakness, it is not giving in, it is quite possibly, the bravest thing you will ever do.